The Paradox of a Just War

By Stephen Cortright

”We do not seek peace in order to wage war, but we go to war that we may secure peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in war-making, so that, by vanquishing them, you may lead those you are forcefully subduing back to the prosperity of peace.”
—St. Augustine

In the 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace, the bishops of the United States open their discussion of just-war criteria by admonishing Christian readers:

We must recognize the reality of the paradox we face as Christians living in the context of the world as it presently exists, we must continue to articulate our belief that love is possible and the only real hope for all human relations, and yet accept that force, even deadly force, is sometimes justified …

As the bishops articulate it, for Christians, the paradox of the just war is that the determination to deal only charitably may be opposed by the imperative of justice: in particular, “governments threatened by armed unjust aggression must defend their people … by armed force if necessary as a last resort.” love must impel Christians to works of peace, preeminent among them, the assiduous promotion of justice; justice may resign Christians to warfare.

A central insight, descending from St. Augustine, the bishops aver, explains Christian resignation to warfare, under the imperative of justice:

Augustine was impressed with the fact and the consequences of sin in history — the “not yet” dimension of the kingdom. in his view, war was both the result of sin and a tragic remedy for sin in the life of political societies. War arose from disordered ambitions, but it could also be used, in some cases at least, to restrain evil and protect the innocent. … Faced with the fact of attack on the innocent, the presumption that we do no harm, even to our enemy, yielded to the command of love understood as the need to restrain an enemy who would injure the innocent.

War constitutes a tragic remedy, because warfare and the circumstances that justify it belong to what the bishops name “the ‘not yet’ dimension of the kingdom.” They belong to human action still incommensurate with the rule of divine love, to the galaxy of human desires not yet reconciled in Christ, to the world of disordered ambitions rife with conflict — all due to sin. Every act of war, justified or not, perpetuates the “not yet” and represents a defeat for the peaceable kingdom. When justice demands that aggression be met with counter-force, the virtue otherwise most serviceable to peace — so serviceable, that peace is signed as “an enterprise of justice” (Isaiah 32:17) — paradoxically dictates that “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away” (Mathew 11:12).

Further, as the bishops read it, the Augustinian insight extends and deepens the initial paradox. if the commandment to love binds all Christians with “the presumption that we do no harm, even to our enemy,” then under the “not yet” of the kingdom love may fall into opposition with love, love as “the presumption that we do no harm” yielding to love as “the command … to restrain an enemy who would injure the innocent.”

In effect, the bishops’ explication of just-war reasoning codifies this compound paradox of justice and love. its logic is captured in The Challenge of Peace, §83:

Just-war teaching … (is) an effort to prevent war; only if war cannot be rationally avoided does the teaching then seek to reduce and restrict its horrors. It does this by establishing a set of rigorous conditions … for overriding the presumption in favor of peace and against war. Only when unyielding aggression evokes strict duties in justice; or only under circumstances so extraordinary as to convert the presumption of charity into dereliction, can the resort to warfare be truly resigned or truly rational. Governments have a right to wage war only when they can make out no route to peace.

Accordingly, the bishops ground ius ad bellum (right to warfare) reasoning in an antecedent “presumption against war.” In consequence, the bishops rethink the traditional ius ad bellum criteria that the absolute requirements that war be waged under sovereign authority, for an evidently just cause and with the strict intention to redress evil; along with contingencies that war constitutes the sole alternative to accepting intolerable evil, offers hope of success, and is conducted by means that minimize the hostilities’ scope and favor the restoration of peace. They interpret the traditional criteria, absolute and contingent, as separately necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for “overriding” the presumption, otherwise binding on governments, against war. Further, they add the category “comparative justice,” requiring that governments weigh and acknowledge the limits of their just-war claims to “emphasize the presumption against war” by denying potential belligerents any pretense to an unqualifiedly just — and thus unqualifiedly compelling — cause.

In sum, the bishops argue that ius ad bellum reasoning is always, first, a reasoned case against the resort to warfare.“ Only if war cannot be rationally avoided,” only if compelling circumstances defeat the case against war, “does the teaching then seek to restrict and reduce its horrors.” Restriction of warfare’s unending evils is the work of the ius in bello — right conduct in warfare — principles: discrimination and proportionality in the use of force.

The dean of just-war theory’s American historians, James turner Johnson, has asserted that the bishops’ approach to ius ad bellum reasoning — its grounding in a presumption against war; its equation (as equally weighted, necessary conditions) of contingent with absolute criteria — is unanticipated in the catholic tradition of just-war reasoning. Professor Johnson’s assertion rests on the premise that, as traditionally understood, the ius ad bellum criteria are not tests which, when met, bestow the right to draw the sword against the contrary presumption. Rather, they express what is right and what is fitting when governments, acting as the human agencies uniquely responsible for the temporal common good, use the sword.

Stephen Cortright is a professor of philosophy and in the Integral Program.