Is this just war? Two Catholic perspectives on the war in Afghanistan

Just as government officials have been struggling to find the right course of action in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, Catholics-both here and around the world-have been struggling to determine what's right and what's wrong in that response. Looking for help and guidance in sorting out the moral and faith implications of the war our nation has engaged in, U.S. Catholic turned to Boston College social ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill and to University of Notre Dame theologian Father Michael Baxter, C.S.C. While they apply two different traditions of Catholic thinking on war and peace-"just war" theology and pacifism-both have surprisingly similar criticisms, reservations, and concerns about the war in Afghanistan.

Dr. Cahill, how did you, your family, and your students react to the terrorist attacks of September 11?
Cahill: For all of us, our prevailing reaction was one of disbelief, followed by many questions about how this could have occurred and who was behind it and what the effects were. What was striking to me was the tendency, already quite quickly after the event-both on the part of my own four teenage sons and among the class of freshmen I teach at Boston College-to characterize the probable assailants in terms of a group toward whom hostility would be acceptable.

Almost immediately there surfaced an assumption that, because "they"-whoever they might be-had done something outrageous to "us," a military strike against "them" would be appropriate and justified. Not much thought was given to how we would identify, find, and target them or how we would limit the response. And to the concern that a military response would lead to additional loss of civilian life, their answer was, "Well, they did it to us, didn't they?"

So it was distressing to me to see the readiness with which young people assumed that retaliation was both legitimate and inevitable and that any limits on it should be secondary to effectiveness. However, through discussion over a couple of weeks, especially among the students in my class, they were able to see and appreciate other sides of the question. So this certainly was a teachable moment in regard to those issues.


What about the students at Notre Dame?
The initial response was one of shock and then sadness. At Notre Dame, on the day of the attack several thousand people gathered for a Mass to pray for those who had been killed or wounded. In that respect, it was a good event.

The day after the attacks I found out that a friend of mine, S. Neil Hyland, a lieutenant colonel in the army, was killed in the attack on the Pentagon, where he worked. He was a friend from seminary days and, although we had somewhat fallen out of touch in recent years, we had been very close in the past. That was a real concrete point of sadness for me.

Another thing that happened at Notre Dame and elsewhere was that people started to use the symbol of the flag a lot to express grief and unity. But over the course of that first week that symbol was transformed from one of legitimate grief and unity to a call for vengeance. I was uncomfortable with that. In fact, I chose not to concelebrate at the Mass that we had on the day of the attack because the altar was situated right beneath a flag in the center of campus.

In your eyes, what did that flag stand for?
To me, the way in which the huge flag was dwarfing the crucifix below it and the bread and the wine and the priest at the altar, it symbolized a readiness to subordinate the vocation of the church to the purposes of the state.


Cahill: I experienced something similar at Boston College. We also had a prayer service that brought people together and helped them express their feelings of sadness and concern for members of our families, our communities, and our country. But it has been much more difficult to get students to realize that there are people in other countries who are suffering, too; that in some way the U.S. might be implicated in that suffering; and that, as we bring about this military response, we are causing even more suffering-perhaps as great as the suffering the attacks themselves brought about.

It seems to me the Christian community should be emphasizing that this is not just about us Americans, but that we have to look at the many different relationships and types of suffering that are implicated in this whole event.

Baxter: I have found the popular flag-waving response here at Notre Dame and around the country quite disheartening. At the football game here the following Saturday, the stadium full of people held up flags as a show of unity that fairly quickly evolved into an expression not of patriotism but nationalism. At the basilica, too, people were singing patriotic hymns that took on a disturbingly nationalistic flavor.

Overall what I observed at Notre Dame was a complex mix of good, healthy, critical reflection-particularly in some panel discussions we had-and rather thoughtless nationalism as well.


So what then would be a proper Catholic response to the wave of patriotism that has swept the country?
Baxter: In times like this, I'm especially hesitant to claim the identity of American. I believe Catholics should be wary of that identity at all times, but especially in times of war. We should be very careful to identify ourselves as Catholic first and as American way down the line. And we should remember that our very catholicity, the universal character of our church, calls into question the local allegiance of any nation state.

For decades we Catholics have been trying to prove that we're good Americans, and now you're telling us to activate our Catholic identity in a more prominent way?
Baxter: In some ways the nativists were right to be suspicious of Catholics. When the bishops' pastoral on war and peace was being written, the military took a good look at whether Catholic officers were trustworthy to do certain things like carrying out orders to fire nuclear weapons. Maybe they realized that, if Catholics were well formed, they could not be trusted to do evil things.

Ultimately, we are citizens of a heavenly city and therefore only provisionally citizens of any earthly city.

Dr. Cahill, do you share that view?
Cahill: I agree with much of what Father Baxter has said, but I would like to suggest that we can stand with our country without approving everything that it does, just as we do with our families. As a parent I have to stand with my children precisely when they've done something wrong and have to face the consequences.


I think part of being good Catholic Americans or good Christian Americans is to raise questions about the direction our country might be going in. We must call it to its highest ideals and to correct the ideals that it tends to live by.

Although I really can't stand patriotic hymns in church either-they're almost blasphemous-I did notice, as "America the Beautiful" was being sung against my will at Mass in recent weeks, that it said, "God mend thy every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law." It really seemed the kind of prayer that Christians should say for their country.


A few days after the beginning of the war, Cardinal Francis George issued a statement that said, "This is a just war." Would you agree?
Cahill: I don't think we can know that it really is a just war until it's over and done with and all of the information has surfaced about what actually happened.

At this point in time, I find it very premature to say that this is a just war, particularly considering the reports that residential areas in Afghanistan have in fact been bombed. Bombing residential areas contradicts one of the most absolute principles of just-war theory, which is "noncombatant immunity." There's a lot to be looked at here before we rush into any blessing of this as a just war.


One of the foundations of the church's tradition of just-war theory is that it begins with the fundamental assumption that war is not justified. It's really a theory about the exceptional circumstances under which resorting to violence could ever find moral blessing. Thomas Aquinas titled his question about war, "Is it always a sin to wage a war?" Unfortunately, we tend to disregard that initial stance.

It's true that the common good of the international community is threatened by terrorism. So it is an issue of defending the common good, but even after you look at that "cause," you have to make sure that a violent response that takes human lives is really a "last resort."

Was it a last resort in this case?
Cahill: There were discussions going on about other ways of resolving this before the military response was mounted. The Afghan government is claiming that they still wanted to engage in negotiations-how bona fide that was, who knows? There are also the International Court of Justice and other kinds of measures that could be taken.

Even if it were a last resort and some military response were justified, any military action would have to be "proportionate." Is it really necessary, appropriate, and proportionate to bomb so many targets in Afghanistan?


Then, does it exhibit a "right intention"? What are we really going after here and how broad is our intention? Are we still living in the wake of the Gulf War, and what are our larger objectives? So right intentionality is also a problem.

Finally, there has to be a reasonable "hope of success," and that's very doubtful in this case as well. Are we going to capture the terrorist leaders, Osama bin Laden and others? Are we going to wipe out terrorism? Is this really the best means through which to pursue that?

So, in terms of applying just-war principles, there are a lot of problems on the table. I don't think that just-war theory ever was able to settle anything in a clear, decisive way. Today, I think, Catholic or Christian leaders should be using just-war criteria to raise questions about military actions, to mount criticism, to urge caution.

So I am not at all comfortable with how several cardinals and bishops apparently have been rushing in to say that this war is both necessary and appropriate.

Isn't that, though, exactly how just-war criteria have been applied throughout history, both by church leaders and by government leaders?
Cahill: Yes, it is. That is the way they're usually applied, but I'm saying that that's not the way they should be applied. It's not the way that the original just-war formulators, Augustine and Aquinas, intended them to be applied.

There are plenty of other people out there who are willing to say that the war is justified and that it must go forward. That's not the role that we have to fill.

Father Baxter, you've spoken out in favor of scrapping the whole just-war theory. What do you say?
I haven't exactly argued for "scrapping" it. But I am a pacifist, and I believe that Christians are called not to take up arms against and kill others. Nevertheless I'm willing to use just-war theory to think through these issues with other Catholics. Why? Because it is one of the traditions in our church, and because it is useful in talking with policymakers who may happen to be Catholic or familiar with this tradition. So I feel it's important for pacifists to be conversant in just-war theory.

I would second many of the cautions and questions that Dr. Cahill has voiced. And I believe they need to be spoken much more bluntly and directly than they have been by most Catholic leaders.


Give it a try.
Baxter: OK. The people who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11 worship a warrior god. And the people in this country who called for vengeance in response-for "rage and retribution," as Lance Morrow put it in Time magazine-they worship a warrior god too. They are calling for terrorism in response to terrorism.

This is not unusual in the United States. For example, dropping the bomb on Hiroshima was, according to just-war theory, not simply "an act of war," but mass murder. Many more people were killed on that Aug. 6, 1945 than were killed in New York this September 11. It's important to remember that the United States is the only country ever to have used a nuclear weapon, which Pope Paul VI called a "butchery of untold magnitude."

We Catholics need to be aware that people in the military, including Catholics, may be ordered to do things that are evil or to be complicit with evil. Catholic teaching is very clear on this: Noncooperation with evil is a moral duty. So what do our pastoral leaders have to say to people in the military who may find themselves having to participate in operations that we would judge to be evil? As a church, we are not prepared to respond to this. And blanket statements that this is a just war are not very helpful.

But don't we have to weigh the various evils here? Many people would respond that not doing anything can be evil as well.
Yes, and I would not be in favor of not doing anything, that's for sure.

So what, in your view, would be a more proper nonviolent or faith-based response in this situation?
Baxter: I think the most interesting proposals have been to see this as more of a police action, in which the United States and other countries are going to round up a criminal who has committed a crime against humanity. A police action doesn't really call for the kinds of operations the United States has launched against Afghanistan. Of course, with such an effort, we'd have to be ready to sacrifice some U.S. lives in the cause of pursuing this problem justly-according to the most strictly applied just-war standards.

I believe the most effective approach would be to bring Osama bin Laden to court and try him in the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity. Of course, one problem that the United States has with that is that if we recognized this United Nations court, then some of our own past government officials-for example, Henry Kissinger-could be tried in such a court as well.

In some sense, there is no clear solution to terrorism, there is no way to stop it entirely. One thing many people have learned in the recent events is that we live in a dangerous and insecure world and that we can't eliminate the danger and insecurity of life in this vale of tears.

What constitutes promoting justice and peace in this conflict?
Cahill: First we need to look at the response to the perpetrators of the terrorist acts in New York and Washington and to the terrorist network behind them. While our government has chosen to respond with war, I think Father Baxter and others have made an interesting suggestion that it might be better to look at it as a police action. The international court approach is another good option.


The next set of questions is one that just-war theory is not very good at addressing, and it concerns the root causes of this conflict. We need to look at the U.S. military and economic presence around the world and at our economic and political relationships with other parts of the world. A long-term solution, as both the pope and the U.S. bishops have said, must look at ways to make this a more just and peaceable world.

Should we have troops in Saudi Arabia? Should we still be conducting attacks on Iraq? What's our role in the Arab-Israeli conflict? What about globalization and economic interdependence-who benefits from it, and what are its effects? So that's a much larger project, but still something that should be on the table for Catholics, because just-war theory needs to be put in the context of our whole tradition of social teaching.

What's the role of Christians in dealing with this conflict?
Baxter: I think we need people who actually embody God's peace in their lives. Because in times like this, we often don't see where peace exists. If it doesn't exist somewhere concretely, we lose faith in it. So the role of Christians, in my view, is to embody that peace in the way that Jesus taught and exemplified it.

Cahill: I agree, but I would also exhort Christians to be involved in political and social and economic measures to change our society. Catholic social teaching talks about Catholics getting involved in building and changing society so that it will better represent the common good.

Many Catholic pacifists are skeptical that that's possible. They also fear that, by participating in the state and government and politics, Christians will be corrupted and lose sight of their ideals.

So on the other side of it, I'm saying that it is possible and worthwhile to change society, and that Catholics and Christians should be active participants in that task, in the hope that we can bring about some good.

I'm not overly optimistic either that the whole world is ultimately going to become one just, cooperative society. But I would want to see us get out there and participate and do what we can.

Could such involvement for you also include using military means, for instance, to combat terrorism?
Cahill: I'm not prepared to entirely rule out the use of military means. I think even a police action could involve that, but I have to admit that-both in this case and in the Gulf War-I have many more criticisms, reservations, and questions than I do feelings of support. So while in theory I don't rule it out, I guess I'm with the pope in saying we ought to keep peaceful means first on our agenda.


Baxter: That's interesting. A lot of theologians are moving in the direction indicated by Dr. Cahill, which is somewhat similar to the pope's stance regarding capi-tal punishment. In recent years the pope has repeatedly said that in principle the death sentence could be applied justly, but that in practice we're hard-pressed to find instances where it could be. The same could be said about just war.

So rather than looking at the church's two ethical traditions of just war and pacifism as antagonistic, would it make more sense to see them as complementary?
Cahill: I think many of the values are complementary, and at the practical level you may hear people like Father Baxter and myself basically agreeing on almost everything. But there is a difference between those who are willing to envision violence at least as a last resort, which I think the pope is, and those who would say that violence always has to be off-limits, that for Christians it is not part of our identity.

Baxter: The thing we need to keep in mind is that, unfortunately, most U.S. Catholics are neither pacifists nor just-war proponents in the strict sense Dr. Cahill has laid out. They follow a "blank check" model regarding the morality of war. That is to say, they will go and do whatever their democratically elected president tells them to do and do it with great furor and nationalistic spirit. Both pacifism and the just-war principles call into question that kind of natural drift toward uncritical participation in war.