Preemptive War

What would Aquinas say?

War is among the most terrible of human realities. Yet Catholicism has never condemned all participation in war as morally impermissible. From the early Middle Ages to our own time, the church has consistently asserted that some evils or threats are so grave that they merit a vigorous armed response. “It is the other side’s wrongdoing that compels the wise man to wage just wars,” wrote Augustine, one of the earliest exponents of what is now termed “just-war theory.”

The intense debate over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in which prominent neoconservative Catholics such as Michael Novak and George Weigel used just-war arguments to defend U.S. actions, has put the just-war theory under renewed scrutiny. This has called attention to the ongoing debate among just-war theorists about the correct starting point for moral reflection on war. Some thinkers, such as James Childress and Richard Miller as well as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, maintain that moral reasoning about war should begin with the imperative “Do no harm.” From this obligation, they argue, there derives a strong presumption against the use of force, a presumption that can be overridden only in very exceptional circumstances. By contrast, Rutgers scholar James Turner Johnson, Weigel, and others have argued for a more proactive stance. Moral thinking about war should begin, they say, with the duty of civic leadership to oppose grave...

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About the Author

Gregory M. Reichberg writes from the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway.