The Development of Conscientious Objection to Unjust Wars in Catholic Thinking
Excerpt from Selective "Conscientious Objection: History, Theology, and Practice" by The Staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship
Augustine believed that war was sometimes necessary in order to defend or restore justice, owing to the fallen nature of humanity and its propensity, even after Christ, to sin. In other words, war is a tragic necessity; and yet, even so, it must be waged in accord with certain principles. Augustine never actually set forth a “just war theory” in one place; rather, his viewpoint comes for the most part in the form of letters sent to those who had turned to him for moral guidance. Neverthe-less, it is possible to glean from his letters a coherent just-war position that can be summarized as follows: war may be waged if it is done so by a legitimate authority, in order to punish crime or uphold the peace, and if the combatants intend to establish or re-establish justice rather than take vengeance on their enemies in a hateful manner. Thus, although it is true that Augustine gave legitimacy to the notion of Christians taking up arms in war, he also laid down clear conditions under which going to war would be just, and would be unjust.
In the Middle Ages, the most important single formulator of just war theory was, of course, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Gathering together the principles that over the course of centuries had been developed in civil and canon law, Aquinas formulated a conception of just war theory that included the following conditions: war must be waged by a competent authority, for the sake of peace, and with a proper intention, that is, with the intention of defending the good. Regarding these conditions, Aquinas was clearly working in continuity with his predecessor Augustine. But in one respect, Aquinas went further in clarifying a crucial principle that was implicit in Augustine’s thought, the principle that it is always wrong to intentionally take the life of the innocent. This principle is spelled out explicitly in the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas’s massive three-part summary of theology set forth in a question-and-answer format. To the question, “is it ever permissible to kill an innocent person?” Aquinas answers, “there is . . . simply no justification for taking the life of an innocent person” (ST 2, 2, 64, 6). Repeat: simply no justification for taking the life of an innocent person.
[Note: It must also be stressed that Aquinas' formulation on the difference between just and unjust wars was already a critique and a warning about defense-only war. Part of the problem is that justice has not always taken seriously enough by rulers throughout history; so the tendency has been, and often remains, to always see the opposing side alone as unjust. If justice and fairness are to mean anything it must begin with us, else it becomes a mockery ---SH]
Catholic Neo-Scholastic Thinkers
In the centuries after Aquinas, just war theory developed through the work of two key Catholic neo-scholastic thinkers, Franciscus de Vitoria (1492-1546) and Francisco Suarez (1548-1617). Vitoria was acutely concerned with the deplorable treatment by European explorers and colonists of the indigenous peoples of the New World. In calling a halt to these atrocities, he appealed to the common law of nature which, he noted, imposes the obligation to protect the rights of “Indians” as well as Europeans. Suarez also appealed to natural law to point to the natural community of nations and the law of all peoples, which laid the theoretical basis for international law.
What is important to note for our purposes is that both of these early modern thinkers argued for the necessity of individual soldiers to follow their consciences, even when it conflicted with the policies of political leaders or the orders of military commanders. In such an important practical development, it is worth quoting the relevant texts at length.
In On The Laws of Wars, Vitoria addressed the duty to refuse to carry out unjust orders with these words:
If the injustice of a war is clear to a subject, he ought not to serve in it, even on the command of his prince. This is clear, for no one can authorize the killing of an innocent person… Again a prince sins when he commences a war in such a case. But "not only are they who commit such things worthy of death, but they, too, who consent to the doing there of" (Romans 1:32)… Again, it is not lawful to kill innocent fellow citizens on the prince’s command.
In a work entitled On Charity, Suarez writes:
Just as one is not allowed to proceed to an unjust war, neither is he allowed to undertake the obligation of serving in such a war, nor even in any war indiscriminately, whether just or unjust; and the reason for these discriminations is that to fight in an unjust war is to act unjustly.
Both of these quotations show that Christian thinkers of the early modern period considered Christ-ian participation in unjust wars to be a serious problem, so serious that they took the position that Christians should disobey the law rather than take part in an unjust war. This position is summed up nicely by James T. Johnson (himself a proponent of just-war theory) in his book Ideology, Reason, and the Limitation of War.
Referring to the neo-scholastic thinkers, Johnson writes, "When the prince’s cause is manifestly unjust, subjects may not serve in his war." Johnson then notes, “Suarez even pushes the issue back one step: when arguments have been advanced that raise some doubt in the consciences of the subjects, they must inquire into their prince’s cause. If they discover that the cause is unjust, they may not serve." For Johnson, "Suarez and Vitoria offer a clear justification for individual conscientious objection to particular wars….It is emphatically the subject’s responsibility to dispel any doubt…and if doing so results in certainty on his part that the war is unjust, he must in conscience refuse." Repeat: he must in conscience refuse...Read the entire CPF piece
--->"Savagery" - Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani on Modern Warfare Condemned...
--->Apropos of the above: St. Augustine on Unjust Emperors and Robber Barons...