church and just war criteria
The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in
The just war tradition consists of a body of ethical reflection on
the justifiable use of force. In the interest of overcoming injustice, reducing
violence and preventing its expansion, the tradition aims at:
(a) Clarifying when force may be used;
(b) Limiting the resort
(c) Restraining damage done by military forces during war.
The just war tradition begins with a strong presumption against
the use of force and then establishes the conditions when this presumption may
be overridden for the sake of preserving the kind of peace that protects human
dignity and human rights.
In a disordered world, where peaceful resolution of conflict
sometimes fails, the just war tradition provides an important moral framework
for restraining and regulating the limited use of force by governments and
international organizations. Since the just war tradition is often
misunderstood or selectively applied, we summarize its major components, which
are drawn from traditional Catholic teaching.
First, whether lethal force may be used is governed by the
- Just cause: Force may be used only to correct a grave, public
evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole
- Comparative justice: While there may be rights and wrongs on
all sides of a conflict, to override the presumption against the use of force
the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered
by the other.
- Legitimate authority: Only duly constituted public authorities
may use deadly force or wage war.
- Right intention: Force may be used only in a truly just cause
and solely for that purpose.
- Probability of success: Arms may not be used in a futile cause
or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success.
- Proportionality: The overall destruction expected from the use
of force must be outweighed by the good to be achieved.
- Last resort: Force may be used only after all peaceful
alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted.
These criteria (jus ad bellum), taken as a whole, must be
satisfied in order to override the strong presumption against the use of
Second, the just war tradition seeks also to curb the violence of
war through restraint on armed combat between the contending parties by
imposing the following moral standards (jus in bello) for the conduct of
- Noncombatant immunity: Civilians may not be the object of
direct attack, and military personnel must take due care to avoid and minimize
indirect harm to civilians.
- Proportionality: In the conduct of hostilities, efforts must be
made to attain military objectives with no more force than is militarily
necessary and to avoid disproportionate collateral damage to civilian life and
- Right intention: Even in the midst of conflict, the aim of
political and military leaders must be peace with justice, so that acts of
vengeance and indiscriminate violence, whether by individuals, military units
or governments, are forbidden.
From The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace: A
Reflection of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on the Tenth
Anniversary of The Challenge of Peace, Nov. 17, 1993.
Copyright 1994, United States Catholic Conference
National Catholic Reporter, October 25,