In moral theology, we make the distinction between moral evil (that which results from sinful action and imposes guilt on the actor) and metaphysical evil (the absence of good). In this case, murder would be moral evil while natural death would be metaphysical evil; the former is a heinous act against God while the second is simply the absence of good, the natural loss of life.
With this distinction in mind, how would we categorize war? There is no doubt, no matter the circumstances, that the act of inflicting violence and causing death is an evil; there is nothing “good” about it. But it does raise the question of guilt: is it morally wrong in all cases? Acts of war can be waged in self-defense. Violence can be used to save lives and protect the innocent. In many cases, doing nothing would result in more life lost and the greater spread of evil than a few calculated acts of violence against oppressors. Isn’t it more “evil” in these cases to do nothing than to fight against evil doers?
At yet, for Christians, the idea of a “just war” seems oxymoronic. How could there ever be a war that is just? How could one ever think that violence will ever bring about true peace? Sure, it might stop the violence from the opposing side, but does it bring the peace that Jesus spoke about? Probably not. One has to look no further than the “war to end all war,” World War I, and see how wrong this notion is. Despite enormous life loss, years of violence against the “bad guys,” and even an admission of guilt, the world was almost immediately thrown back into another war, far worse than the first, with almost three times the amount of casualties. War brought about “peace” for a generation, until the effects of that war caused a far worse conflict.
Which leaves us to wonder: is there such a thing as a “just war”? This is a question that Christians have been contemplating for centuries, leading to what it known as the Just War Doctrine in the Catholic Church, but also leaving many faithful Christians and theologians uneasy with its implications.
In this week’s Catholicism in Focus, we look at what exactly a just war is, when it can be employed, and what its limits are in use.