George Weigel: In the middle of debate about Catholic just-war theory

Historians in the News

For over four years, George Weigel, staunch supporter of President Bush and biographer of Pope John Paul II, has never ceased to insist that the war in Iraq meets all the traditional moral criteria for a just war. And most leaders and thinkers among Mr. Weigel’s fellow Roman Catholics, along with many non-Catholic proponents of just-war thinking, have never ceased to disagree.

Now there is a fresh surge in this debate, with combat concentrated not only on how to apply these venerable moral principles to this particular war but also on how the principles should be understood in the first place.

Mr. Weigel delivers the latest rendition of his case in the April issue of First Things, an interreligious neoconservative monthly. At sharp odds is an editorial in the April 20 issue of the liberal Commonweal, edited by Catholic lay people (where this writer was an editor in the 1980s).

Still another view is offered by Msgr. Robert W. McElroy, a pastor in San Mateo, Calif., who is the author of “Morality and American Foreign Policy: The Role of Ethics in International Affairs,” published by Princeton University Press in 1992. His article is scheduled for publication in the April 30 issue of the Jesuit-edited weekly America....

Just-war theory considers a war morally justified only if it is fought for a just cause as a last resort by a legitimate authority acting with good intentions. The war must have a reasonable chance of success and of not doing more harm than good, and it should be conducted by moral means, avoiding, for example, deliberate attacks on civilians.

Mr. Weigel’s elucidation of this moral tradition has been notable for two emphases. For years, he has scolded the Catholic bishops and other just-war proponents for claiming that the teaching begins with “a presumption against war.” On the contrary, Mr. Weigel has argued, the “classic” doctrine treated war not as a moral anomaly that had to run a gantlet of moral tests before it could be justified but as “a moral category,” a neutral instrument of statecraft that could be used for good or ill. The tradition should never be removed from the obligation of nations (like the United States in Iraq) to assure security, justice and freedom.....
Read entire article at PETER STEINFELS in the NYT

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