War & the Requirement of Moral Certainty

March 2007By Emmanuel Charles McCarthy

The Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy is a priest of the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church (Byzantine-Melkite). Formerly a lawyer and a university educator, seminary teacher, spiritual director, and rector, he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his life's work on behalf of peace among people and with God. He resides in Brockton, Massachusetts. This article, which appeared on, was distributed to each Catholic bishop at the USCCB's November 2006 meeting, but no discussion of the issues it raises ensued. This article has been condensed.

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"The Holy Father's judgment is also convincing from a rational point of view. There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq." -- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, May 2, 2003

If there is any absolute moral law in Christianity, in Catholicism, or in Natural Law, it is "Thou shalt not murder." In Catholic moral law, murder is the intentional unjust killing of a human being. Two popes have said that the war by the U.S. government on Iraq is unjust. Killing in an unjust war is murder.

All the "rigorous conditions" for the "rightness and goodness" of a war according to Catholic Just War doctrine have to be met with that degree of probability that Catholic moral law requires for moral certainty where the intentional destruction of human life is involved.

Although seldom taught or discussed publicly, it is a morally binding presupposition of Catholic Just War doctrine that, before a person can justifiably kill another human being in war, he must be morally certain that each and every one of the Catholic standards for determining a just war has been met. Not only met, but strictly met (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2309). They must be strictly met before the war begins (jus ad bellum). Furthermore, they must be strictly met in conducting the war (#2312) moment to moment during the entire course of the war (jus in bello). The Catholic Just War doctrine is most certainly not a moral carte blanche for Catholic participation in wars supported by local politicians -- although this is how it has often been interpreted and applied.

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I believe the CCC #2309 also states "The valuation of these conditions for moral legitimacy [of war] belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good." In the United States, the prudential judgment belongs to the Federal Government, not to the soldier in the field.

Also, the bishops and even the Pope himself offered opinions regarding the war based on the information they had. Certainly, the Federal Government did not share all of its intelligence data with the USCCB nor the Holy See. The US Gov't doesn't share all of its intelligence data with any foreign government, including the Vatican.

Regarding the soldier in the field, he does not generally have knowledge of all the reasons regarding a decision. Except in the most egregious circumstances, a soldier's duty is to obey his superiors' legal and authentic orders; and if that means killing another, so be it.

I don't remember Christ rebuking any soldier, but there is testimony in Holy Writ about the rebuking of a bishop, is there not?

Please pray for me.
Posted by: Hammer Of Heretics
March 01, 2007 11:13 PM EST
It looks as if "Hammer of Heretics" has a very selective hammer. His comment, however, is an exemplary exhibition of the kind of fallacious FoxNews-style reasoning by self-avowed orthodox Catholics used to justify Bush's war. These pat responses have been addressed ad infinitum by the Editor of NOR -- and by other notable Catholics such as Pat Buchanan.

CCC#2309 cannot reasonably be used to justify any decision made by a Head of State -- espeically since time has proven President Bush wrong and wrong again. When even an 8th grader can fully understand that the conditions for a just war do not and never did exist with regard to Iraq, it is incumbent upon Catholics to oppose the injustice. Not just because Bishop so-and-so said it. Not just because Pope Benedict or Pope JP II said it, but because it is true and obvious. These are not "opinions." These are proclamations based on bald-faced facts: The attack, the invasion and the occupation of Iraq are immoral acts on a grand scale.

Yes, Catholics have a duty to speak up and oppose Bush's military charade. Especially when the kind of war the US is waging doesn't even meet the basic requirements set forth in the Geneva Convention.
Posted by: charing cross
March 02, 2007 12:25 PM EST
The fallacious argument set forth by "hammer of Heretics" would certainly excuse every Nazi official and soldier of any crime, since they were all following the orders of the judgment of those charged with acting "...for the common good."

Perhaps Christ never rebuked any soldier. I'm not a bible scholar. But it seems to me that he did tell a number of men that "...let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Presumably these men had made a judgment to "act for the common good" when they set out to stone the woman.
Posted by: doralh
March 16, 2007 11:43 AM EDT
I'll leave the professorial approach to those who enjoy such. I don't recall Pope John Paul calling the Iraq war "not a just war". I recall him rejecting all war because it never solves the problem which is true. In any case, too many people are using opinion as fact and trying to judge the decision made going into Iraq based on a narrow set of the overall objectives which are then judged by the knowledge gained after the war. Don't believe that to be good logic. In any case, we are there and it seems to me the real issue is what must the U.S. do now that it is there. The article seems to say the U.S. must leave, no matter what the consequences, because it was not a just war. Hopefully, no president would try that type of logic in determining his foreign policy. What is it with some Catholics, that they abandon all logic in favor of bashing Bush and the U.S.A. because of his decision to go into Iraq. And now, we should encourage UN sanctions against Iran until they come to the table with some sense - why? Based on the above logic, there is no reason to be concerned about the UN (and maybe the U.S. after Iraq). Seems the president of Iran said as much. Posted by: Wunsch
March 26, 2007 05:51 PM EDT
Very interesting article. However, I wonder about the number of Iraqi civilians quoted as being killed, thus far. I seem to recall that these numbers were changed at some point to be far less that what is indicated in the article. I believe that the current war effort in Iraq is a continuation of the first Gulf War and to identify justification at the exclusion of the original effort is marginalizing too much information. What do other countries do when a dictator like Saddam Hussein indicates that it will use Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) when it is necessary? He had alraedy proven his willingness with the chemical attacks on the Kurds. I would not want to find out by doing nothing regarding the threats from other countries. Even if the United States military had found evidence of WMD, I am not sure it would share that information with the rest of the world. It is already established in Iraq, so why try and justify, now? The piece regarding the DU I found interesting and will conduct my own research. Posted by: stellm
March 14, 2008 10:20 AM EDT
You should be very careful to fact check sources and statistics that appear to justify your opinion. DU is used for civilian purposes and all of us have been or are exposed to it.Hyperbole to support a moral argument is not justified ad bellum or in bello and is not a friend of the truth either. Posted by: trutter
March 16, 2008 11:46 AM EDT
stellm has good instincts...

Once again, a writer at NOR uses the discredited Lancet report (see UK Times here:

Those numbers were completely inflated by people who wanted others to believe the US soldiers are basically indiscriminately killing every Iraqi civilian in sight.

I expect better from NOR...
Posted by: daweeds
September 10, 2008 01:34 AM EDT
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