Sober and Serious on Syria. A Pastoral Teaching rooted in the Just War Teaching

090813One of the more common critiques that many Catholics make of their clergy is that they seldom hear from their pastors on moral topics in the news and our culture such as fornication, divorce, abortion, religious liberty, homosexuality, redefining marriage and so forth. Most recently the question of war and warfare have also been in the news.

As a pastor I try my best to teach the faithful under my care when these topics arise and explain Church teachings in these matter briefly. I often provide handouts as well to accompany the teachings that I do, usually at announcement time, separate from the Homily.

This weekend as the question of military action looms in Syria, another teaching moment arose and I spoke for about five minutes on the topic explaining the insights of Pope Francis, the American Bishops and using the catechism. If your clergy spoke to you on this matter I am interested in what they said and how they said it and encourage you to use the combox.

As for me, here is a brief synopsis of my own  comments this weekend.

As you know there is a very savage civil war underway at this time in Syria. And recently this included the use of chemical weapons. According to our own Government and other international investigators this attack is credibly attributable to the Syrian Government.

Chemical weapons, to include poison gas and nerve agents were first used on a wide scale in World War I and the effects were so horrific that the international community later passed strong resolutions forbidding the use of such weapons. So vivid and awful were those memories from WW I, that the international community has largely, with a few exceptions, abided by these restrictions ever since.

All people of good will rightly detest and are gravely alarmed by the recent deployment of these sorts of weapons by the Syrian Regime against its own people. The President, to his credit, is not willing to simply ignore these egregious violations of human rights and international law. And, also to his credit, he has remanded deliberations regarding any military retaliation to the reflections of the American People, working with their congressional representatives.

In accord with this call for reflection, Pope Francis and the American Bishops have all expressed caution and concern regarding military retaliation at this point, considering it premature, and and in violation of the principles of the “Just War” teaching dating back to St Augustine.

The Just War Tradition is not meant to “justify” war so much as it is to frame the decision of any recourse to military action in the mature and thoughtful deliberations of Scripture, Natural Law and and the long experience of the Christian Tradition.

The Criteria to be met in order to regrettably enter a conflict with military retaliation is well summarized in the Catechism as follows:

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

– the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

– there must be serious prospects of success;

– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine. (Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2309)

At this time, based on what is known and has been set forth by our government, it is the respectful judgement of the American Bishops, and Pope Francis that the criteria for the recourse to war or warfare are not fully met.

This judgment is very similar to the judgment that was rendered on the eve of entry into the War with Iraq. As can be seen, the conditions for recourse to war are very strict, and they ought to be. War is a horrible reality and brings great suffering. It is already clear that the suffering in Syria is great and it does not seem that military intervention by the US will have a reasonable hope of ending that.

Let us also be clear, the deliberations about recourse to War involve prudential judgements where reasonable people may differ as to the details. Unlike other moral issues such as abortion which involve an absolute moral evil, warfare, while strongly limited by our principles, can theoretically be a legitimate course of action under strict circumstances, as stated. Thus, the Catechism while giving clear principles to be followed also says:

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good. (# 2309).

Hence we respect that this is a decision that does finally belong to the President in consultation with the Congress. The Church does obviously urge that our reasonable criteria for “Just War” be at the heart of any deliberations. Our Holy Father and the Bishops must also state that, based on what has been disclosed to the American People, the criteria for just war are not met and that other lesser measures be pursued first.

Let us pray for our President and congressional leaders that they wisely and faithfully execute the offices of leadership entrusted to them by the American People. May God grant his wisdom and insight. For the people of Syria too we pray for an end to conflict and the miracle of forgiveness.