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The Crisis in Iraq? What is the Christian Response?


Aleteia - published on 09/10/14 - updated on 06/08/17

A danger in publishing a summary of faith is that the summary itself becomes the substitute for the faith. Summaries are intended to be outlines on basic ideas; they are not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of every topic in the tradition. Within the Catholic tradition this problem exists in the areas of Catholic social doctrine where the issues are complex and the teaching on these topics is enormous. Let us look at one example to prove the point: the just war theory, where the Catechism states:

2309The 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.

Leaving aside the language that highlights the reluctance of going to war, the passage is preceded by a number of paragraphs obliging all Catholics to peacemaking and the path of non-violence. Recourse to war is an exception to the rule of non-violence, not the rule itself. The Church in no place commands her children to acts of physical violence against another person. A more thorough presentation of the topic is found in The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which prefaces the just war theory with numerous papal teachings on peace, including this paragraph:

496. Violence is never a proper response…. the Church proclaims “that violence is evil, that violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems, that violence is unworthy of man. Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity. Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings.”

The contemporary world too needs the witness of unarmed prophets, who are often the objects of ridicule. “Those who renounce violence and bloodshed and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defense available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity… They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risk of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death.”

The recourse to violence is further cautioned by recognizing the horrors of modern warfare. Additionally, both texts repeat the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that it is entirely just and proper to allow the right of citizens for conscientious objection to war and allowing for other forms of community service (cf. Gaudium et Spes #79). This recognition further highlights the fact that resorting to the violence of war is not a moral obligation, but an exception to the moral obligation to work for peace and to employ non-violent means.

The doctrine of the Second Vatican Council radically changed the Church’s posture on the position of warfare. As Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) noted:

The Council moved away from the static morality of the just war toward a dynamic morality of emergency… Therefore, the attempt must be made to approach as closely as possible what is morally desirable. Thus we can at least assert moral demands, even though we cannot achieve our ultimate moral objectives. (Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II, p. 241)

How are we to achieve the ultimate moral objective? Certainly a great effort must be made in the area of international diplomacy as an immediate response to present dangers. Education in non-violence and conflict resolution are also essential in order for violence to be averted. The future holy father noticed another pedagogical approach at work in the magisterium of the Church:

The Council does not presume to set timeless norms for questions so complex in their technological, political, and historical ramifications. Rather, it stirs up a feeling of inadequacy about the merely licit. It sees the licit as no more than a very temporary concession in a history that finds man still in progress and still very far from doing what he ought to do, very far from doing what is genuinely right….The whole of human action is shown to be abysmally deficient when we begin to confess our moral attitude in this matter, and actually in all other matters as well, is far from what it should be. We recognize that the small righteousness we manage to build up in ourselves is nothing but an emergency morality in the midst of our radical unrighteousness. (ibid., p. 243)

The recourse to violence, then, is not the norm of human action, but a great deficiency in what is actually expected of humankind, i.e. the path of nonviolence. However, many Christian moralists spend a great deal of time justifying the use of violence and very little time upholding the principle of non-violence to which we are called.

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IraqIslamist MilitantsPoliticsTerrorism
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