The Catholic University of America


Catholic Moral Principles and the Attack on America

By Professor William Wagner

Professor William Wagner

Amid titanic forces, a tiny human figure suddenly appeared silhouetted against the sky. The first desperate person had leaped from a window high on one of the World Trade Towers, apparently choosing a fall into oblivion over the death-dealing flames then billowing through the interior of the building. To the Catholic moral imagination, that image, the tiny man silhouetted in midair, not the colossus of the building or the careening plane, or even the pattern of international intrigue or terror, established the scale for understanding what was going on. His image was the imago dei - the image of God. He, like every human individual, every other of the thousands of trapped people in the twin towers, was an end in himself.

Thus, the American Bishops stated in their 1983 Pastoral Letter, The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response, "[a]t the center of the Church's teaching on peace and at the center of all Catholic social teaching are the transcendence of God and the dignity of the human person."

In Catholic moral teaching, the human person is inviolable. While harm to others may be tolerated as the unintended consequence of our actions (we may take the job, although it means that someone else goes without work), it is never right for any reason whatever intentionally to harm a person. As the Church teaches in its Catechism, "[H]atred of the neighbor is a sin when one deliberately wishes him evil. Hatred of the neighbor is a grave sin when one deliberately desires him grave harm." This insight was at the heart of the moral indignation of those who watched thousands killed and injured through the intentional actions of hijackers.

As we seek to understand the meaning of the events of September 11, 2001, Catholic teaching also proposes, however, that we consider that God is the Lord of History and that His Providence rules all events even events as terrible as these. We believe that He chastens those whom He loves. St. Thomas Aquinas refers to God's permitting wicked and brutal misuses of power by human beings as "scourges" to chasten us. Through the experience of suffering at the hands of unjust people, God invites us to reaffirm our dependence on him and to examine our consciences. He invites us to reform our lives. So here, the Catholic tradition would invite us to ask what we ourselves may have done to make this horrifying spectacle, which we have just witnessed, a reality.

Can it escape notice that the images on the news are virtually indistinguishable from those in an American-made disaster movie, such as the Towering Inferno? What we have visualized and catered to as a staple of our mass entertainment became a fact. Not for the first time, what an individual or a society visualizes over and over again eventually comes to life. What are we to make of the state of our souls from the state of our entertainment? St. Augustine certainly drew negative conclusions in this regard about the state of the souls of those who lived in Ancient Rome. If those who perpetrated these crimes are motivated in part by the perception that American cultural influences around the world are destructive of the fabric of society, what can we say in our defense? Can we really fail to realize how base the culture has become which we export and promote throughout the world?

So, I believe that we have received a gracious and loving, if very painful, invitation from God to approach the analysis of these happenings in a humble willingness to be instructed by God through these events and to become better people. Beyond this, the specific moral issue to be addressed, as we consider our defense, is the same, from our point of view, as it was for the assailants when they undertook their project. A presumption exists that the use of lethal force against other people is morally unjustified. Under what conditions may this presumption be considered rebutted? The Catholic tradition assumes that we ought to live according to a rule of reason. Reason allows us to identify good and evil actions, and to choose aright, and, thus, reason has an answer to the question posed. In general the principles of right conduct are clear and easily understood. Yet, questions of particular application may be dark and obscure and require careful deliberation and long discussion with a commitment to doing the best we can while we await sufficient insight. Just as an example, consider that it appears that just before famous Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania, two groups of people on board may have been battling over who got to crash the plane.

One group had an evil intention. The other had a good intention. How exactly does one develop the specific argument that in the latter case a deliberate intention to bring down a jumbo jet killing everyone on board is a moral good?

Catholic reasoning on the justification of lethal force has the two-prong structure familiar to every law student in equal protection and due process analysis. First, one must establish the existence of an adequate end - Is there a compelling purpose? Second, one must demonstrate the legitimacy of the means chosen. For Catholic reasoning, however, it is not enough that the means be efficient, i.e. "necessary," neither may they offend against any intrinsic principle of human dignity, i.e. stand as an intrinsically evil act.

For the Catholic tradition, the end which can justify the use of lethal force is the preservation of what St. Augustine termed the "tranquility of the order" of civil society. Ordinarily, this means that only state authority may employ lethal force. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, said that private individuals could not take it upon themselves to use such force to rid themselves of an oppressor, and that they were bound to suffer abuses while praying to God for relief.

Thus far, defensive measures that our government may decide to take against this attack have a clearly legitimate end, for the events of September 11 and the anxiety that they could be repeated clearly compromise the tranquility of civil order. The government of the United States has the authority to restore the order which has been damaged.

It would seem that the hijackers, for their part, lack any such justification, as they did not represent a state as such. We should not too readily assume that this point places us in the right and them in the wrong, for at the time of the American Revolution, Americans did not represent a state as such but only an insurgency. Or, what happens if one state suppresses another? The leadership of a population that aspires to become a state, or to be restored to statehood, may argue that it is morally justified in acting as though it were a state, where the issue of lethal force arises. In the case before us, however, the assault of the hijackers occurred without any published plan to advance a particular envisioned international legal order. As such, however legitimate any of the hijackers' more remote aspirations might have been, their actions per se find condemnation within Catholic moral thought. Catholic moral thought would reject, for instance, the idea that human beings may wreak vengeance even on a group which is guilty of some wrong, as the hijackers considered Americans to be, purely as a moral gesture.

Aside from the question of ends, both the hijackers' actions and the American response are matters of moral evaluation according to the means they have employed or may yet employ. Here, the tradition speaks of two more specific requirements: 1) the means may not include any direct attack on the innocent - known as the principle of discrimination; and 2) the means may not include any harm disproportionate to the end - known as the principle of proportionality. I would like to suggest that the tradition also implies a third principle, which applies in the specific context of terrorism and of state sponsored warfare, which relies on terror.

I would call this principle: 3) the principle of reciprocity of reason. Respect for all three of these principles is needed if the very tranquility of civil order which is the end justifying limited resort to lethal force is to be upheld.

The Catholic moral tradition holds that the defense of civil order goes so far as to justify the use of lethal force against those individuals who are guilty of attacking it. Thus, if other requirements are met, the government of the United States may use lethal force against those planning or carrying out terrorist attacks. But it goes no further. Catholic moral teaching would not permit the government of the United States directly or intentionally to kill innocent people. The United States may not deliberately kill Afghani civilians, for example, in reprisal for the World Trade Center bombing. The government must discriminate in its use of lethal force between those who are guilty and those who are innocent. So, for example, in a famous article appearing in Theological Studies in the early 1940's, the leading Catholic moral theologians in the United States condemned America's policy of bombing German cities. By the same token, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could not be approved.

From the side of the terrorists, if one were to suppose that they had a legitimate end, then their bombing of the Pentagon might conceivably have been a legitimate means to its carrying out - after all the Persian Gulf War was planned and carried out from the Pentagon. But, the attack on the World Trade Center could never be justified, no matter what legitimate ends the assailants were pursuing. From the Catholic point of view, that attack was an intrinsically evil act of very great magnitude.

In addition, under the principle of proportionality, the Catholic tradition requires that be application of lethal force be limited to remain in proportion to the end to be attained. It must be subordinated to rational purpose. It may not ever become the expression of vengeance or hatred. The purpose of using lethal force must always remain the preservation of the tranquility of civil order. It may never become the destruction of the enemy as an object in its own right. Here again, critical self-reflection calls for Americans asking how depraved depictions of violence in the American media have become. In action movies, or even in a film such as The Patriot, protagonists are depicted as aiming at and savoring the annihilation of other people. Such can never be justified in Catholic moral reasoning.

The hijackers actions clearly fail this principle since one well asks about their action, "proportionate to what?" By Catholic standards, they had not defensible goals. But, what about the American response?

Here, our leaders are on rather delicate ground. As a nation, we feel deeply assaulted and that our national security has been placed in considerable peril, and yet we must ask where is the international legal order, which we would mean to advance through our use of lethal force? The proportionality of each element of our response is to be judged against such a stated goal. If we fail to articulate such a goal and rationally to subordinate our use of force to reaching it, we will gradually sink towards the level of the terrorists. Here one notes an American propensity, born of our origins as a refuge and haven from the Old World and its repressive structures, to flout claims of binding international order. We feel free to withdraw from pacts, decline accords, and to stand up international conferences. While there are undoubtedly valid concerns behind these maneuvers, when it comes time to use military force abroad, the Catholic moral tradition will not consider such force justified merely to express American defiance or honor. Its only justification will be its usefulness in securing the tranquility of civil order. A point of urgent business for the American government is the articulation of the principles of international order binding on us, no less than on the other side, which our use of lethal force is meant to advance.

The third principle, which I believe is implicit in the Catholic tradition and which needs to be better enunciated for application in settings such as this, might be called the principle of reciprocity in reason. The Catholic moral tradition considers the entire line of moral reasoning which I am developing here an expression of natural law. It holds natural law to be God's ordinance for the due ordering of human life for the sake of the true ultimate happiness of the participants. It considers God's ordinance to be for "universal happiness," which means that everyone counts, including Mu'ammar Quaddafi and Saddam Hussein. God loves them as much as He loves us. Each of us may act for our particular welfare, which includes defending ourselves against aggression by the likes of Quaddafi or Hussein, but we are expected to remember always that Quaddafi and Hussein are also God's children and that their happiness is, in principle, no less important than our own. They too have a right to participate in the tranquility of order.

When they offend against it, the goal is not to annihilate them, but rather to invite them to return to that order. The path of return ultimately would be through a decision to give others, including Americans, the respect they are due, as the true means of contributing to the happiness God wills for all.

Thus, terrorists who aim at paralyzing a people's ability to reason and plan its future by sending suicide bombers into every place of simple enjoyment violate the Catholic principle. And, so too do states which seek to undermine their enemies capacity for rational reflection and choice. Even in the darkest days of war, we must treat our enemies as equal to ourselves and respect them as possessing reason and the dignity of moral choice. War must always be accompanied by an invitation, perhaps temporarily held in abeyance for strategic reasons, to come together at the negotiation table. It must always be accompanied by our articulation of the terms of peace, which the other side is invited freely and reasonably to accept. True peace was never crammed down anybody's throat. Thus, it is important to remember that state sponsored war, even when it comports with the other principles, may descend into a kind of terrorism which offends against the dignity of the enemy who is ultimately our brother or sister. Thus, the insistence on unconditional surrender cannot be countenanced morally, nor can assassinations of the leaders of the other side, if the goal is to reduce the other side to servility and an inability to deliberate and form a political will.

Catholic moral principles give us a firm rational standard for pursuing our self-defense, for they connect us to our justifiable self-love. In the Catholic view, our happiness matters and we have not only the right, but the obligation to pursue it firmly and effectively. At the same time, the Catholic view strengthens our position by allowing us to acknowledge fully the truth that the other side, in any given case, is also beloved of God and needs to be heard. Being truly open to the universal happiness of all which is God's will, we are fortified in being assured that we are serving His Purpose in our own limited but valid way when the time is upon us, as a nation, to secure our own particular happiness -where necessary, and as may be appropriate, even through the use of lethal force.

Professor Wagner teaches contracts, constitutional law, and jurisprudence at the law school. A graduate of the Yale Law School, Professor Wagner has also recently successfully defended his Ph.D. dissertation in The Catholic University of America's School of Religious Studies.