The Catholic University of America

CUA Professor Michael Noone receives the 2003

Mary, Mirror of Justice Award from J.R. Sanchez (left)

President, Guild of Catholic Lawyers. Dean Kmiec is on right.

Just War Tradition Needs Adjusting Just Now

Preachers pound their messages from the pulpits. Talking heads narrate the action hour by hour. Certainly, every American has had the discussion by now with family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues: What do you think of the war?

It's a divisive subject. Opinions are sharply split and deeply felt. As people marshal evidence and arguments to support their views, many are taking a fresh look at the traditional Catholic notion of the just war. It's a body of thought about the appropriateness of armed conflict that was largely formulated more than a thousand years ago. It's newly fashionable these days, pressed into service to support many conflicting points of view.

Watching the hot rhetoric fly, law faculty Professor Michael Noone says, hang on just a minute.

Delivering the 2003 Mary, Mirror of Justice Lecture in Slowinski Courtroom on March 24th, Professor Noone said the just war tradition is improperly understood by most of those who cite it as a moral guide to the current conflict in Iraq.

Articulated by St. Augustine in the fifth century, the just war criteria were never intended to be a checklist for heads of state considering invasion.

"Just war theory originated not as a series of precepts for princes, but to offer moral guidance to commoners who sought to enroll in the army," said Noone.

A man taking up arms for his nation was supposed to ask himself three questions, according to original just war thinking. Was the impending conflict legitimate, authorized by the proper authorities? Was it for national self-defense? And were its ultimate intentions the right ones?

The just war concept was elaborated upon in the 17th and 18th centuries. Christian thinkers claimed that the case for war must also weigh factors like the chances of victory, and whether gains offset costs. They insisted that war must always be the last resort; after all other options were exhausted.

It is these addendums, argued Professor Noone, that limit the usefulness of just war reasoning as applied to modern day conflicts.

"I suggest to you that these [most recent] four criteria were not designed to be applied in a democratic society," he said. "They are the kinds of criteria that monarchs are expected to apply. And they also sound like the kind of criteria that would be written by lawyers."

Does this mean that the Christian just war tradition should be discarded as a quaint and irrelevant relic, best left out of heated arguments over Iraq?

Not necessarily, said Noone. He noted that the careful reasoning on the justifications for war produced so long ago may still prove to be a useful legal and analytical tool.

"But my point is that the just war doctrine is a cultural artifact, like a gothic arch. Both are now independent of their origins, and must be judged on how well they've accomplished the task to which they've been applied in contemporary society."