Centrality of Conscience

As our nation makes momentous decisions about the use of military force, there is renewed interest in the Church's teaching on the ethics of war and peace. The following excerpts from the U.S. Catholic Bishops'1993 statement, The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace, provides a summary of key elements of the Church's teaching, including the principles of the just war tradition.

The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace

A Reflection of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops
on the Tenth Anniversary of The Challenge of Peace
November 17, 1993

Full Text

 I.  Theology, Spirituality and Ethics for Peacemaking

A. Virtues and a Vision for Peacemakers

  1. Peaceable Virtues
  2. A Vision of Peace

B. Two Traditions: Nonviolence and Just War

  1. Nonviolence: New Importance
  2. Just War: New Questions

C. The Centrality of Conscience



I. Theology, Spirituality and Ethics for Peacemaking

An often neglected aspect of The Challenge of Peace is the spirituality and ethics of peacemaking. At the heart of our faith lies "the God of peace" (Rom 15:33), who desires peace for all people far and near (Ps 85; Is 57:19). That desire has been fulfilled in Christ in whom humanity has been redeemed and reconciled. In our day, the Holy Spirit continues to call us to seek peace with one another, so that in our peacemaking we may prepare for the coming of the reign of God, a kingdom of true justice, love and peace. God created the human family as one and calls it to unity. The renewed unity we experience in Christ is to be lived out in every possible way. We are to do all we can to live at peace with everyone (Rom 12:18). Given the effects of sin, our efforts to live in peace with one another depend on our openness to God's healing grace and the unifying power of Christ's redemption.

Change of mind and heart, of word and action are essential to those who would work for peace (Rom 12:2). This conversion to the God of peace has two dimensions. On the one hand, in imitation of Christ we must be humble, gentle and patient. On the other, we are called to be strong and active in our peacemaking, loving our enemies and doing good generously as God does (Lk 6:35-36, 38), filled with eagerness to spread the gospel of peace (Eph 6:15).

Likewise, discovering God's peace, which exceeds all understanding, in prayer is essential to peacemaking (Phil 4:7). The peace given in prayer draws us into God, quieting our anxieties, challenging our old values and deepening wells of new energy. It arouses in us a compassionate love for all humanity and gives us heart to persevere beyond frustration, suffering and defeat. We should never forget that peace is not merely something that we ourselves as creatures do and can accomplish, but it is, in the ultimate analysis, a gift and a grace from God.

By its nature, the gift of peace is not restricted to moments of prayer. It seeks to penetrate the corners of everyday life and to transform the world. But, to do so, it needs to be complemented in other ways. It requires other peaceable virtues, a practical vision of a peaceful world and an ethics to guide peacemakers in times of conflict.

A. Virtues and a Vision for Peacemakers

  1. Peaceable Virtues. True peacemaking can be a matter of policy only if it is first a matter of the heart. In the absence of repentance and forgiveness, no peace can endure; without a spirit of courageous charity, justice cannot be won. We can take inspiration from the early Christian communities. Paul called on the Corinthians, even in the most trying circumstances, to pursue peace and bless their persecutors, never repaying evil for evil, but overcoming evil with good (Rom 12:14, 17, 21).

    Amid the violence of contemporary culture and in response to the growing contempt for human life, the Church must seek to foster communities where peaceable virtues can take root and be nourished. We need to nurture among ourselves faith and hope to strengthen our spirits by placing our trust in God, rather than in ourselves; courage and compassion that move us to action; humility and kindness so that we can put the needs and interests of others ahead of our own; patience and perseverance to endure the long struggle for justice; and civility and charity so that we can treat others with respect and love.

    "The goal of peace, so desired by everyone," as Pope John Paul has written, "will certainly be achieved through the putting into effect of social and international justice, but also through the practice of the virtues which favor togetherness and which teach us to live in unity."2

  2. A Vision of Peace. A practical complement to the virtues of peacemaking is a clear vision of a peaceful world. Thirty years ago Pope John XXIII laid out before us a visionary framework for peace in his encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), which retains its freshness today. Pacem in Terris proposed a political order in service of the common good, defined in terms of the defense and promotion of human rights. In a prophetic insight, anticipating the globalization of our problems, Pope John called for new forms of political authority adequate to satisfy the needs of the universal common good.

    Peace does not consist merely in the absence of war, but rather in sharing the goodness of life together. In keeping with Pope John's teaching, the Church's positive vision of a peaceful world includes:

    a. the primacy of the global common good for political life,

    b. the role of social and economic development in securing the conditions for a just and lasting peace, and

    c. the moral imperative of solidarity between affluent, industrial nations and poor, developing ones.

    A. The Universal Common Good. A key element in Pope John's conception of a peaceful world is a global order oriented to the full development of all peoples, with governments committed to the rights of citizens, and a framework of authority which enables the world community to address fundamental problems that individual governments fail to resolve. In this framework, sovereignty is in the service of people. All political authority has as its end the promotion of the common good, particularly the defense of human rights. When a government clearly fails in this task or itself becomes a central impediment to the realization of those rights, the world community has a right and a duty to act where the lives and the fundamental rights of large numbers of people are at serious risk.

    B. The Responsibility for Development. A second element consists of the right to and the duty of development for all peoples. In the words of Pope John Paul II, "[J]ust as there is a collective responsibility for avoiding war, so too there is a collective responsibility for promoting development." Development, the Holy Father reasoned, will contribute to a more just world in which the occasions for resorting to arms will be greatly reduced:

    [It] must not be forgotten that at the root of war there are usually real and serious grievances: injustices suffered, legitimate aspirations frustrated, poverty and the exploitation of multitudes of desperate people who see no real possibility of improving their lot by peaceful means.3

    Development not only serves the interest of justice, but also contributes greatly to a lasting peace.

    C. Human Solidarity. A third imperative is to further the unity of the human family. Solidarity requires that we think and act in terms of our obligations as members of a global community, despite differences of race, religion or nationality. We are responsible for actively promoting the dignity of the world's poor through global economic reform, development assistance and institutions designed to meet the needs of the hungry, refugees and the victims of war. Solidarity, Pope John Paul II reminds us, contributes to peace by providing "a firm and persevering determination" to seek the good of all. "Peace," he declares, will be "the fruit of solidarity."4

B. Two Traditions: Nonviolence and Just War

An essential component of a spirituality for peacemaking is an ethic for dealing with conflict in a sinful world. The Christian tradition possesses two ways to address conflict: nonviolence and just war. They both share the common goal: to diminish violence in this world. For as we wrote in The Challenge of Peace, "The Christian has no choice but to defend peace . . . . This is an inalienable obligation. It is the how of defending peace which offers moral options."5 We take up this dual tradition again, recognizing, on the one hand, the success of nonviolent methods in recent history, and, on the other, the increasing disorder of the post-Cold War world with its pressures for limited military engagement and humanitarian intervention.

Throughout history there has been a shifting relation between the two streams of the tradition which always remain in tension. Like Christians before us who have sought to read the signs of the times in light of this dual tradition, we today struggle to assess the lessons of the nonviolent revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the former Soviet Union in 1991, on the one hand, and of the conflicts in Central America, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon, Cambodia and Northern Ireland on the other.

The devastation wrought by these recent wars reinforces and strengthens for us the strong presumption against the use of force, which is shared by both traditions. Overall, the wars fought in the last fifty years show a dramatic rise in the proportion of noncombatant casualties. This fact points to the need for clear moral restraints both in avoiding war and in limiting its consequences. The high level of civilian deaths raises serious moral questions about the political choices and military doctrines which have had such tragic results over the last half century. The presumption against the use of force has also been strengthened by the examples of the effectiveness of nonviolence in some places in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

Our conference's approach, as outlined in The Challenge of Peace, can be summarized in this way:

  1. In situations of conflict, our constant commitment ought to be, as far as possible, to strive for justice through nonviolent means.
  2. But, when sustained attempts at nonviolent action fail to protect the innocent against fundamental injustice, then legitimate political authorities are permitted as a last resort to employ limited force to rescue the innocent and establish justice.

Despite areas of convergence between a nonviolent ethic and a just-war ethic, however, we acknowledge the diverse perspectives within our Church on the validity of the use of force. Many believe just-war thinking remains valid because it recognizes that force may be necessary in a sinful world, even as it restrains war by placing strict moral limits on when, why and how this force may be used. Others object in principle to the use of force, and these principled objections to the just-war tradition are sometimes joined with other criticisms that just-war criteria have been ineffective in preventing unjust acts of war in recent decades and that these criteria cannot be satisfied under the conditions of modern warfare.

Likewise, there are diverse points of view within the Catholic community on the moral meaning and efficacy of a total commitment to nonviolence in an unjust world. Clearly some believe that a full commitment to nonviolence best reflects the Gospel commitment to peace. Others argue that such an approach ignores the reality of grave evil in the world and avoids the moral responsibility to actively resist and confront injustice with military force if other means fail. Both the just-war and nonviolent traditions offer significant moral insight, but continue to face difficult tests in a world marked by so much violence and injustice. Acknowledging this diversity of opinion, we reaffirm the Church's traditional teaching on the ethical conditions for the use of force by public authority.

Ten years after our pastoral letter, recent events raise new questions and concerns which need to be addressed:

  1. Nonviolence: New Importance. As The Challenge of Peace observed, "The vision of Christian nonviolence is not passive about injustice and the defense of the rights of others."6 It ought not be confused with popular notions of nonresisting pacifism. For it consists of a commitment to resist manifest injustice and public evil with means other than force. These include dialogue, negotiations, protests, strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and civilian resistance. Although nonviolence has often been regarded as simply a personal option or vocation, recent history suggests that in some circumstances it can be an effective public undertaking as well. Dramatic political transitions in places as diverse as the Philippines and Eastern Europe demonstrate the power of nonviolent action, even against dictatorial and totalitarian regimes. Writing about the events of 1989, Pope John Paul II said,

    It seemed that the European order resulting from the Second World War . . . could only be overturned by another war. Instead, it has been overcome by the nonviolent commitment of people who, while always refusing to yield to the force of power, succeeded time after time in finding effective ways of bearing witness to the truth.7

    These nonviolent revolutions challenge us to find ways to take into full account the power of organized, active nonviolence. What is the real potential power of serious nonviolent strategies and tactics — and their limits? What are the ethical requirements when organized nonviolence fails to overcome evil and when totalitarian powers inflict massive injustice on an entire people? What are the responsibilities of and limits on the international community?

    One must ask, in light of recent history, whether nonviolence should be restricted to personal commitments or whether it also should have a place in the public order with the tradition of justified and limited war. National leaders bear a moral obligation to see that nonviolent alternatives are seriously considered for dealing with conflicts. New styles of preventative diplomacy and conflict resolution ought to be explored, tried, improved and supported. As a nation we should promote research, education and training in nonviolent means of resisting evil. Nonviolent strategies need greater attention in international affairs.

    Such obligations do not detract from a state's right and duty to defend against aggression as a last resort. They do, however, raise the threshold for the recourse to force by establishing institutions which promote nonviolent solutions of disputes and nurturing political commitment to such efforts. In some future conflicts, strikes and people power could be more effective than guns and bullets.

  2. Just War: New Questions. The just-war tradition consists of a body of ethical reflection on the justifiable use of force. In the interest of overcoming injustice, reducing violence and preventing its expansion, the tradition aims at:

    a. clarifying when force may be used,
    b. limiting the resort to force and
    c. restraining damage done by military forces during war.

    The just-war tradition begins with a strong presumption against the use of force and then establishes the conditions when this presumption may be overridden for the sake of preserving the kind of peace which protects human dignity and human rights.

    In a disordered world, where peaceful resolution of conflicts sometimes fails, the just-war tradition provides an important moral framework for restraining and regulating the limited use of force by governments and international organizations. Since the just-war tradition is often misunderstood or selectively applied, we summarize its major components, which are drawn from traditional Catholic teaching.

    First, whether lethal force may be used is governed by the following criteria:
    • Just Cause: force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations;
    • Comparative Justice: while there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to override the presumption against the use of force the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other;
    • Legitimate Authority: only duly constituted public authorities may use deadly force or wage war;
    • Right Intention: force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose;
    • Probability of Success: arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success;
    • Proportionality: the overall destruction expected from the use of force must be outweighed by the good to be achieved;
    • Last Resort: force may be used only after all peaceful alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted.

    These criteria (jus ad bellum), taken as a whole, must be satisfied in order to override the strong presumption against the use of force.

    Second, the just-war tradition seeks also to curb the violence of war through restraint on armed combat between the contending parties by imposing the following moral standards (jus in bello) for the conduct of armed conflict:

    • Noncombatant Immunity: civilians may not be the object of direct attack, and military personnel must take due care to avoid and minimize indirect harm to civilians;
    • Proportionality: in the conduct of hostilities, efforts must be made to attain military objectives with no more force than is militarily necessary and to avoid disproportionate collateral damage to civilian life and property;
    • Right Intention: even in the midst of conflict, the aim of political and military leaders must be peace with justice, so that acts of vengeance and indiscriminate violence, whether by individuals, military units or governments, are forbidden.

During the last decade, there has been increasing focus on the moral questions raised by the just-war tradition and its application to specific uses of force. We welcome this renewed attention and hope our own efforts have contributed to this dialogue. We also recognize that the application of these principles requires the exercise of the virtue of prudence; people of good will may differ on specific conclusions. The just-war tradition is not a weapon to be used to justify a political conclusion or a set of mechanical criteria that automatically yields a simple answer, but a way of moral reasoning to discern the ethical limits of action. Policy-makers, advocates and opponents of the use of force need to be careful not to apply the tradition selectively, simply to justify their own positions. Likewise, any application of just-war principles depends on the availability of accurate information not easily obtained in the pressured political context in which such choices must be made.

The just-war tradition has attained growing influence on political deliberations on the use of force and in some forms of military training. Just-war norms helped shape public debate prior to the Gulf War. In addition, the military's call for civilian leaders to define carefully objectives for the use of force is in keeping with the spirit of the tradition. At the same time, some contemporary strategies and practices seem to raise serious questions when seen in the light of strict just-war analysis.

For example, strategies calling for use of overwhelming and decisive force can raise issues of proportionality and discrimination. Strategies and tactics that lead to avoidable casualties are inconsistent with the underlying intention of the just-war tradition of limiting the destructiveness of armed conflict. Efforts to reduce the risk to a nation's own forces must be limited by careful judgments of military necessity so as not to neglect the rights of civilians and armed adversaries.

In light of the preeminent place of air power in today's military doctrine, more reflection is needed on how traditional ethical restraints should be applied to the use of air forces. For example, the targeting of civilian infrastructure, which afflicts ordinary citizens long after hostilities have ceased, can amount to making war on noncombatants rather than against opposing armies. Fifty years after Coventry, Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ways must be found to apply standards of proportionality and noncombatant immunity in a meaningful way to air warfare.

Moral reflection on the use of force calls for a spirit of moderation rare in contemporary political culture. The increasing violence of our society, its growing insensitivity to the sacredness of life and the glorification of the technology of destruction in popular culture could inevitably impair our society's ability to apply just-war criteria honestly and effectively in time of crisis.

In the absence of a commitment of respect for life and a culture of restraint, it will not be easy to apply the just-war tradition, not just as a set of ideas, but as a system of effective social constraints on the use of force. There is need for greater public understanding of just-war criteria and greater efforts to apply just-war restraints in political decision making and military planning, training and command systems and public debate.

Ten years after The Challenge of Peace, given the neglect of peaceable virtues and the destructiveness of today's weaponry, serious questions still remain about whether modern war in all its savagery can meet the hard tests set by the just-war tradition. Important work needs to be done in refining, clarifying and applying the just-war tradition to the choices facing our decision makers in this still violent and dangerous world.

C. The Centrality of Conscience

The task of peacemaking requires both just structures and a properly formed conscience. Our policies and structures of peace will reflect the integrity of the individuals who design and participate in them.

For people of faith, this commitment involves a life-long task of reflecting on Sacred Scripture, cultivating virtues, understanding and applying wisely the Church's teaching on peace and praying for guidance. We are grateful for all that has been done in the past decade by so many to help form consciences, and we are aware of how much more we can and must do to better translate our moral reflections on war and peace into informed commitments of conscience.

In this statement, just as in our pastoral letter of ten years ago, we state some universally applicable moral principles that are binding on all persons. For example, it is immoral for a commander to issue or for a soldier to obey a command to intentionally kill noncombatants in war. Concrete applications of universal principles — such as our call to reject the first use of nuclear weapons and the targeting of nonnuclear states, and our call for nuclear disarmament — are judgments about which Catholics may disagree. As we said in the peace pastoral, we "do not presume or pretend that clear answers exist to many of the personal, professional and financial choices" facing those in the military and defense industries. "We seek as moral teachers and pastors to be available to all who confront these questions of personal and vocational choice."8 We hope that they will evaluate seriously the moral basis for our specific judgments and the implications for their work. And we will continue to improve our own efforts to offer our support and guidance to these and others who struggle on a daily basis to integrate their faith and their work.

There is also a need to define further the proper relationship between the authority of the state and the conscience of the individual on matters of war and peace. In 1983, we restated our long-standing position on military service:

A citizen may not casually disregard his country's conscientious decision to call its citizens to acts of "legitimate defense." Moreover, the role of Christian citizens in the armed forces is a service to the common good and an exercise of the virtue of patriotism, so long as they fulfill this role within defined moral norms.9

"At the same time," we noted, "no state may demand blind obedience." We repeat our support both for legal protection for those who conscientiously refuse to participate in any war (conscientious objectors) and for those who cannot, in good conscience, serve in specific conflicts they consider unjust or in branches of the service (e.g., the strategic nuclear forces) which would require them to perform actions contrary to deeply held moral convictions about indiscriminate killing (selective conscientious objection).10

As we hold individuals in high esteem who conscientiously serve in the armed forces, so also we should regard conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection as positive indicators within the Church of a sound moral awareness and respect for human life.11

There is a need to improve the legal and practical protection which this country rightly affords conscientious objectors and, in accord with the just-war tradition, to provide similar legal protection for selective conscientious objectors.12 Selective conscientious objection poses complex, substantive and procedural problems, which must be worked out by moralists, lawyers and civil servants in a way that respects the rights of conscience without undermining the military's ability to defend the common good.13 Given the particular problems that arise in the context of an all-volunteer military, individual objectors must exercise their rights in a responsible way, and there must be reliable procedures to verify the validity of their claims. Especially in cases where military service is compulsory, it is appropriate for the government to require alternative service to the community; this may be in or outside a military setting, depending on the abilities and conscience of the particular individual.14