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Can there ever be a just war?

By Diogenes (articles ) | Mar 28, 2003

Bill McGurn writing in the Wall Street Journal today observes a linkage between the Pope's and the Vatican curia's current view of just war and the change in the view of the death penalty. As we saw in the time immediately following the publication of the Catechism, the presentation on the death penalty was changed to include a codicil that with alternative means of dealing with dangerous criminals, the death penalty, while acceptable in principle, is no longer necessary due to modern alternative means of dealing with criminals.

In a similar way, the way the Vatican has spoken about the war in Iraq, we have been told time and again that there is always an alternative to war, that alternatives are never exhausted. In fact, several cardinals have said that there is no longer such thing as just war!

In recent interviews, Archbishop Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, explicitly says that classic just-war teaching may now be headed the way of the death penalty. When the National Catholic Register asked the archbishop if he meant by this that "there is no such thing as a just war anymore," his answer was unequivocal: "Absolutely."
To be fair, McGurn notes that the Pope hasn't gone this far, but does say that there is evidence in the Pope's philsophy of sympathy toward this view.

But can one leap from the view that the death penalty is not necessary in a modern context-- and I'm not saying I agree with this-- to the conclusion that war can never be just? Can there never be occasion when self-defense or defense of the innocent is mandated? Or as McGurn concludes:

In another remark on Vatican Radio made on the eve of war, Archbishop Martino characterized the American response to Iraq as replying with "bombs to a people that has been asking for bread for the last 12 years." The Vatican role, by contrast, would be to play the "the Good Samaritan who kneels to tend the wounds of an injured, weak nation."

Which begs a question: If the biblical Good Samaritan had arrived on the scene a little earlier and stumbled on the robbers instead of their victim, what would have been his obligation?

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