Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Responding to Hamas: a just-war perspective [Part I]

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 12, 2023

As students began filing into the classroom for my seminar yesterday, one young man remarked: “This class is getting more relevant every day.” The topic of the seminar is just-war theory. He was referring, of course, to the outrageous assault by Hamas on Israel.

“There is no such thing as a just war; they do not exist,” Pope Francis said in March of last year. But for centuries Catholic prelates and theologians thought otherwise; the just-war tradition is firmly rooted in Catholic theology. Even Pope Francis himself, in the wake of the Hamas atrocities, conceded Israel’s right to respond, saying “it is the right of those who are attacked to defend themselves.”

But how can Israel—or any other nation—defend itself, without violating the clear teaching of the Decalogue: “Thou shalt not kill”? That is the question that has prompted brilliant scholars and saints to reflect on the proper limits of self-defense (individual and national), and the justifiable use of lethal force.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote (Summa II-II Q 40 Art 2) that in order for a war to be just, “a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it…” Does anyone doubt that Hamas deserves punishment for its loathsome brutality, its deliberate and unprovoked targeting of innocent civilians? The Hamas raids on Israel were not military actions, properly speaking; they were acts of terrorism, which should be condemned by all decent people.

Notice, too, that the revulsion we all felt when we learned about the atrocities was an instinctive, natural reaction. As Michael Pakaluk remarked: “It’s obvious—but this is what I want to point out—that the murders were condemned not in relation to any human, positive law.” In denouncing them, we do not point to an international treaty or UN resolution. Everyone knows, and everyone has always known, that this sort of brutal behavior is evil, that all civilized people must condemn it.

But beyond condemnation—beyond words, beyond our expressions of disgust, which have little impact on terrorists—what should we do? In the face of so much gratuitous bloodshed, calls for “dialogue” are meaningless. (How does one open a dialogue with murderers?) Even the reflexive calls for an immediate ceasefire (such as, unfortunately, the first response by Secretary of State Blinken) were insipid. Hamas had already accomplished its evil mission; to stop the conflict at that point would mean accepting what civilized people cannot accept. The Hamas raids called for a much stronger response, and that response must be military.

“War is a defeat for humanity,” wrote Pope John Paul II in his message for the World Day of Peace in January 2000. “Only in peace and through peace can respect for human dignity and its inalienable rights be preserved.”

Yes, but as St. John Paul II also recognized, sometimes peace can be achieved only through military action. St. Thomas Aquinas, following St. Augustine, explained that a just war is a military campaign fought to establish a just peace—to right a wrong so grave that until it is corrected there can be no peace. If Hamas can commit terrorist acts with impunity, there can be no peace for the embattled people of Israel.

Nor should there be peace for the rest of the world. In that same World Day of Peace message in 2000, Pope John Paul II proclaimed: “Crimes against humanity cannot be considered as internal affairs of a nation.” He later added:

Clearly, when a civilian population risks being overcome by the attacks of an unjust aggressor and political efforts and non-violent defense prove to be of no avail, it is legitimate and even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor.

To “disarm the aggressor”—who presumably does not want to disarm— will obviously require the use of force. So Pope John Paul II, in that World Day of Peace message, was outlining the circumstances in which it would be “legitimate and even obligatory” to use military force: to wage a just war. Hamas has created just such circumstances.

But a just cause by itself does not guarantee a just war. The just-war tradition demands not only a just cause for fighting (ius ad bellum), but also a just conduct of warfare (ius in bello). Not every form of warfare is licit; legitimate ends do not justify illegitimate means. Israel may (and no doubt will) be criticized on just-war grounds for whatever military actions it takes in Gaza in the coming days.

In a follow-up essay, which I hope to post tomorrow, I shall examine how Israel could and should respond to Hamas, from a just-war perspective. But I will also ask a question that I think is implicit in that message of Pope John Paul II: If the atrocities committed by Hamas are an offense against the entire civilized world—and they are—why is that world leaving Israel alone to respond?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Oct. 13, 2023 6:41 PM ET USA

    How Israel should respond? What a worthless essay. I don't know why I visit your site, Phil. Between you and Jeff you have the market cornered on useless self-conceited bloviating.

  • Posted by: IM4HIM - Oct. 13, 2023 1:49 PM ET USA

    Many times we argue over the meaning of words, sometimes even a single word. "Thou shall not kill" would be better explained by "Thou shall not take an innocent life". There is an important distinction between taking the life of an innocent person and taking the life of a person who's guilty of a serious crime. That's why the Church traditionally taught that the state has the right to use the death penalty for the worst of crimes. Our Lord Himself affirmed that when He sttod before Pilate.

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 13, 2023 9:56 AM ET USA

    Thank you for the excellent questions and comments. In age of instant mass communication war propaganda can play decisive role in matters of war or peace - along with the blessing of possibility of instant debunking of lies. President Joe Biden had unusual for him pro-life reaction to the already debunked report of 40 massacred Jewish babies.