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US bishops: military intervention in Libya ‘appears to meet’ key just-war standard

March 28, 2011

Military intervention in Libya, in the judgment of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), “appears to meet” the just-cause criterion of Catholic teaching on just war. The USCCB, however, cautioned that it has “refrained from making definitive judgments” in light of “many prudential decisions beyond our expertise.”

“In Catholic teaching the use of force must always be a last resort that serves a just cause,” Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote in a letter to National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church limits just cause to cases in which ‘the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations [is] lasting, grave and certain’ (#2309). The just cause articulated in UN Security Council Resolution 1973 to demand ‘a ceasefire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians’ appears to meet this criterion in our judgment.”

Bishop Hubbard continued:

Since the protection of civilians is paramount, a key question is: Will the coalition actions stay focused on this limited goal and mission?

In recent years, the Holy See has emphasized the role of international bodies in authorizing humanitarian interventions into sovereign nations. This has been done and international oversight remains important. The United Nations Security Council needs to continue to monitor carefully the mission and the use of force in Libya.

The just war tradition teaches that the use of force must have "serious prospects for success" and "must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated" (Catechism, #2309). Important questions include: How is the use of force protecting the civilian population of Libya? Is the force employed proportionate to the goal of protecting civilians? Is it producing evils graver than the evil it hopes to address? What are the implications of the use of force for the future welfare of the Libyan people and the stability of the region?

In addition, the use of force must be proportionate and discriminant. The justice of a cause does not lessen the moral responsibility to comply with the norms of civilian immunity and proportionality. We recognize serious efforts are being made to avoid directly targeting civilians. In fact, the just cause underlying the use of force is to protect civilians. This moral responsibility leads to continuing questions: Is force being used in ways that protect civilian lives? Are civilian casualties being avoided? Is the destruction of lives and property proportionate to the good being achieved in terms of saving civilian lives?

“Based on longstanding Church teaching and experience, we have offered moral guidance and asked key moral questions,” Bishop Hubbard concluded. “As pastors and teachers, we have refrained from making definitive judgments because the situation on the ground remains complex and involves many prudential decisions beyond our expertise.”


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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Bernadette - Apr. 01, 2011 5:03 PM ET USA

    Why Libya and not the Sudan? Or, Kenya. Or, a "zillion" other nations where "humanitarian" interventions might have helped the people suffering famine, forced migrations and genocide? It's always about money and oil and power and greed and "what's in it for us?" I agree, the USCCB is an "arm of the Democratic Party." They should stay out of politics and stick to "teaching and sanctifying" their people. Stop issuing those letters or statements to the Congress. Nobody listens to them anyway

  • Posted by: happyseaotter8027 - Mar. 30, 2011 1:37 PM ET USA

    Just what is the role of the USCCB anyway? To make statements and then back off from its own statements by saying "it has “refrained from making definitive judgments” in light of “many prudential decisions beyond our expertise”? after saying the war in Libya "appears" to be just? Well, is it or isn't it? Who makes the decision? How, as a Catholic, am I supposed to understand? These bishops are either experts or not. If they're not, they shouldn't act as though they are.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 29, 2011 4:59 PM ET USA

    It is important to know when to speak up. It is also important to know when not to speak. When will the USCCB learn this?

  • Posted by: impossible - Mar. 29, 2011 12:09 PM ET USA

    Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I believe the USCCB clearly objected to our involvement in Iraq. Note: Section 2309 of the Catechism starts with these words: “The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration.” Our action does not meet the “legitimate defense” threshold in Libya because we are not defending ourselves from an attack or threatened attack. If a Republican were President the USCCB would undoubtedly denounce our action.

  • Posted by: Hal - Mar. 29, 2011 10:11 AM ET USA

    Wow. That was fast. They dithered on Iraq for months. Nice to see them jump when the Administration needs them. Humbug.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 29, 2011 12:45 AM ET USA

    I'm growing VERY weary of this attitude that the world community cares about humanitarian concerns. Iraq was about protecting ourselves, our oil, and Israel, Libya is primarily about..defending the oil for the French. Hope they appreciate it. I could be gravely mistaken, but I thought Just War theory demanded rigorous diplomatic effort first, THEN armed conflict only as a very LAST resort. So much for consistency.

  • Posted by: Obregon - Mar. 28, 2011 11:43 PM ET USA

    I agree with the President's position on Lybia even though I'm a conservative Republican. However, I'm also a Roman Catholic and believe frankly that on this issue the USCCB should remain silent. They are not "objective" enough to speak on this issue. Many of us see them as the theological arm of the Democratic Party.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Mar. 28, 2011 2:50 PM ET USA

    Perhaps their corporate excellencies will explain how Libya and its butcher differ from Iraq and its butcher.

  • Posted by: ebierer1724 - Mar. 28, 2011 10:42 AM ET USA

    Is it "just" to intervene on behalf of the civilians of Libya but hold other strategic priorities such as securing oil fields and using covert military operations to bring about regime change? Or likewise to order military action on humanitarian grounds without a clear purpose or end in sight? Do the USCCB have the authority to claim a "just" war when the whole of NATO is involved and for each country there is a different reason to intervene? Can there be a "just war" between two evils?