Unless one is hiding under a rock, one is hard pressed to avoid the continuing conflict between Iran and Israel, such as is discussed here. What is of interest in this is that, in the end, Israel is attempting to define a case for legitimate defense against Iran. The question is this: If Iran does develop a nuclear weapon and Israel has a reasonable case to presume that this is a threat to their existence of a state, then can one legitimately initiate an attack as a defensive posture? What does Catholic Social Teaching about this matter?
Let’s do a BRIEF overview of the conditions for war before we go any further.
Those who choose to go to war must be in a position in which they can be reasonably informed in regards to the intelligence received. Furthermore, the competent authority must also be legitimate, that is to say, they must be a true representative of the people said authority serves.
Two intentions must be at play when going for war: to pursue a peaceful order and the willingness to aid in rebuilding if disorder is brought to another nation.
The cause must be just. This plays off of right intention. Traditionally, there are three things that are just according to classical just war theory: to fight against evil, to recapture something which is unjustly taken, or as an act of defense. Usually, only the last of these three is taken into account when discussing whether or not an act of aggression is legitimate. Many think the other two categories ought to be taken into consideration, and cite good reasons for it. For the sake of clarity, we will only take this third category because it is the only one enunciated in the Catechism. I would cite John Paul II’s personalism as the reason for the rejection of the other two, though that is another post, really.
Reasonable Chance of Success
This one is rather self-explanatory. If a peaceful order is pursued, if it a reasonable chance of rebuilding afterwards can be sustained, and if a military measure can have success within the realm of proportionality, then one can engage. This criterion becomes problematic for nations that are unable to defend themselves. This is where nations that are more powerful need to stand up against unjust aggression by powerful states against weaker states (think of Russia’s virtual takeover of Georgia).
Proportionality of Ends
This criterion is very utilitarian. It the criteria of judgment the lawful authority must take into account before entering into war in which the good that is to be attained is greater than the evil that is exerted within the war or the evil to be endured by allowing the status quo.
Has every reasonable means been attempted to avert a war, a crisis? Has trade embargoes, sanctions, etc, been attempted to avert the action of the aggressor state?
Taking these into consideration, we are now in a position to discuss pre-emptive strike. Pre-emptive strike, according to Catholic Social Teaching, is justified in accordance to the “just cause” criteria of defense. A legitimate act of aggression must be either imminent or taking place. One scholar, Anne-Marie Slaughter, offers three characteristics that justify pre-emptive activity: possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), abuse of human rights which display a lack of control in the relationship between the government and those governed, or clear evidence that harm is intended towards another nation. In regards to category of imminence, it must be clear and present. If it is neither of those, then a nation cannot justify an attack. However, if one is to act pre-emptively, the governing conditions of just war theory (the above 6) must be taken into account when creating a defensive strategy against the imminent aggressor.
To put these terms into a concrete example, we can take the current conflict between Iran and Israel. Let us imagine that Iran has indeed constructed or is near completion of a nuclear weapon. Furthermore, let us say that Israel has sufficient intelligence to determine that this is a clear and present threat to the existence of the nation of Israel. These would satisfy the condition of taking a pre-emptive strike. This pre-emptive strike, however, must be proportional. In other words, Israel would have to engage in an attack that would only remove the threat of a nuclear attack, nothing more, and it cannot be done with a nuclear device because that would violate proportionality.
This is VERY cursory, but a good introduction to what Ratzinger calls the necessity of adapting Just War Theory to contemporary weaponization.
As a sidenote, we must take the idea of legitimate and competent authority seriously as Catholics. All too often people will critique a war – the second Iraq war is the greatest example out there – without taking the legitimate authority into account. They look to the other categories, but fail to realize that the information necessary to make a judgment about the justice of a war falls within the realm of the competent authority. All sorts of intelligence necessary to make a legitimate judgment is currently lacking because it is still under lock and key by a government. Who are we to judge if a war is just or not if we do not have all the necessary information to make said judgment? So we must be careful, nuanced, and, at best, can propose hypotheses until we have all the information.
Finally, as a second sidenote, there is one element I am finding to be weak in the Just War tradition. It is dependent purely on the natural law and those who promote it tend to stay at that category. I am convinced that John Paul II is the first person to begin to move the just war discussion beyond the purely natural law argument and to develop it within the category of a theology of the human person. Just war theory must take sin, theology of the human person, Trinitarian theology, Christology, etc. into the conversation. I think this is the reason for the conflict between those who take a pacifist position and those who take a pro-war position. I think these tensions can be resolved if theology were given a greater role in the discussion of the just war theory.