A Just War?
Asking the Age-Old Question about the Pursuit of Terrorism

listen Listen to Jacki Lyden's report.

more For more on the debate, visit NOW with Bill Moyers.

Jan. 25, 2002 -- The war against terrorism has revived the debate over the religious principles of a "just war."

J. Bryan Hehir

The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir
Photo: Laura Sikes

In a report for Morning Edition, NPR's Jacki Lyden looks at whether the pursuit of terrorists in Afghanistan -- and possibly other countries -- represents a "just war," under religious teachings. Lyden also reports on the issue on NOW with Bill Moyers, a new television program airing Fridays at 9 p.m. on PBS. The public affairs program is a collaboration with NPR News.

Lyden interviews the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, a leading Catholic theologian, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities USA, and former Harvard Divinity School executive committee chairman.

While it is closely identified with Catholicism, the idea of a "just war" dates back to Hebrew scripture, and the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

The Just War Doctrine
From The Catechism of the Catholic Church

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

There must be serious prospects of success;

The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the 'just war' doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

Source: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

As defined in a 1993 document by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, lethal force may be used in a "just cause;" must be used proportionately with no more force than necessary and avoid hurting civilians; must have a probability of succeeding, and may be used only as a last resort after all peaceful alternatives have been exhausted.

Hehir tells Lyden, "When you make the argument that there is a 'just war,' what you are saying is that there is an aggression, a major offense is being committed and you do not have any other way to protect people from that aggression except to use force." However, he says, the just-war doctrine prohibits directly targeting civilians and using "overwhelming force if you can accomplish something with more limited force and therefore limit the casualties."

Jewish and Catholic groups also cautioned against "limitless violence" in a military response to the Sept. 11 attacks. In a Dec. 5, 2001, statement, the National Council of Synagogues and the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs said "our traditions of just war... demand that even just wars be fought with concern for the lives of innocents and for the safety and well being of noncombatants and their property."

Those who oppose war under any circumstances have rejected religious justification for military conflict. But pacifist Richard Falk, in an Oct. 29 article in The Nation, said that war in Afghanistan "against apocalyptic terrorism qualifies... as the first truly just war since World War II."

But in The Progressive's December issue, columnist Howard Zinn wondered: "How can a war be truly just when it involves the daily killing of civilians... when it may not find those who planned the September 11 attacks, and when it will multiply the ranks of people who are angry enough at this country to become terrorists themselves?"

The question of whether the war is just will be asked again if the U.S. campaign spreads to other nations like the Philippines, where al Qaeda forces are suspected of hiding, or in Iraq, which has been accused of sponsoring terrorism.

Previous NPR News Coverage

listen Listen to a Sept. 30, 2001, Weekend All Things Considered interview with the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir on "just war theory."

listen Hear a Jan. 24, 2002, NPR News report on the pope, other religious leaders opposing religious justification for violence.

more Read more about NOW with Bill Moyers.

Other Resources

Read an Oct. 8, 2001, article by the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir about responding to the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Read excerpts of a 1993 statement by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops about just-war tradition.

Learn more about Just-War Theory in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Read the text of an Oct. 15, 2001, National Review discussion about Just-War Theory.

Read the transcript of an Oct. 5, 2001, Pew Forum titled "Just War Tradition and the New War on Terrorism."

Read an Oct. 29, 2001, article in The Nation titled "Defining a Just War."

Read a December 2001, article in The Progressive titled "A Just Cause, Not a Just War."

Read a letter to President Bush by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops President Joseph A. Fiorenza about the Sept. 11 attacks.