“Just war” in the new order

Archbishop Martino’s comments on “just war,” to the effect that Catholic teaching on the subject may be going the way of the teaching on the death penalty—something that may be acceptable in principle but never today in fact because “modern society has enough means [of resolving conflicts] so that we need not have recourse to [war]”—are suggestive and somewhat bothersome.

George Weigel says that the archbishop’s statements are without authority and at odds with Catholic thought in general. (His April 4 column “No just war possible?” may in the future be archived here.) And it’s true that the statements seem to tie into a whole complex of thinking involved in enterprises like the EU that’s at odds with the human need for religion as a constituent of a tolerable way of life. They suggest an extreme view of the autonomy of human social life, as something that doesn’t require agreement on goods transcending the actual purposes of those involved.

To say that war is not needed today because other effective responses to difficult situations are available is to say that the institutions and standards of international society as they now stand are sufficient to keep the peace, even though they rely very heavily on consensus and voluntary compliance that we are to count on in spite of radical differences in outlook among the people and governments of the world.

If the reliance is justified then human purposes and qualities that are in fact universal are enough for free and orderly government. Such government has usually been thought to be a rare and difficult achievement. The view that it’s attainable regardless of the conflicting and sometimes outrageous goals and qualities of those involved, simply because they are human beings, is odd on the face of it.

What seems clear though is that such a view implies that good government is a matter of theory, organization, technical skill and training, and not of particular qualities of the community that is governed. Otherwise free, orderly and peaceful government for a culturally and morally chaotic world community would be impossible. To say that such government can exist independently of the personal purposes and qualities of those involved is, however, to dehumanize government. It makes it something other than the human act of those involved.

In spite of any talk of democracy, participation and transparency, such views sever the connection between government and the moral understandings and way of life of the people. They put government into the hands of a technocratic elite of custodians with no use for religion because they are perfectly capable of running the show. And that, in the end, is what the UN and the EU are about. The archbishop, of course, does not see it that way, but he should consider whether positions he has taken depend in fact on understandings at odds with both humanity and the Catholic faith.

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