Responding to Terrorists


With the awful tragedy this week, many have called for military reprisals against the terrorists. How do we respond as Christians?


Without question, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, is "a date which will live in infamy," to echo the words of President Roosevelt after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The terrorist attacks on our country resulted in the loss of thousands of lives of innocent human beings. Moreover, countless more lives were shattered by the sudden and unwarrented loss of their loved ones. As our Holy Father stated in his Wednesday general audience address, "Yesterday was a dark day in the history of humanity, a terrible affront to human dignity."

Terrorism is an act of evil. The Catechism teaches, "Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity" (#2297). Our Holy Father, in his encyclical Solicitudo Rei Socialis (1987, #24.4), stated, "Nor may we close our eyes to another painful wound in today's world: the phenomenon of terrorism, understood as the intention to kill people and destroy property indiscriminately and to create a climate of terror and insecurity, often including the taking of hostages. Even when some ideology or the desire to create a better society is adduced as the motivation for this inhuman behavior, acts of terrorism are never justifiable. Even less so when, as happens today, such decisions and such actions, which at times lead to real massacres and to the abduction of innocent people who have nothing to do with the conflicts, claim to have a propaganda purpose for furthering a cause. It is still worse when they are an end in themselves, so that murder is committed merely for the sake of killing. In the face of such horror and suffering, the words I spoke some years ago are still true, and I wish to repeat them again: 'What Christianity forbids is to seek solutions... by the way of hatred, by the murdering of defenseless people, by the methods of terrorism.'" When any honest person reads this papal condemnation of terrorism, he must readily see how the events of last week fit. Last week's attacks were indeed an act of evil.

Nevertheless, whatever action the United States takes against these terrorists must meet the criteria of "just war theory." At first hearing, war seems antithetical to Christianity since the Fifth Commandment states, "Thou shalt not kill." However, the intent of the precept forbids the purposeful taking of human life (Catechism, #2307). Each person has a duty to preserve his life, and therefore has a right to legitimate self-defense. Although an act of self-defense may have a two-fold effect — the preservation of the person's life and the unfortunate taking of the aggressor's life — the first effect is intended while the second is not.

In preserving its own life, a state — citizens and their governments — must strive to avoid war and settle disputes peacefully and justly. Nevertheless, "governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed" (Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, #79). Such a right does not entail a carte blanche permission for any and all acts of war. Just war theory establishes moral parameters for the declaration and waging of war, and in the case at hand, confronting and eliminating terrorism.

St. Augustine (d. 430) was the originator of the just war theory, which St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) later adapted and explicated in his Summa Theologiae. Obviously, since the Middle Ages, warfare has changed dramatically, as witnessed by World War II and the conflicts which followed it, including the rise in terrorism. Therefore, we can expand St. Thomas' and St. Augustine's theory to the following: In preparing to wage a just war (ius ad bellum), a country must meet the following criteria:

  1. Just cause — The war must confront an unquestioned danger. "The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain," asserts the Catechism (#2309).

  2. Proper authority — The legitimate authority must declare the war and must be acting on behalf of the people.

  3. Right Intention — The reasons for declaring the war must actually be the objectives, not a masking of ulterior motives.

  4. Last resort — All reasonable peaceful alternatives must have been exhausted or have been deemed impractical or ineffective. The contentious parties must strive to resolve their differences peacefully before engaging in war, e.g. through negotiation, mediation, or even embargoes. Here too we see the importance of an international mediating body, such as the United Nations.

  5. Proportionality — The good that is achieved by waging war must not be outweighed by the harm. What good is it to wage war if it leaves the country in total devastation with no one really being the "winner"? Modern means of warfare give great weight to this criterion.

  6. Probability of success — The achievement of the war's purpose must have a reasonable chance of success.

If a country can meet these criteria, then it may justly enter war. Moreover, a country could come to the assistance of another country, which is not able to defend itself as long as these criteria are met.

However, the event of war does not entail that all means of waging war are licit; essentially, the "all is fair in love and war" rule is flawed. During war, the country must also meet criteria to insure justice is preserved (ius in bello):

  1. Discrimination — Armed forces ought to fight armed forces, and should strive not to harm noncombatants purposefully. Moreover, armed forces should not wantonly destroy the enemy's countryside, cities, or economy simply for the sake of punishment, retaliation, or vengeance.

  2. Due Proportion — Combatants must use only those means necessary to achieve their objectives. For example, no one needs to use nuclear missiles to settle a territorial fishing problem. Due proportion also involves mercy — towards civilians in general, towards combatants when the resistance stops (as in the case of surrender and prisoners of war), and towards all parties when the war is finished.

These criteria reveal how antithetical terrorism is to the waging of a just war: terrorists are faceless villains, individuals beyond the pale of negotiation and reason, butchers of the innocent, and fanatics of some ideology. The terrorist attacks our country experienced are acts of injustice and evil. The United States must not seek retaliation, but the just resolution to these unjust acts of aggression, whether that includes bringing the perpetrators to trial or waging war against them. Moreover, those individuals, organizations, or countries that support, safeguard, or promote these terrorists and their activities are formally cooperating with evil and thereby culpable.

While these are "just criteria," they still are wrenching. It seems paradoxical that the Christian religion, which promotes love, justifies a violent action to establish justice. No good person wants war. Yet at times we — as an individual, community, or nations — must confront and stop an evil, particularly terrorism. Pope John Paul II in an address to a group of soldiers stated, "Peace, as taught by Sacred Scripture and the experience of men itself, is more than just the absence of war. And the Christian is aware that on earth a human society that is completely and always peaceful is unfortunately an utopia and that the ideologies which present it as easily attainable only nourish vain hopes. The cause of peace will not go forward by denying the possibility and the obligation to defend it." Our Lord said, "Blessed are the peacemakers"; to make peace necessitates confronting evil with just actions.


Saunders, Rev. William. "Responding to Terrorists" Arlington Catholic Herald.

This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.


Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Sterling, Virginia. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.

Copyright © 2003 Arlington Catholic Herald

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