Two Studies on Modern Warfare

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These concise theological studies on modern warfare, the first by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani and the second by Fr. Juan Carlos Iscara, SSPX, are drawn from lengthier works on justice, war, and peace. Though separated by over half-a-century, both are rooted in the just-war principles of the Catholic Church, which ought to serve as a light to the nations in times of conflict. Both appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of The Angelus magazine. While many know Cardinal Ottaviani as the author of A Critical Study of the New Order of Mass (otherwise known as the “Ottaviani Intervention”), he served as the head of the Holy Office (later the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and penned the magisterial work on the public law of the Church, the Institutiones Juris Publici Ecclesiastici, from which the following article is drawn. The second article featured below was written by Fr. Iscara, a prolific writer on moral and theological topics, who has served as a seminary professor for the Society of Saint Pius X since 1989.

The Future of Offensive War - Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani

Editorial Note: The following is an excerpt of Cardinal Ottaviani’s Institutiones Juris Publici Ecclesiastici, Vol. 1 (Jus Publicum Internum) Pars I, Titulus iii, art. 3 (Relationes societatum perfectarum in statu conflictus), Principium 2 (Vatican: Polyglot. 3rd Edition, 1947) pp. 149-55. It was first translated and published in Blackfriars: A Monthly Review, St. Giles, Oxford, Vol. XXX, September 1949, No. 354.

This article of Cardinal Ottaviani deals with the morality of today’s wars, and specifically of offensive war. Written in the aftermath of World War II, which claimed 60 millions souls, Ottaviani’s argument is that there is a difference in kind in modern-day war. The scale, attack on civilians, and spiritual consequences of warfare are reason enough to suggest that no one has a right to declare war. The cardinal requests the setting up of an international body which would be respected by all. This body exists today, the United Nations, and it is highly debatable whether it has really been impartial and efficient in most conflicts of the last 68 years.

When two societies which are only materially distinct from each other come into collision neither is to be sacrificed to placate the other, but the interests of each are to be catered for in a rigidly fair manner.

This principle is based on the fact that these two societies are of equal standing, enjoy therefore identical rights and have neither of them any legal advantage over the other; neither in fact is obliged to waive any of its rights in favour of the other. On this account a balance in no way derogatory to either must be struck as accurately as is possible between the conflicting rights; for example, by dividing up the disputed matter (granted it is divisible) or by making compensation. At times indeed the right claimed on one side may be a putative one only, and that on the other side clearly unimpeachable (objective); or at least one rather than the other side clearly unimpeachable (objective); or at least one rather than the other may have a greater interest at stake or stronger grounds on which to quarrel. But even in situations such as these, peaceful methods of settling the issue must take precedence over all others.

First of all, therefore, every effort should be made to establish the existence of whatever right is being claimed; then an attempt should be made to compose differences amicably; finally, should this fail, war must not be declared without first trying out certain coercive measures which, though of less consequence than war, may be equally effective in the circumstances. These last, indeed, are the only measures to be taken whenever it is clear that they of themselves can effect a settlement and avoid the disasters of war.

But what of mediation, arbitration or an investigation by an international tribunal? Are not these also possible means? To me, indeed, they seem of so obligatory a nature that they alone are the only justifiable and lawful means of vindicating rights in present times; war is out of the question. It is important, however, to note with regard to this view that this is not the opinion of past centuries: in those days mediation, etc., were not considered the exclusive means of settling disputes between perfect or fully autonomous societies; they were at the most highly commendable from a humanitarian viewpoint. For, granting the concept of the sovereignty of every state, then each state, because of its very independence and perfection, was also possessed of the juridical power of safeguarding its rights even by force of arms. The state, it was held, had ample resources at its disposal with which to uphold its rights in face of an adversary struggling against or simply ignoring the obligations these rights imposed upon him.

Warfare, however, was not to be indulged in merely because one had a just and proportionate cause with which to justify the action; it also had to be necessary to the preservation of the social well-being, and withal reasonably assured of success.

The justification of war did not rest, therefore, on the presumption that war was as satisfactory as a duel between two private reasons: neither course proves on which side right and reason lie. No, the sole justification of recourse to warfare was on an occasion when there was little hope of appealing to, or—if a disputed right were in question—of getting a decision from an authority higher than the state. War could be used then to compel an adversary to make good some infringement of rights—but with the understanding that it was a physical instrument the only concern of which was to keep intact the moral implication of the right infringed.

All the foregoing reasoning is cogent enough if we confine ourselves to a purely theoretical treatment of warfare. But in practice and in relation to present conditions the principles enunciated do not seem to hold. They were meant, we should remember, to cover warfare of a special kind, that between mercenary armies, and not our mammoth warfare which sometimes entails the total downfall of the nations at grips with each other; the principles, in fact, cannot be applied in the life of modern nations without doing serious damage to the particular peoples involved, and (leaving aside a question of a defensive war begun, under certain conditions, for the protection of the state from actual and unjust aggression) no state is justified any longer in resorting to warfare when some right has not been given its full due. Not that we for a moment wish to despise or belittle the theories of the great exponents of Christian international law! That would be unpardonable! The war of their treatises is not the war of our experience. The difference indeed is not even of the purely numerical or mathematical order; it goes much deeper. It affects the very principles governing war. Principles indeed derive from and vary with the nature of things; the difference between war as it was and war as we know it is precisely one of nature.

At the [First] Vatican Council, the Fathers intimated to the Pope their desire that some definite statement be drawn up which might induce men to abandon warfare altogether or at least induce them to conduct their wars according to humanitarian principles. The salvation of certain Christian peoples was the chief cause of their concern; not simply because these peoples were then in the throes of war but “rather because of the horrible disaster” with which they were afflicted as a result of war. War, they were gravely troubled to note, was the occasion of disasters not the least of which, a lowering of moral standards, accompanied and persisted after war, and made shipwreck of the faith of so many souls. We in this century have even further cause for concern:

a. On account of the great development of communication in modern times and the desire on the part of nations to extend their interests to all parts of the world, excuses for war are now all too frequent.

b. The disasters which worried the Fathers at the Vatican Council now affect not only soldiers and armies at war but also entire peoples.

c. The extent of the damage done to national assets by aerial warfare, and the dreadful weapons that have been introduced of late, is so great that it leaves both vanquished and victor the poorer for years after.

d. Innocent people, too, are liable to great injury from the weapons in current use: hatred is on that account excited above measure; extremely harsh reprisals are provoked; wars result which flout every provision of the jus gentium, and are marked by a savagery greater than ever. And what of the period immediately after a war? Does not it also provide an obvious pointer to the enormous and irreparable damage which war, the breeding place of hate and hurt, must do to the morals and manners of nations?

e. In these days, when the world itself has become seemingly shrunken and straitened, the bonds between the nations of the world are so close and exigent that almost the whole world becomes involved once war is declared.

f. A regime may be under the impression that it can engage in a just war with hope of success; but in fact secret weapons can be prepared to such effect nowadays that they, being unforeseen, can upset and utterly thwart all calculations.

These considerations, and many others which might be adduced besides, show that modern wars can never fulfil those conditions which (as we stated earlier on in this essay) govern—theoretically—a just and lawful war. Moreover, no conceivable cause could ever be sufficient justification for the evils, the slaughter, the destruction, the moral and religious upheavals which war today entails.

In practice, then, a declaration of war will never be justifiable. A defensive war even should never be undertaken unless a legitimate authority, with whom the decision rests, shall have both certainty of success and very solid proofs that the good accruing to the nation from the war will more than outweigh the untold evils which it will bring on the nation itself, and on the world in general.

Otherwise the government of peoples would be no better than the reign of universal disaster, which, as the recent war has shown, will claim its victims more from the civilian population than from the combatant troops. In what way then shall international crises be dealt with on future occasions? “Discussion and force,” says Cicero, “are the main ways of settling quarrels, the former of which is peculiar to man, the latter to brute beasts.” The former therefore is ever to be preferred; the interests of peace must be our chief concern ever—and it is not the forming of armies but the formation of minds which will best secure this.

In this formation the weapons of charity, justice and truth shall be:

a. A civil and religious education of nations which so disposes peoples (and hence the rulers chosen from them) to co-operation and to an honourable recognition and interchange of rights and obligations, that class bitterness, race enmity and imperial competition—than which there is no better kindling for wars—are entirely eliminated.

b. The setting up of an international body whose pronouncements all nations and rules should respect.

c. The inculcation among peoples of a spirit of brotherliness in accord with gospel principles; as a result each nation will be prepared to place the good of the whole human brotherhood before its own interests, in the manner in which individuals in any republic worthy of the name ought always to contribute to the common good from whatever they themselves possess.

d. To render impossible totalitarian regimes, for they above all else are the turbulent sources from which wars break out. Moreover, should the representatives of any people (or the people themselves) ever have conclusive indications that their rulers are on the point of undertaking a war in which nothing but blood and ruin will be the lot of the nation, they should and ought to take just measures to overthrow that regime.

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Just War: Catholic Doctrine and Some Modern Problems - Fr. Juan Carlos Iscara, SSPX

Editor's Note: This article contains excerpts from Fr. Iscara’s study, “Just War," which appeared in the July 2002 issue of The Angelus

“Virtual” War

One of the indispensable conditions for a war to be just is that it be exercised with restraint. Modern “smart” weapons and “push-button warfare” threaten to end all restraint in the conduct of war by shielding one side from the realities of the horror of war. Kosovo provides a striking example; the objectives of the “international coalition” were achieved without a single NATO combat casualty. This raises serious questions about the nature of modern warfare. Classically, the moral justification of war is legitimate self-defense (in the broad sense, which includes the redressing of past injustices), in which there is a basic equality of risk in killing or being killed. The legitimacy of self-defense ends when one can kill with impunity. A war risks ceasing to be just when, for the soldier fighting at a distance, seeing the effects of his actions on a computer screen, death and destruction have little more reality than an arcade game.[1]

One facet of this shielding of one side from the horrors of warfare is the refusal by many governments even to use the term “war.” The United States serves as a prime example: since the Korean “conflict,” all constitutional procedures for war have been bypassed. Vietnam, Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, etc., have all seen “police actions” or co-ordinated operations of the “international community,” but, by a linguistic subterfuge, there has been no “war” since World War II. This subterfuge is necessary, since the constitution states that war must be declared in order to be legitimate. The modern world does not fight wars, but it engages in “strikes,” “coercive diplomacy,” and “humanitarian interventions.”[2] The media play a central part in this linguistic chicanery, with their frequent touting of “human rights,” “democracy,” “freedom,” etc.

Role of International Bodies

As technology has made the world apparently much smaller, and as financial interdependence has united many nations more closely by the strings of a common purse, the idea of stronger international cooperation or even of the fusion of all nations in a “One World” government has become commonplace in contemporary political discussion and planning. What must be thought of the idea of an international government? The answer to such a question is not at all as simple and straightforward as it may seem at first glance, and, although the questions of the existence of international law and the relationship between such law and national sovereignty are beyond the scope of the present article, it will be worthwhile to examine briefly the two possible concrete realizations of an international government.

The goal of many of the world’s decision-makers is the realization of the ideal of a single world state. The idea is attractive in its simplicity, because wars result from quarrels between states. With only one state, there could be no more wars—a millennial realm of peace, perfect and secure life, would be thus ushered in! The radical flaw of this ideal is that such everlasting peace is to be built without Christ.

For a Catholic, peace is not only, and not even primarily, a community of nations without wars. The source of peace is the Redemption, the restoration of the true order between God and men, the reconciliation with God and the rest of the soul, thus received again in communion with God—that is “the peace that the world cannot give.” Secondarily, therefore, peace is the order of justice in charity in the world—justice and charity rooted and founded in Christ.[3]

Moreover, serious political obstacles remain in the way of the realization of such an ideal. One such obstacle is the stubborn refusal by those who still have any sense of nationality to yield this sense in the face of “one-world” tendencies. The American national sense has proven surprisingly strong in the face of United Nations’ efforts to control the spread of mass-destruction weapons, to give just one example.[4] Robert Wright, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, issued a stern warning to Americans holding obstinately to such “backward tendencies” when he wrote [5]:

To remain attached to national sovereignty at all costs is not just wrong, it is impossible. If governments do not respond with new forms of international organization, civilization as we know it could be over. The question is not whether we should relinquish our national sovereignty. The question is only how, either cautiously and systematically, or chaotically and catastrophically.

There are several good reasons to oppose such an ideal of international government. Not the least of these is the conflict such an ideal must wage with man’s natural inclinations to true patriotism and true nationalism. The ideal of political citizenship in the universal is chimerical.[6] Another contrary argument is that states, like other “organisms,” have a certain definite size beyond which they cannot grow if they wish to survive. Despite the fact that this natural limit may vary, and that it is arguably increased by improved means of communication (the “world-wide web” is being used as an instrument for globalization), the true political unity necessary for the maintenance of a healthy state seems impossible beyond a certain limited extension.

In any case, at present, real power is not located in the UN, but remains in the state-members that form it, particularly in the superpowers forming the Security Council, and in groups of states formed around a common purpose. To be subject of the jus ad bellum, the UN lacks sovereignty, cohesion in its policies and decisions, and an effective chain of command for the military forces placed in the midst of a conflict (as has been shown in Kosovo).[7]

The other possible concrete realization of an international government, and the more reasonable of the two, is the idea of a community of nations. This would be a federation of sovereign states that work closely together in the common interest. Such a federation, to be viable at all, would necessarily be based upon the model of the unity and integrity of the Church. It would thus have to be based on the natural law, even on God and Christ.[8] For this type of co-operation to take place, a higher juridical unity would have to be established, on the temporal plane of international institutions. There should be no mistake, however, that the unity of states, languages, customs, civilizations, interests, etc., can only be achieved with reference to a common spiritual truth, that is, in the common faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

It should not come as a revelation that such a true international union is unlikely to be realized in the concrete contemporary situation, if the examples of the European Union or the United Nations are the basis of judgment. Having rejected Christ, the modern world still tries to achieve unity and everlasting peace on its own terms. But it is an attempt doomed to ever-recurring failure.

Even more appalling, however, is the way in which the architects of the New World Order have enlisted the aid of the Church, acknowledging her experience in the field of unifying widely diverse peoples in a common aim. The secularist one-world advocates have brought the Conciliar Church into the constitution of a “movement of spiritual animation of the universal democracy,”9 and modern churchmen have dutifully complied, creating their own doctrine of unity without Christ, on the principle of “human dignity”—a secularist religion for a secularized world, of which the meetings of Assisi are but the founding stages.

Closing Reflections

Two final reminders of what our attitude as Catholics should be in times of war: First, we, as Catholics, should never talk of war in terms of freedom or democracy, but always in terms of justice. Our Lord blessed those “who hunger and thirst after justice” and those who are persecuted “for justice’ sake.” Of such is the kingdom of heaven, not of those who desire freedom above all, a liberty so elevated and absolute that it will necessarily attempt to free itself from dependence on God. In war, a nation that fights for freedom, without reference to justice, divorced as it were from the strict observance of the moral law, has no right to war, because it does not know why it wants to be free, or why it wants anyone else to be free. Catholics, in opposition to the spirit of the world, should think first and primarily in terms of justice. Whenever there is justice, there is true freedom. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.”

Secondly, since the God of Justice is also the God of Love, it follows that although a war may be justified, it cannot be waged in a spirit of hatred. Because we have been truly injured, we tend to disguise the hatred for our enemies as love for justice. It is precisely because it is so easy to separate in this manner justice and charity that the Church cautions us in time of war: the condemnation of injustice cannot be separated from the appeal for charity and prayer. Justice may demand resistance to the aggressor’s physical assault, but charity demands prayer for his conversion, for his repentance from this onslaught against the justice of God.

As an English Catholic newspaper put it during WWII [10]:

Our Lord tells us not to fear those who can kill the body, and afterwards can do no more, but rather to fear him who has the power to send our body and our soul into the fire of hell. An immediate application of these words to our present situation is that we should not allow our enemy to induce us to fall into sin. It is the supreme issue for us in this war as in everything. The sins to which the enemy is most likely to tempt us are these three: sins of intemperance, sins of doubt, and sins of hate. Sins of intemperance, as when men depressed by war seek distraction in corporeal excess. Sins of doubt, as when men begin to question the goodness of God who allows such evil to befall them. And sins of hate, when men deny the enemy their charity. The important thing for us in these temporal incidents is to be on the side of Christ and of His charity. It is by no means enough that our cause should be just. For one could fight on the right side of this sense and yet defeat its righteous purpose by admitting a decline of temperance or trust or charity[.]


1. Michael Ignatieff, Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (New York: Picador, 2001), pp. 161-162.

2. Ibid., p. 177.

3. See Heinrich A. Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought (St. Louis: Herder, 1955), pp. 646-647.

4. Some ethicists have also pointed out that, after the horrific attack on September 11, there is no moral obligation for the United States to be held hostage to the veto power of the most timorous members of an international body, or of a military coalition. See “In a Time of War,” First Things, December 2001, p. 13.

5. The New York Times, Oct. 24, 2001.

6. “In a Time of War,” First Things, Dec. 2001, p. 14.

7. See James Turner Johnson, Morality and Contemporary Warfare (New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 1984), pp. 58-61.

8. Pius XII, Allocution to the Sacred College of Cardinals, Feb. 20, 1946.

9. Fr. Georges de Nantes is the creator of the term.

10. The Tablet (London), Aug. 3, 1940, pp. 97-98.