‘Make me an instrument of your peace’

Christian vocation poses serious challenges to talk of war

By Rev. Bryan N. Massingale

“Make me an instrument of your peace.” So begins the familiar prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. In it, we pray for the grace, wisdom, and courage to be peacemakers in a world of strife and conflict.

The vocation to be peacemakers weighs heavily upon U.S. Christians these days, as our nation debates, and apparently moves ever closer, to a military invasion of Iraq.

While all wars raise issues for Christian consciences, the one now being contemplated poses unique challenges. For a conflict with Iraq would be a preemptive war. That is, a war waged not to respond to present aggression, but to prevent possible future danger. Its aim is to take out or neutralize a potential enemy, based upon a probability that a nation could one day pose a threat to us.

Over the centuries, the Christian community and others of goodwill have developed what has become known as the “just war” doctrine. It is based upon the conviction that war must be avoided whenever possible, and gives stringent conditions that must be present in order to override the presumption in favor of peace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists these “rigorous” conditions, among which are just cause, last resort, lack of disproportional outcomes, and legitimate authority (2309).

Using these criteria, Catholic officials in Rome, the U.S. bishops, and other religious leaders have concluded that preemptive military action is not morally justifiable. Such a war violates — or stretches beyond recognition — the requirement that war is a means of last resort. Going to war is morally legitimate only after peaceful alternatives have been exhausted, and less lethal means have been shown to be ineffective. But a preemptive war signals a lack of patience with exploring peaceful alternatives. It shows a lack of confidence in diplomatic initiatives, and even demonstrates an arrogance that prefers bombs over negotiation. A preemptive war violates the spirit of our Christian conviction that wars, because of the grave harms they cause, should be undertaken with great reluctance only when such action is truly unavoidable.

But the criterion of proportional outcomes is the one perhaps most severely tested and violated by a preemptive war. Proportionality means that “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated” (Catechism, 2309). That is, the costs and harms of a war should not outweigh the possible benefits that are gained.

One of the little-noted costs of a preemptive war against Iraq is that it sets a dangerous national precedent and establishes a policy that leads to international chaos and anarchy. Given the logic of preemptive strike, what would keep Pakistan from invading India, in a preemptive bid to eliminate a possible nuclear threat from its rival neighbor — a threat that is more clear and immediate than the danger that Iraq poses to the U.S.?

North Korea could also justify a military invasion of South Korea, on the grounds that over 50 years of diplomatic tension makes its neighbor a possible, potential threat that is better eliminated now than later. Taiwan could also justify a preemptive strike against mainland China to neutralize that nation’s superior military advantage, based upon a possible future threat to that island’s independence from communist rule.

In short, the cost of a preemptive war by the United States is that it gives every nation the right to justify wars against those who might someday become an enemy. Any disagreement between nations thus becomes a justification for war, to eliminate the possibility that the disagreeing party could become a threat. In such a world, peace becomes virtually impossible. Preemptive wars thus fail the criterion of proportionality. Their very logic introduces into the world a grave disorder that imperils whatever fragile peace might exist between nations.

“Make me an instrument of your peace.” There is little disagreement that the current Iraqi leadership has shown itself to be irresponsible and even oppressive. No one denies that the situation must be met with strong, determined action to ensure that this regime cannot harm innocent lives. The challenge for Christians, as we join the debate taking place in our nation and search for international consensus, is to raise questioning — even dissenting — voices that reject a policy of preemptive military action that leads to ethical relativism, moral chaos, and the end of any effective restraint upon evils of war.

Massingale is an associate professor of moral theology at Saint Francis Seminary, St. Francis.