What’s the church’s teaching on use of chemical weapons?

Q: With the present situation in Syria, does the Catholic Church have any official teaching on the use of chemical weapons? (Washington)

A: The moral teaching regarding the use of chemical weapons or any weapon of mass destruction is governed by the principle of discrimination in just-war theory. Succinctly, the principle of discrimination means that 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. This criterion prohibiting indiscriminate warfare has become crucially important with the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Sadly, man has developed and used such weaponry. For instance, during World War I, gas warfare was introduced, killing and maiming soldiers. During World War II, even greater horrors were witnessed: The Allied fire bombings of Hamburg July 27, 1943, killed more than 45,000, and of Dresden Feb. 14, 1945, more than 135,000. The Nazis purposefully bombed civilian areas in Great Britain, and 8,000 V-1 buzz bombs were launched between June and September 1944, targeting London, resulting in vast destruction and loss of life. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945, killed between 70-80,000 people and injured more than 70,000 others, and on Nagasaki Aug. 9, more than 75,000.

While these are estimates of immediate casualties, thousands more suffered from the effects of radiation. While one would have hoped that we would have learned not to pursue such weapons given the devastating results, we have developed even worse weaponry. Keep in mind that today, a single airplane releasing by aerosol spray 100 kilograms of anthrax spores on a clear, calm night over Washington could kill between 1 and 3 million people.

Responding to these horrors and aware of the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, the Vatican Council II taught, "The development of armaments by modern science has immeasurably magnified the horrors and wickedness of war. Warfare conducted with these weapons can inflict immense and indiscriminate havoc which goes far beyond the bounds of legitimate defense. … Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation" ("Gaudium et Spes," No.80). (This teaching is also quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2314.)

In light of the current situation, Pope Francis during his Angelus address Sept. 1 pleaded, "I appeal strongly for peace, an appeal which arises from deep within me. How much suffering, how much devastation, how much pain has the use of arms carried in its wake in that martyred country (Syria), especially among civilians and the unarmed. I think of many children who will not see the light of the future. With utmost firmness, I condemn the use of chemical weapons: I tell you that those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart. There is a judgment of God and of history upon our actions which are inescapable. Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war, violence begets violence! With all my strength, I ask each party in this conflict to listen to the voice of his own conscience, not to close themselves in solely on their own interests, but rather to look at each other as brothers and decisively and courageously to follow the path of encounter and negotiation, and so overcome blind conflict."

Yes, Our Lord said, "Blessed are the peacemakers." Real peace must be built upon love, truth, justice and mercy. To have peace means a person or even a country must at times confront the forces of evil which seek to destroy peace. Remember, Hitler could have been stopped in 1936 when he annexed the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland or in early 1939, when he demanded the Sudetenland and then occupied Czechoslovakia.

Therefore, making peace entails legitimate acts of self-defense, which may result in the taking of the life of an unjust aggressor. For this reason, the church developed and upholds a just-war theory, which sets limits to legitimate self-defense and prohibits indiscriminate warfare.

Nevertheless, no one must forget the personal, human dimension of war. War is not just a set of strategies and faceless, nameless statistics. Never must we forget the human cost of war. While war waged against combatants at times may be unavoidable, the innocent must never be purposefully targeted, and never must weapons of mass destruction be used.

Questions may be sent to Fr. Saunders, pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church in Potomac Falls, at straightanswers@ourladyofhope.net or Our Lady of Hope Church, 46639 Algonkian Pkwy., Potomac Falls, VA 20165

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013