First I want to make clear that I am in complete agreement with the opening remarks of Professor Weigel's article on "Moral Clarity in a Time of War," in which he maintains that it is a mistake to suppose that warfare is something outside the bounds of morality, and that on this matter, therefore, "pagan" thinking is more helpful than Christian reflection. I commend him for giving us an exposition of the just war theory which makes that point clear. I am not an expert on just war theory as Weigel is, and therefore I will not argue with him at all on his interpretation of that conception. My remarks here will be directed entirely toward more general moral issues that he raises – or fails to raise – in his article, and to certain questions about his position that seem to me need to be considered. Out of many matters that could be considered here, I will take up three.


In reading the article I was struck by the fact that there is no discussion of the theological issues that might be at stake here, though the just war theory (central to Weigel's presentation) is a Christian theological conception; and he appears to be writing (at least in part) to a theological and ecclesiastical audience. The absence of any theological discussion (though the word "theological" appears once or twice) enables him to speak of "just war" traditions as the "classic" (Christian) framework for considering the morality of war; and he does not even mention that there are also other Christian approaches that might in some respects illumine a quest for "moral clarity in a time of war." However, ever since Roland Bainton's study of Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace (1960), it has been generally acknowledged that there have been (at least) three "classic" Christian understandings of war: pacifism, just war, and crusade. And these three have rather different theological and ethical rationales. Hence, what is regarded as "moral clarity" from one of these standpoints may seem like significant moral confusion from the others.

Weigel seems to take it for granted that there is wide agreement on what constitutes "moral clarity" and the criteria by which it can be assessed; and he, apparently, has so much confidence in his own just war ideas that he does not bother to look at other approaches, not even the other two classic Christian stances, for help in thinking through this enormously complex issue. (He does, however, briefly touch on some nonChristian approaches.) His lack of attention to these different types of Christian thinking on this issue may partly explain why he fails to notice that his recommendations for modification of just war theory – in light of modern technological and other developments – move dangerously close to the adoption (unwittingly?) of what is essentially a crusading mentality, a position not many Christian thinkers today would find very satisfactory. (More about this below.)


Weigel holds that "just war tradition is a theory of statecraft" in which war is to be regarded as "an extension of politics." According to this view war simply involves "the use of armed force for public ends by public authorities who have an obligation to defend the society of those for whom they have assumed responsibility" (all quotes on p. 7). Hence, in this theory "armed force is not inherently suspect morally" (8) so long as the political ends being pursued are justifiable. The "just war tradition begins by defining the moral responsibilities of governments, continues with the definition of morally appropriate political ends, and only then takes up the question of means" (8, emphasis added).

This somewhat simplistic and rigid separation of ends and means – with absolute priority given to the question of the ends being pursued – may well be more or less reasonable in sociocultural situations in which means can be regarded as morally neutral, and the principal moral question to be addressed is how effective the proposed means will be in achieving the end being pursued. In such situations John Courtney Murray's question, "If the end doesn't justify the means, what does?" (quoted on p. 7), may be morally insightful. But in today's world – especially with regard to the morality of war – this sharp separation of means from ends must be regarded as itself morally confused and insensitive.

Today, as everyone knows well, we have at our disposal certain armaments – means for conducting warfare – that, if used at all, may bring the whole human project to an end, and would likely destroy much of the rest of the web of life on planet Earth as well. Given these circumstances we dare not, in our world, follow patterns of reasoning that suggest it is morally legitimate to decide on our political ends without considering carefully the nature and destructiveness of the means that will be required to achieve these ends. Modern warfare especially (as we learned in the 20th century) can easily and quickly explode like wildfire into a conflagration with destructiveness going far beyond anything anticipated by those who initiated hostilities. It was a profound (if somewhat precarious) understanding of these matters that kept the West and the U.S.S.R. from blowing each other up during the decades of the Cold War. In light of these considerations, and given human fallibility on all such matters, one cannot but wonder how the employment of means of mass destruction in warfare today can ever be regarded as morally justifiable, no matter how valuable and important the ends being pursued. If this kind of action can be morally justified, almost anything can be justified – including in some circumstances, perhaps, the total obliteration of an enemy nation and people.

So if it is the case, as Weigel argues, that just war theory requires us to maintain a rigid separation between our thinking about ends and our thinking about means, it is obviously not a conception able to bring "moral clarity" to today's international political/military arena; indeed it can only lead to disastrous moral confusion. And, as is well known, many thoughtful persons have raised the question whether modern warfare has not made just war theory obsolete. Unfortunately, Weigel does not consider this possibility; indeed, toward the end of his essay (22) he ridicules those who make such claims. In my opinion, instead of devoting the middle section of his article (9ff.) to further elaboration of what he regards as the importance of sharply separating means from ends in our moral reflection about war, he should have been showing how this rigid separation required by just war theory must itself be modified in light of the modern conditions of warfare. Since his article fails to give us an adequate moral analysis of the ends/means matter, taking full account of the conditions under which warfare is (may be) waged in today's world, it simply does not live up to the promise of its title.


There are a good many other matters that could be taken up in Weigel's article, but I have space for only one more. Although we are obviously in a period when international forms of order are slowly aborning, and the concept of national sovereignty is increasingly proving to be more of a hindrance to good order in human affairs than a help, Weigel seems to regard it morally appropriate to continue thinking of international political affairs almost exclusively in terms of such concepts as "national interest" (13). This is a concept that fosters chaotic international relations and encourages practices in which "might makes right." He does acknowledge that it is important for Americans to understand that our national "responsibilities include the obligation to contribute, as best we can, to the long, hard, never-to-be-finally-accomplished 'domestication' of international public life" (13). For him, however, this seems to be the case not because of the intrinsic importance of such matters, but only because "the security concerns that make up the core of the 'national interest' should be understood as the necessary inner dynamic of the exercise of America's international responsibilities" (13, my emphasis). In his view it is obviously these "security concerns" that are at stake here, not moral judgments about the importance of these international responsibilities.

Moral analysis of the concept of "national interest" would seem to require that we be careful to take fully into account, in our dealings with other nations, the wide range of national interests of the many nation-states with which we are interacting. But Weigel nowhere draws that conclusion. In the current international situation he seems to understand our American national interest much like President Bush, arguing, for example, that "in the hands of certain kinds of states, the mere possession of weapons of mass destruction constitutes an aggression" (15). Today, he maintains, "the 'regime factor' is crucial in the moral analysis," and hence "preemptive military action to deny the…destructive capacity [of "rogue states"] would not…contravene the…concept of just cause…. To deny rogue states the capacity to create lethal disorder…strengthens the cause of world order; it does not undermine it" (15f.). As for "parasite states" like al-Qaeda, "that are international terrorist organizations": they "are unmitigated evils whose only purpose is wickedness" (17).

As this last clause – coming to the conclusion that certain groups considered to be our enemies are "unmitigated evils whose only purpose is wickedness" – shows quite clearly, we have now moved (without even noticing what was happening) from just war thinking to a crusade mentality, a mentality based on quite different premises than just war theory. For this kind of mentality we are not only entitled to take drastic action: we are morally and religiously obliged to do so. And the finickiness of our "religious leaders and public intellectuals" (21) must give way to those "duly constituted public authorities, who are more fully informed about the relevant facts," and who have the "charism of responsibility" (ibid.) to deal with such matters. On with the crusade! On with the holy war! All moral and/or religious constraints have now been left behind.1


This is not the place to offer a counter proposal to Weigel's view of what constitutes "moral clarity in a time of war." I think, though, that the three matters to which I have called attention should make it clear that his position leaves us a considerable distance from that goal. I am not suggesting by this that there are no good reasons for exploring just war theory – or crusade thinking – as we search for insights on this difficult and complex problem. To assume that any one of these three "classic" Christian standpoints contains the whole truth on these matters is to fail in our obligation to seriously and sympathetically seek to learn from the many diverse ways in which Christians (and others) have tried to understand themselves, their lives, and their responsibilities. Only this kind of openness to insights from perspectives different from our own can enable us to come to some degree of moral and theological clarity about the enormously complex issues with which we must deal in today's world.