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November 23, 2004




There is a lot in this letter to unpack, and I'll confess not immediately seeing the connection between your post on Mark's blog about the disparity between killing in capital punishment, private self defense and war.

As I understand you, you are observing (again on Mark's blog) that justifiable killing is permitted by Aquinas on qualitatively different grounds depending on the situation. For capital punishment (provided the sentence is just), Aquinas believes that it is possible to directly intend the death of the criminal provided that the executioner refers his intention to the public good. In private self defense, however, one cannot directly intend the death of his attacker, but rather if in using proportionate force to repel the attacker the death of the attacker comes about as a secondary effect, then the one attacked has not himself sinned.

In war, however, the issue is complicated by how Aquinas both refers to it being a punitive action and self defense. Is killing in war, then, directly intended as a punitive action decreed by the proper authority, or is it more akin to self defense and thus the killing is a secondary effect of repelling the attacker?

Assuming that I have summarized the problem that you raise on Mark's blog, then I gather that you are suggesting that the way to sort out what is happening here is to analyze under what species of prudence justice is being executed in these three situations.

Are we on the same page?


Absolutely, and if you look to the section on prudence, you'll see Aquinas identifies a martial prudence alongside regnative and directive.

Chris Sullivan

The problem with St Thomas's train of thought is that it lead him to write this :-

"As for heretics, their sin deserves banishment, not only ... by excommunication, but also from this world by death. To corrupt the faith, whereby the soul lives, is much graver than to counterfeit money, which supports temporal life. Since forgers and other malefactors are summarily condemned to death by the civil authorities, with much more reason may heretics as soon as they are convicted of heresy be not only excommunicated, but also justly be put to death."

quoted in

The execution of heretics is so clearly outside what the Church now teaches is licit (or ever was licit) that it raises the question of whether the very idea that killing can be justified by the state is actually valid.

Those who draw the sword ought to be very careful because scripture repeatedly says "all who draw the sword will die by the sword", a warning repeated by Christ.

God Bless


Alright, I outline below the different species of prudence that I found Aquinas identifying in the treatise on prudence (relying heavily here upon Q. 47, art. 11 and Q. 48, art. 1).

Species of prudence differ according to their ends.

A. When directed to an individual's private good, it is prudence simply (prudentia simpliciter).

B. When it is directed to the common good, it is further divided according to the various kinds of multitude.
1. The first kind is a multitude united for a particular purpose, such as an army. An army is governed by military prudence (prudentia militaris).
2. The second kind is a multitude united for the whole of life, such as a home or family. A home is governed by domestic prudence (prudentia oeconomica).
3. The third kind of multitude is the city or kingdom. Its ruling principle is regnative prudence (prudentia regnativa) in the king and political prudence (prudentia politica) in the subject.

I'm using here the terms that appear in the Dominican Fathers' translation, but I've noted the actual Latin used in the text for each of these.

I am a little confused about whence you are getting the terms "directive" and "executive." Given your last comment, I take it that by "directive" you are referring to political prudence, and by "executive" you mean regnative prudence.

Sorry to labor over these preliminary distinctions, but I think that they are necessary in make sure that we are talking about the same species of prudence.


Directive and executive come from the analysis of the administration of public justice.


Wouldn't Weigel claim that all "right-reasoning" nations are already in agreement on the "international common good" re: human rights violations--and so, in view of a negligent international authority (as the U.S. would no doubt claim the U.N. to be), someone's got to step up to the plate and save those oppressed Iraqis (all other options having been tried)? Or is it the case that no one else can do the U.N.'s job, as an individual nation is only authorized to use force in order to defend its OWN subjects? What if there were no U.N., or any body that could claim as its jurisdiction the international community? In such a case would the U.S. have had the right to overthrow Saddam the Tyrant? Or would the U.N. (or something like it), not already existing, have to be invented in order for such force to be justified?


Re: the "punitive" title to war, I like that you identify this as falling under the heading of "advancing the common good" (I like your tweak of Weigel here as well). If I understand you, this is something like the rationale for forceful self-defense: What is aimed at is not evil (killing) but the good--i.e., its preservation, or, in the face of a perennial hostile force, the advancement of the good over and against that force, even unto its annihilation (as opposed to the mere repulsion of yet another attack by that force). But the question remains: If it isn't you being (perennially) attacked, are you justified in "stepping in with force?"

I can imagine someone like Weigel saying: Aren't I (the U.S.) allowed to save someone from being mugged (oppressed), even without the permission of the jurisdictional authority (the U.N.)--again, presuming all other things that could be tried have been (including trying to get the U.N. to act, as the U.S. would say they have)?

But what I'm wondering is: Given that war is such a gross means of accomplishing anything, can it really, prudentially speaking, be anything other than a means to accomplishing the grossest of ends, e.g., stopping attack/destruction of hostile force (in other words, forget about "statecraft," this is about BLOWING EVERYTHING UP)? And even then do you not have to have the grossest sort of violations of human dignity, both in magnitude and in quality, for war to be proportionate (once again, presuming that ALL OTHER ALTERNATIVES that could be pursued have been)?

I just don't think that Saddam, as bad as he was, was as gross a threat to humanity as this, not even in his pursuit of WMD (hey, everybody's doing it)...esp. in view of the fact that WE, as huge as we are and therefore as relatively unnecessary to us as they are, STILL HAVE THEM AT THE READY...


"Albert Gunn will, I trust, recognize that the essay that occasioned Dr. Williams’ response (and my subsequent response to that) was not an exercise in Thomistic textual exegesis. Rather, it was an effort to apply the moral logic of classic just war theory to our present circumstances. In part, my aim was to bridge the gap that had emerged over the past two generations between just war thinking and a morally rigorous theory of statecraft; for more on this topic, see my more recent First Things essay, “World Order: What Catholics Forgot” (May). This gap is, if I may use the phrase, thoroughly un-Thomistic. Moreover, I believe this gap has something to do with the so-called “presumption against war,” an intellectual move that tends to reduce just war thinking to a casuistry of means in which the question of obligatory political ends is rather marginalized."

If you're going to appeal to St. Thomas, pal, Thomistic exegesis is PRECISELY what is called for! And hadn't you, Mr. Gunn, already dismissed the bugaboo of the "presumption against war" as irrelevant?? And how could "world order" be something that Catholics (i.e., those who articulated and defended "classic just war thinking") "forgot"?? Such a thing (such a CONCEPT) never existed prior to this century!! The "gap" that has "emerged" between the Church and Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger and their ilk CAN'T be bridged--at least not without drastic revision (forget "application") of the tradition--but then, that's just what neo-cons like Weigel do all the time!

What a mediocre thinker this guy is. I could hear his irritating nasal drawl as I read these words.

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