Just war principles

Question: If a nation such as North Korea or Iran launches a nuclear weapon that causes major destruction, does the targeted nation have a right to respond in a way that virtually obliterates that nation?

Name withheld, Johnson City, Tenn. 

Answer: The simple answer to your question would be “no.” The targeted nation could not simply retaliate in kind, and certainly not seek to obliterate the offending nation.

Some sort of military response might well be called for, even full-scale war. This would presume that the criteria for “just war” have been met. Namely, that the damage and threat was grave, lasting and certain; that other means of ending the conflict have been tried or were not possible; that there is a reasonable hope of success in turning back the threat by military means; and that the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2309).

Even once within a war, a nation must use means to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. Hence, choosing to wipe out whole population centers, indiscriminately killing combatants and noncombatants, is not a moral option. Indiscriminate obliteration cannot be condoned under any circumstances (see Catechism, No. 2314).

It will be admitted, given the existence of large-scale nuclear devices, the most effective means to deter such attacks is complex and debatable. A short answer such as this cannot possibly explore all the points debated in the deterrence of nuclear threat. Simply, here let it be noted that the Catechism expresses strong moral reservations regarding the modern “arms race” (see Catechism, No. 2315).

Thus, to return to the main question, if a nation were lamentably to be attacked by a country in the way you describe, that nation is not thereby justified in indiscriminately retaliating by wiping out whole cities or in annihilating that country.

Friday penance?

Question: The Church abolished most of the norms regulating “meatless Fridays” and declared Fridays outside of Lent merely as “a day of penance.” Does the penance have to be performed on Friday, and are there parameters to observe?

Peter Stein, Roseville, Calif.

Answer: Generally, the penance should be performed on Friday, although exceptions can be made due to other family or civic obligations. Strictly speaking, one can work out deferrals or dispensations with their pastor. But practically, most Catholics simply work through this on their own.

The thinking back in the 1970s, when “meatless Fridays” were substituted with a day of penance, was to offer other observances to people on Friday. Simply giving up meat and going to Red Lobster was hardly a penance for most. Hence it was thought to permit any range of penances.

But, as your question implies, it is difficult to follow an uncertain trumpet, and many Catholics simply drifted from any Friday observance. Psychologically, it would seem that having a focus is necessary to assist in such practices. Hence, some bishops’ conferences are going back to meatless Fridays.

For now, you are largely free to determine how to observe Friday, presuming it has a penitential character. 

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.