People hold candles during an Oct. 11, 2023, demonstration organized by the Switzerland-Israel Association outside the United Nations in Geneva to protest the attacks by Hamas on Israel. OSV News photo/Denis Balibouse, Reuters

The Catholic Church and defending against terrorism

By  Amanda Achtman, Catholic Register Special
  • October 13, 2023

On Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists breached the security border with Israel in what quickly became the date on which the highest number of Jews have been killed since the Holocaust.

Israel disengaged unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The security barrier was created to protect Israelis from terrorist organizations such as Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2006. The ruling Islamist organization has in its founding charter the express aim of committing genocide against Jews.

Very few Palestinian Christians remain in the Gaza Strip. I have met Christians from Gaza in several cities, both in the Middle East and throughout the West. They do not hesitate to tell me how much they hate Hamas and fear tremendously for their family members still in Gaza.

On Oct. 7, during a religious holiday, Hamas terrorists massacred babies, raped women, executed entire families — in some cases burning them alive — took hostages and committed other ISIS-level atrocities.

Israel is now at war with Hamas and the security not only of Israel but of Jews worldwide — yes, including in Canada — depends on a swift and complete victory over the terrorists.

Many journalists, politicians and faith leaders have struggled with what to say, either finding the issue too complicated and staying silent or releasing nebulous statements that fail to assign any moral responsibility to the actors.

For example, CBC journalists announced that a Jewish woman “is dead as a result of the conflict in Israel.” The statement published Oct. 12 by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops refers to “a rapid escalation of armed conflict,” “a growing number of wounded” and “this most recent outbreak of violence.”

These phrases remind me of a talk by Holocaust historian Christopher Browning who read to us from letters a Bremen reservist had written to his wife during the Second World War: “Here all Jews are being shot. Everywhere such actions are underway. Yesterday night 150 Jews from this place were shot, men, women, children, all killed.”

Dr. Browning refers to this language as “the anonymous passive voice.” G.K. Chesterton described this mode of writing as an atheistic literary style, saying: "Thus they will not talk of the waging of war (which implies a will), but of the outbreak of war — as if it were a sort of boil."

How different are such statements from the letter Edith Stein wrote to Pope Pius XI in 1933: 

“As a child of the Jewish people who, by the grace of God, for the past 11 years has also been a child of the Catholic Church, I dare to speak to the Father of Christianity about that which oppresses millions of Germans. For weeks we have seen deeds perpetrated in Germany which mock any sense of justice and humanity, not to mention love of neighbour. For years the leaders of National Socialism have been preaching hatred of the Jews.”

The Catholic Church in the Holy Land is in a challenging position. As The Pillar reported, “(Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem) has to approach his public statements very carefully, because of how they might affect Palestinian Christians, who could face lethal violence if they were perceived to oppose Hamas activities.”

But of course, Hamas is not good for Palestinians — Christian or Muslim. Hamas is not about the Palestinian cause or Palestinian self-determination or a positive Palestinian future. Hamas is an Iran-backed terror group that seeks to kill as many Jews as possible and puts this goal ahead of any human development. 

We need firm moral principles, a sense of history and some clear-headed realism. 

To grasp this, consider how Thomas Hand reacted to the news his eight-year-old daughter had been murdered: “They just said, we found Emily. She’s dead. And I went ‘yes’ and smiled because that is the best news of the possibilities that I knew. She was either dead or in Gaza and if you know anything about what they do to people in Gaza, that is worse than death.”

For some firm moral principles, we can look to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church to explore what the Catholic Church has to say on legitimate defense, the duty to protect the innocent, measures against those who threaten peace and the condemnation of terrorism:

"A war of aggression is intrinsically immoral. In the tragic case where such a war breaks out, leaders of the State that has been attacked have the right and the duty to organize a defense even using the force of arms" (CSDC, 500). 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel was in a state of war five hours after the Hamas terrorist attacks began. The terrorists gunned down young people at a music festival, executed people in their homes, shot people randomly driving down the street and captured more than 100 hostages into Gaza. 

"The right to use force for purposes of legitimate defense is associated with the duty to protect and help innocent victims who are not able to defend themselves from acts of aggression" (CSDC, 504).

Hamas targets innocent civilians, including babies, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and even Holocaust survivors. 

"The international community as a whole has the moral obligation to intervene on behalf of those groups whose very survival is threatened or whose basic human rights are seriously violated" (CSDC, 506).

Hamas has taken hostages from around the world, including: Britons, Americans, Germans, Thais, Mexicans and Brazilians. U.S. President Joe Biden has condemned Hamas in the strongest terms and reinforced Israel’s obligation to eliminate the terrorist threat. The U.S. has sent a carrier strike group to the coast of Israel in an effort to deter other nations from compounding the violence of Hamas. 

"States cannot remain indifferent; on the contrary, if all other available means should prove ineffective, it is 'legitimate & even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor' ” (CSDC, 507). 

The leaders of five of the G7 countries issued a prompt statement

“Today, we — President Macron of France, Chancellor Scholz of Germany, Prime Minister Meloni of Italy, Prime Minister Sunak of the United Kingdom and President Biden of the United States — express our steadfast and united support to the State of Israel and our unequivocal condemnation of Hamas and its appalling acts of terrorism.” 

The statement adds that these countries will support Israel’s right to defend itself and that Hamas does not represent the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. 

"Terrorism is to be condemned in the most absolute terms. It shows complete contempt for human life and can never be justified, since the human person is always an end and never a means. Acts of terrorism strike at the heart of human dignity and are an offense against all humanity" (CSDC, 514).

While some say that this issue is too complex, the teaching of the Church on terrorism is emphatically clear. The principle of double effect is relevant to the doctrine of just war. Israel does not have a right to deliberately harm innocent civilians. If, in the course of legitimate self defense and the need to kill the terrorists in this war, innocent people are killed collaterally, then the principle of double effect pertains. 

Catholics today can draw inspiration from the incredible resistance figure of Dietrich von Hildebrand who, at great personal risk to himself, wrote in 1935 about “the danger of quietism”: 

“When today the Antichrist is rearing his head in Bolshevism and National Socialism, when Christ is persecuted with unprecedented hatred, and a revolt is raging not only against the sphere of the supernatural but even of the person in general, all Catholics must fight for Christ in the political sphere with full personal commitment, representing importune opportune (in season and out of season) the claims of the kingdom of God and thus, implicitly, those of morality and the natural law.”

The message of Dietrich von Hildebrand today is the same as to his readers then: This concerns you

"The identification of the guilty party must be duly proven, because criminal responsibility is always personal, and therefore cannot be extended to the religions, nations or ethnic groups to which the terrorists belong" (CSDC, 514). 

Part of the reason it is crucial to use clear language that designates action is to be able to assign moral responsibility. Not only does Hamas not represent most Palestinians, Muslims or Arabs; Hamas is antithetical to the true interests of all people of good will who have, are capable of and desire to live, work and play alongside their Jewish neighbours. 

"It is a profanation and a blasphemy to declare oneself a terrorist in God's name. [...] Martyrdom cannot be the act of a person who kills in the name of God" (CSDC, 506).

Like ISIS, Hamas terrorists are publicly claiming to love death as much as the Jews love life. 

I appeal to you to evaluate the war against Hamas in light of the principles of Catholic social teaching. Equipped with the best of the tradition of the Church, you will be able to follow current affairs in the light of Church teaching on legitimate defense, the duty to protect the innocent, measures against those who threaten peace and the need to condemn and defeat terrorism.

(Amanda Achtman has graduate degrees in John Paul II Philosophical Studies from the Catholic University of Lublin and in Judaic Studies & Jewish-Christian Relations from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. She is a 2023-2024 NextGEN Fellow at Cardus and a 2023-2024 Krauthammer Fellow at the Tikvah Fund.)

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