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“Ask a Priest: Is It OK to Work for Weapons Firms?”
Q: Taking into account Pope Francis’ comments regarding weapons manufacturers, calling them “merchants of death,” and his saying that “Weapons manufacturers can’t call themselves Christians,” would it be a mortal sin to work for companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, or Northrop Grumman? These companies sell weapons to other countries, some of which have questionable treatment of its citizens; but all sales to these countries are sanctioned by the U.S. government. I am interested in engineering jobs at these companies and feel as though this is a way in which I could serve the United States, and so I feel as though I need spiritual guidance. -C.W.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Pope Francis’ comments should be understood within the overall context of Church teaching.
Church teaching recognizes that nations have a right to defend themselves, and this by nature involves the sale, purchase and use of arms. Use of force to defend or protect innocent people is morally justifiable.
In a talk June 21, 2015, for instance, Francis mentioned the railroad lines that took victims to concentration camps such as Auschwitz. He asked rhetorically, “Why didn’t they bomb that?” He meant that the Allies should have been willing to destroy those rail lines — with the use of weapons, presumably.
What is lamentable is the arms race and the mass merchandizing of weapons of destruction which has fueled and intensified bloody conflicts around the world.
This leaves a gray area in the middle. The weapons and planes made by the companies you mention tend to be sold to governments rather than to outlaws. Some of those governments, indeed, might have less-than-stellar records on human rights and liberties, yet they might find themselves facing forces that are far more sinister. So is selling weapons to those governments OK?
This is not an easy question to answer. Good, faithful people can differ on where to draw the line about what can and should be sold to various countries. Good people can also differ over their personal involvement with one company or another. But in general, I think working honestly for a respected company, such as the ones you mention, could not in itself be considered as formal or reprehensible cooperation with evil. Even so, it is also understandable how some individuals might feel more comfortable putting their talents to work in a different industry. It could be a question of preference rather than principle.
Perhaps a few numbers from the Catechism can put things in perspective:
2307: The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.
2308: All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. However, “as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”
2309: The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
— the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
— all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
— there must be serious prospects of success;
— the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.
The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.
2310: Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense.
Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace. [end quoted material]
Here are some related numbers from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:
a. Legitimate defense
500: 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. To be licit, the use of force must correspond to certain strict conditions: “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain; all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; there must be serious prospects of success; the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the ‘just war’ doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”
If this responsibility justifies the possession of sufficient means to exercise this right to defense, States still have the obligation to do everything possible “to ensure that the conditions of peace exist, not only within their own territory but throughout the world.” It is important to remember that “it is one thing to wage a war of self-defense; it is quite another to seek to impose domination on another nation. The possession of war potential does not justify the use of force for political or military objectives. Nor does the mere fact that war has unfortunately broken out mean that all is fair between the warring parties.”
501: The Charter of the United Nations, born from the tragedy of the Second World War with the intention of preserving future generations from the scourge of war, is based on a generalized prohibition of a recourse to force to resolve disputes between States, with the exception of two cases: legitimate defense and measures taken by the Security Council within the area of its responsibilities for maintaining peace. In every case, exercising the right to self-defense must respect “the traditional limits of necessity and proportionality.”
Therefore, engaging in a preventive war without clear proof that an attack is imminent cannot fail to raise serious moral and juridical questions. International legitimacy for the use of armed force, on the basis of rigorous assessment and with well-founded motivations, can only be given by the decision of a competent body that identifies specific situations as threats to peace and authorizes an intrusion into the sphere of autonomy usually reserved to a State.
b. Defending peace
502: The requirements of legitimate defense justify the existence in States of armed forces, the activity of which should be at the service of peace. Those who defend the security and freedom of a country, in such a spirit, make an authentic contribution to peace. Everyone who serves in the armed forces is concretely called to defend good, truth and justice in the world. Many are those who, in such circumstances, have sacrificed their lives for these values and in defense of innocent lives. Very significant in this regard is the increasing number of military personnel serving in multinational forces on humanitarian or peace-keeping missions promoted by the United Nations.
503: Every member of the armed forces is morally obliged to resist orders that call for perpetrating crimes against the law of nations and the universal principles of this law. Military personnel remain fully responsible for the acts they commit in violation of the rights of individuals and peoples, or of the norms of international humanitarian law. Such acts cannot be justified by claiming obedience to the orders of superiors. [end quoted material]
Perhaps, then, you might consider two questions: 1) Would your involvement with these companies, on balance, help the common good or harm it? 2) Would there be an alternative career path that would let you avoid the moral qualms of being involved with defense companies?
These questions you could take to prayer. Perhaps you would want to talk with your family about it, as well as a confessor or parish priest. I hope that you choose well.