Just War Theory

Could Mitch Rapp Be a Good Catholic?

The lead character in a series of best selling novels written by Vince Flynn is a covert assassin working for the CIA named Mitch Rapp. The story lines occur under the circumstances of the present day war on terrorism. Real life individuals like Rapp exist and many citizens believe that these individuals do in fact make a difference in protecting the well-being and safety of our country. However, what about the moral well-being of these paid killers? Could Mitch Rapp, working as a government assassin, at the same time be a Catholic in good standing with the church? Passages from the Summa Theologiae, Gaudium Et Spes and the Catechism suggest that if he were acting on behalf of a sovereign nation who is in the midst of a “just war” and not performing the act of killing in a state of illicit anger he could avoid jeopardizing his faith.

Must Be Fighting in a Just War

First of all, Rapp would have to be working for a sovereign nation fighting a “just war”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines the very specific requirements for what they term the “legitimate defense by military force.”[1] The following qualities must all be present in order for a war to be just:

-the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain

-all other means of putting and end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

-there must be 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 heavily in evaluating this condition.[2]

One could make a case that the label of a “just war” be applied to the war on terror as the damage “inflicted” on September 11th, 2001 could certainly be characterized as “lasting, grave and certain”. There is good reason to believe that similar attacks will continue to be attempted in the future. The second principle applies in the sense that there is no governing body of terrorists of which to negotiate. Hence, any means outside of retaliatory violence could be argued to be “impractical or ineffective”. The third quality requiring “a prospect for success” fits in the US’ war on terror in that based on the advanced technology and overall size of our intelligence agencies, we have reason to believe that we can effectively hunt down and stop many of those who wish to do us harm.  The fact that there have been no attacks in the United States since 9/11/01 is evidence to support the belief that this is a winnable war (winnable being defined as both the defeat and disabling of terrorists along with the preservation of the safety of citizens living here in the US).

Regarding the final criteria, although drones and smart bombs have caused significant collateral damage on a number of occasions, the technical capability is still there to fight the enemy without destroying cities or killing large numbers of innocent citizens and hence causing “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” One could argue that an assassin, using only his bare hands or a firearm, provides the best chance for avoiding collateral damage. As Gaudium Et Spes states, “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”[3] Assassins could minimize the damage incurred by smart bombs by eliminating targets with greater specificity.

There is room for debate about whether or not the war on terrorism is being waged in a just manner by our government.  After all, there have been significantly more deaths following the attack on 9/11/01 than on that day itself.  There is no guarantee that terrorists would have been successful on a large scale again if we had not aggressively taken the war to them. However, we do have a right to defend ourselves.  Catholic author and commentator George Weigel seems to agree that the war on terror is a “Just War”.  Shortly after the attacks in October 2001 he said:

 Thinking in the categories of the just­war tradition should help us see that dealing with what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York and Washington cannot be properly understood by analogy to the criminal justice system. The perpetrators of these acts of mass murder understood themselves to be involved in a war ­ against the United States and, more broadly, the West. Had that fourth plane destroyed the White House or the U.S. Capitol, it would have been unmistakably clear that these attacks were aimed at the destruction of the United States government ­ just as the previous attacks on the Khobar Barracks in Saudi Arabia, the USS Cole, and the U.S. embassies in East Africa were attacks on the United States, every bit as much as the attack on Pearl Harbor.[4]

 He further addresses the question of assassinations:

I am quite convinced that pre­emptive military action against terrorists is morally legitimate under the principles of the just­war tradition. It makes no sense to say, as some moral theologians have suggested, that a “just cause” is only established when an attack is under way.

In a world of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, I don’t think it makes much moral sense to argue that we have to wait until the nuclear­tipped missile or the biological or chemical weapon is launched until we can do something about it. Indeed, the nature of certain regimes makes their mere possession of weapons of mass destruction (or their attempt to acquire such weapons and the means to launch them) an imminent danger toward which a military response is not only possible but morally imperative, for the protection of innocents and the defense of world order. Here, too, is another example of an area in which the just­war tradition needs to be stretched or developed to meet new realities.

The question of “assassinations” is perhaps a bit confused by the terminology. If terrorists are conducting what both they and we recognize as a war ­ i.e., the deliberate use of mass violence to achieve political ends ­ then they are not civilians in the classic sense of the term, they are combatants. The moral analysis follows accordingly.[5]

Weigel seems to justify the pre-emptive nature of terrorist assassinations. Ten years later when Bin Laden was finally killed, Weigel’s stance did not seem to change.  When addressing the question of whether or not Bin Laden should’ve been prosecuted as a criminal and not dealt with as a war combatant he states:

This is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. As I told one reporter, attempts to portray what happened to bin Laden in Pakistan as the equivalent of the Chicago police department breaking into a Milwaukee crack house and gunning down a crack-cocaine dealer are preposterous; they completely misconstrue the nature of the conflict between bin Laden and the United States since the mid-1990s. To say it yet again: in dealing with the bin Ladens of this world, we are engaging in war, not police work; and the relevant moral standards are those derived from the just war tradition, not from the U.S. Criminal Code as interpreted by the Warren Court.

As usual, Rutgers University’s James Turner Johnson got it exactly right: bin Laden’s death was “an execution of justice, plain and simple, carried out under the authority of the one who can properly use bellum (war) in the service of good.” And why is it important to grasp this? Because if soft-minded and ill-informed religious leaders and intellectuals succeed in gutting the just war tradition and loosening our public culture’s grasp on it, the only alternative will be a raw pragmatism that justifies any end and any means.[6]

Weigel clearly sees the terrorists as active combatants in a war.  Seeing them in any other way would be detrimental to the safety of our country.

Must be Working on Behalf of A Sovereign Nation

Once it has been established that an assassin is participating in a “just war”, he must also be working on behalf of a sovereign nation and not as an individual. This is because the “evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”[7] The assassin places his trust concerning the justness of a particular action with those who are responsible for the well-being and safety of the citizens. He may not have all the information available to him, but as long as he sees no evidence of an unjust war being waged he must trust that those who direct him are doing so with good moral intentions. For according to St. Augustine, “A man who, without exercising public authority, kills an evildoer, shall be judged guilty of murder, and all the more, since he has dared to usurp a power which God has not given him.”[8]  St. Thomas Aquinas, while speaking on the subject of murder, expands upon this notion:

…it is lawful to kill an evildoer in so far as it is directed to the welfare of the whole community, so that it belongs to him alone who has charge of the community’s welfare. Thus it belongs to a physician to cut off a decayed limb, when it has been entrusted with the care of the health of the whole body. Now the care of the common good is entrusted to persons of rank having public authority: wherefore they alone, and not private individuals, can lawfully put evildoers to death.[9]

St. Thomas Aquinas goes even further to say that the person who orders an assassination is primarily responsible for that killing when he states:

The person by whose authority a thing is done really does the thing….Hence according to Augustine (De Civ. Dei i. 21), He slays not who owes his service to one who commands him, even as a sword is merely the instrument to him that wields it. Wherefore those who, at the Lord’s command, slew their neighbors and friends, would seem not to have done this themselves, but rather He by whose authority they acted thus: just as a soldier slays the foe by the authority of his sovereign, and the executioner slays the robber by the authority of the judge.[10]

He seems to indicate that the assassin, acting as an instrument of the government, is not morally culpable for the act (if he is not aware of any circumstances which make that act immoral). Instead the responsibility primarily lies in the hands of those in authority. Hence assassins could perform their killings in a morally justifiable manner during a “just war”. The catechism also places moral culpability on those in authority when it states:

Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.[11]

The assassin works in support of that authority, to preserve the safety of the community to whom they are entrusted to protect. However, the moral responsibility lies with those government leaders making tactical decisions.

Assassins Never Cease to be a Morally Responsible Agents

Again, this does not mean that the assassin is removed from all moral responsibility.  He still needs to be vigilant in looking for signs that his actions are in fact part of a “just war”.  He is not simply allowed to just follow orders irregardless of what he observes or what he learns is actually occurring.  He doesn’t have a free pass.  Germain Grisez, a Catholic moral theologian states:

As with any other legal requirement, if the law requires citizens to fight in a war, they should presume that they ought to comply.  However, blind compliance is excluded and investigation is morally required whenever there is a definite reason to think complying would be morally wrong….Therefore, if called on to fight, a person should judge whether the war is just, and if engaged in military action, he or she should remain alert for evidence that it no longer is just.[12]

As long as the assassin is not aware of any circumstances which prevent the war he/she is fighting in from being a just war, they can proceed forward thinking they are morally justified.

Thomas on “Ignorance”

To further clarify the correct mindset of the assassin, the following quote by Aquinas addresses the aspect of ignorance in respect to a particular action. It speaks to the moral culpability of an assassin working on behalf of a government acting in an immoral manner but with there being is no evidence available to the assassin to be aware of this circumstance.

If then reason or conscience err with an error that is voluntary, either directly, or through negligence, so that one errs about what one ought to know; then such an error of reason or conscience does not excuse the will, that abides by that erring reason or conscience, from being evil. But if the error arise from ignorance of some circumstance, and without any negligence, so that it cause the act to be involuntary, then that error of reason or conscience excuses the will, that abides by that erring reason, from being evil. For instance, if erring reason tell a man that he should go to another man’s wife, the will that abides by that erring reason is evil; since this error arises from ignorance of the Divine Law, which he is bound to knowBut if a man’s reason, errs in mistaking another for his wife, and if he wish to give her her right when she asks for it, his will is excused from being evil: because this error arises from ignorance of a circumstance, which ignorance excuses, and causes the act to be involuntary.[13]

Again, this reinforces the idea that if the assassin is ignorant of a certain circumstance that makes the action of the government illicit, then he is not morally culpable for those actions even though he or she is the one who carries those actions out.

 Aquinas on Ambushes

Aquinas provides further support of the manner in which assassins perform their killings when he speaks on the justness of ambushes during war. His words are pertinent as ambushes are similar to the covert and deceptive work of an assassin. He recalls the words of St. Augustine who said, “Provided the war be just, it is no concern of justice whether it be carried on openly or by ambushes: and he proves this by the authority of the Lord, Who commanded Joshua to lay ambushes for the city of Hai.”[14] Aquinas then concludes by saying a soldier must be able to use “the art of concealing his purpose lest it come to the enemy’s knowledge…. Such like concealment is what is meant by an ambush, which may be lawfully employed in a just war.”[15] Aquinas seems to have no problem with the use of an ambush in the “just war” setting. This adds to the moral justification of the sober duties of an assassin.

Emotions Must Be Rightly Ordered

Someone can’t become an assassin because they derive pleasure from killing people and seek to find a legally permissible way to do so.  Their intentions have to be motivated towards the common good. They can’t be in an emotional state whereby they enjoy killing for the act in and of itself.  Mitch Rapp would have to be motivated by the greater overall goal of peace and the preservation of life.   So even if the assassin is following his instructions exactly as ordered and in a “just war”, he must carry out those actions with rightly ordered emotions (which I translate to be taking satisfaction that one is helping to preserve lives and the greater common good). He solely can’t take joy in the killing of bad men.  There must be some sense of regret and sadness that we live in such a world of fallen-ness that these actions are necessary for the greater good.

(From my reading of the Flynn novels I believe that Rapp does primarily act in such a way.  After all, he was recruited by the CIA following the death of his longtime girlfriend in a terrorist attack and didn’t grow up wanting to kill people for a living. I believe that Rapp has a very strong moral sense and the powerful ending to Consent to Kill is one of those moments where his strong sense of righteousness is apparent. I think on some level he regrets the actions he is required to take. He believes them to be justified and necessary and probably takes great satisfaction in carrying them out but he does not take joy in the fact that he is called by his country to do so. I think of the character Dexter who suffers from such profound emotional demons that he takes great joy in the killing of other human beings.  Rapp is not like that. )

More specifically the assassin must not act in unrighteous anger. Aquinas again quotes Augustine, “The Passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.”[16] The Catechism speaks out even more against the danger of illicit anger when it states:

Anger is a desire for revenge. “To desire vengeance in order to do evil to someone who should be punished is illicit,” but it is praiseworthy to impose restitution “to correct vices and maintain justice.” If anger reaches the point of a deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor, it is gravely against charity; it is a mortal sin.[17]

There must be some level of charity if the assassin is to remain morally justified in his actions. Aquinas makes this even more specific when discussing soldiers in battle saying, “even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.”[18] The government assassin must maintain some degree of charity and approach their target with a sense of duty for the betterment of the common good and not with vengeful hatred.

War is always to be regarded as a failure on the part of humanity. However, within the right of a sovereign nation to defend itself in a “just war” the possibility exists for assassins to operate in support of that defense. Yes, Mitch Rapp could be a good Catholic while working as an assassin for the CIA. The stipulation that he also perform his actions in such a way that his emotions not manifest into an intentional desire to do evil to someone, with the double effect of “correct(ing) vices and maintain(ing) justice”[19] makes the scenario all the more specific and unique.  He must have the larger goal of overall peace as an aim as he performs his truly unfortunate duty for his country.


[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., 2309.

[2] Ibid

[3] GS 80

[5] Ibid.

[7] Catechism 2309.

[8] Summa II-II, 64, 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Catechism 2265.

[12] Grisez, Germain. The Way of the Lord Jesus: Living a Christian Life, Franciscan Press, 1993, p. 906.

[13] Summa I-II, 19, 6.

[14] Summa II-II, 40, 3.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Summa II-II, 40,1.

[17] Catechism 2302.

[18] Summa II-II, 64, 7.

[19] Catechism 2302.