Catholics see moral complications in drone usage

An unmanned aerial vehicle or drone USAF photo by Lance Cheung CNA 3 5 13 An unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone. USAF photo by Lance Cheung.

Amid continued debate over the use of drone strikes, Catholic thinkers warned that the U.S. drone program – particularly when used in civilian areas – raises a host of complex moral considerations.

"It would be very easy to come to reasoning that the Church would be absolutely opposed to the use of drones – foreign or domestic – in civilian areas" said Joshua Mercer, political director of civic action group Catholic Vote.

Drones are distantly controlled unmanned aircrafts that are used by the military for observation of prospective targets and for missile attacks on suspects of terrorism. The U.S. drone program was started by the Bush administration and expanded by the Obama administration.

The use of drones has been controversial in recent months, particularly with regards to their use in civilian areas, risking high levels of civilian casualties.

Robert George of Princeton University has spoken several times on the topic. In June 2012, George critiqued the Obama administration's expansion of the use of drones in civilian areas.

He said that while the "use of drones is not, in my opinion, inherently immoral in otherwise justifiable military operations," the "risk of death and other grave harms to noncombatants" complicates the situation.

"Having a valid military target is in itself not a sufficient justification for the use of weapons such as predator drones," the Catholic scholar continued. "Sometimes considerations of justice to noncombatants forbid their use, even if that means that grave risks must be endured by our own forces in the prosecution of a war."

"The wholesale and indiscriminate use of drones cannot be justified, and should be criticized," he added. "This is something that Catholic intellectuals across the spectrum ought, it seems to me, to agree about. If we don't speak, who will?"

George revisited the topic in February 2013, following the release of a Department of Justice paper laying out a legal argument in favor of using drones.

He criticized both political parties for foreign policy moves that exchanged civilian deaths for terrorist targets.

"Catholics and others who believe that not all is fair in love and war (or at least not in war) should have been speaking out against Obama's overuse of drones long ago," he said.

Mercer, who noted that Catholic Vote has criticized the use of drone strikes in civilian contexts since the Bush administration, added to George's critique. He clarified that while the use of remotely operated aircrafts in combat situations is not specifically immoral, the use of drones in "non-combat situations" raises serious questions.

He told CNA that the Church's tradition of Just War offers rules governing war and justice so that "we have proper procedures to follow to make sure that we don't harm innocent people."

Within the United States as well, there is a tradition of law and justice in which the "use of lethal force" can only be justified if someone is armed and there is no other means of stabilizing the situation, he said, noting that even Osama bin Laden was not killed by a bomb or drone, but instead by a team that could limit and avoid civilian deaths.

Conceding that he hasn't "heard any bishop specifically address the use of drones," Mercer explained that "the Church has outlined principles" regarding warfare and the just treatment of combatants and civilians. 

He noted that the lack of specific discussion on drones "doesn't mean that there's a lack of clarity over what the Church considers the right thing to do," saying that drone use could "only be acceptable in a combat zone."

Mercer also warned Catholics and pro-life individuals of all faiths to remember that "the ends can never justify the means."

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"We can't ever embrace the idea that we're going to set aside our moral principles to reach a goal," he said.

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