Just War, Just Peace: Catholic Teachings on Violence in an Age of Terror

The Truth Between Us #1 — This week on “The Truth” blog series, we will be diving right into our first discussion with an exploration of war and violence.

Sadly, with all of humanity’s experience with warfare, Holocaust, and genocide in the 20th century, it seems that human nature remains what it has been. While conventional warfare has become rare, civil wars and ethnic strife are increasingly prevalent. States with crudely drawn borders are disintegrating into religious, ethnic, and tribal cantons, and the government structures that kept hostile communities in a tense equilibrium have disappeared. Terrorism continues to evolve, and the Islamic State has directed and inspired a new wave of deadly attacks in the Middle East and in the heart of the West.

Of course, in nearly every period and place for which we dispel the mists of time, we discover violence. Ancient societies poured massive resources into warfare. In the Bible, Cain, the first child born to man, murders his brother Abel (and, significantly, is the founder of the first city). Religions have not shied away from dealing with questions of violence and war, and have created sophisticated frameworks, both for understanding the existence of violence and for limiting its use.

The Catholic Church’s teachings on warfare, called the Just War tradition, are central to the Western world’s understanding of the ethics of war, manifested in the rules that guide the armed forces of modern democracies. But earlier this year, a three-day conference jointly organized by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi (an international Catholic peace group) declared that “There is no ‘just war.’”

The statement raises a number of moral and theological questions, especially at a time when Christians are being raped, crucified, and beheaded for their beliefs.

To help us dig deeper into Catholic ideas of war and peace, and Pope Francis’s positions on the subject, we will be speaking with Dr. Murray Watson, a Catholic scholar of Jewish-Christian relations and director of French Biblical Programmes for the Ecce Homo Centre for Biblical Formation, in Jerusalem’s Old City. Our discussion will take us from St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas to IS and the Holocaust, with many stops in between.

Q: Hello, Murray, it is an honor to explore another difficult and challenging issue with you in “The Truth Between Us” blog. Why don’t we start with the basics – What is the Just War tradition, and why did it emerge when it did?

Fundamentally, the Just War tradition has been an attempt to reconcile the fundamentally non-violent teachings of Jesus and the Gospels with the undeniable reality of violence, aggression and evil in the world. In the New Testament, Jesus summoned his followers to be peace-makers, to forgive those who had hurt them, and to prefer suffering injustice to lashing out against others. The earliest Christians found themselves torn between the strict demands of their faith, and the world in which they lived, where violence, warfare and the use of force were a regular part of life.

The Consecration of Saint Augustine by Jaume Huguet (public domain)
The Consecration of Saint Augustine by Jaume Huguet (public domain)

Once Christianity became the official religion of the empire in the early 4th century, early Christian thinkers (especially St. Augustine, in the late 4th and early 5th centuries) begin to reflect on how—if war and violence could not be entirely eliminated—they could at least be restrained and governed by basic moral principles, so as to minimize the damage they did, and to rein in the temptation to employ warfare indiscriminately, as a tool for oppression or political gain. Maybe “just” war is a misnomer; “justifiable” or “tolerable” might be a better description, from the Christian perspective. As St. Augustine himself wrote, “Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity.”

Beginning with St. Augustine, the Catholic Church has spelled out two sets of categories for a war to be morally acceptable: jus ad bellum (conditions which would allow a war to be undertaken in the first place) and jus in bello (conditions which must be respected while a war is in progress). Augustine’s jus ad bellum criteria are: (1) that the reason for the war is morally upright (defense against aggression, and the protection of innocent human life); (2) that only a legitimately established political authority can declare war; and (3) that those calling for the war have proper intentions in doing so (i.e., not inflicting revenge, or expanding their territory). Subsequent thinkers (especially the medieval philosopher-theologian St. Thomas Aquinas) added three further criteria: (4) that war be used only as a last resort, when all other options have been tried and have failed; (5) that there is a reasonable probability of winning the war; (6) that there be a basic proportionality between the harm the war will inevitably cause, and the good that it seeks to achieve.

There are then two basic jus in bello restrictions: (1) that, to the degree possible, non-combatants are not to be drawn into the fighting, and their immunity (including the protection of civilian infrastructure) is to be upheld; and (2) proportionality (that only the minimum of force required be used to attain the desired military goals). Of course, these judgments are always complex, and subsequent philosophers and military strategists have written hundreds of books exploring what these questions look like in practice. Many thinkers today accept these criteria as the baseline for discussing whether or not a particular conflict is “just,” and can be supported ethically.

Q: What changes in the teaching have occurred since then, as industry, technology and the development of the nation state have changed warfare? Has the diminishing political power of the Catholic Church affected its teaching on war?

Although the Catholic Church was once a powerful political player (especially from the Middle Ages onward), by the late 19th century, its territorial and military power had been eliminated, and only its religious and moral power remained. It is that unique influence, as a global moral voice, that Popes have tried to exercise (with limited results) in World War I, World War II, and in many of the major international conflicts of the last century. In response to a 1935 rebuke from Pope Pius XI, Josef Stalin is said to have sarcastically replied, “The Pope? And how many [army] divisions does he have?” The Popes are very realistic about the limits of their influence, and yet try to do what they can.

Pius XI in 1930 (public domain)
Pius XI in 1930 (public domain)

Especially given the destructive ability of modern weapons (such as nuclear bombs), contemporary Popes (several of whom were eye-witnesses to WWII and the Holocaust) have generally preferred to use their voice to steer nations away from war, and to promote non-violent options, in keeping with the teachings of Jesus. They have tended to say that, today, more is often lost in modern wars than what can ever be gained. For this reason, some Catholic leaders today speak of a “necessary presumption against war.”

The explosion of civil wars, terrorism and guerrilla warfare in the last 75 years has dramatically changed that landscape, however, and many Christian thinkers have questioned if the traditional just-war categories are still adequate to a very different world—or if, in fact, they are relevant at all today. During World War II, nearly 50% of the casualties were civilians, but in recent wars, these figures often rise above 75-80%.

Today’s enemies are seldom well-defined nation-states, and are, more often, fairly nebulous ideological groups to whom borders mean nothing, and whose attacks are often intended to inflict the greatest number of civilian casualties. Is there any room in the just-war concept for pre-emptive action when intelligence suggests an attack is imminent? How should we deal with repressive and powerful rogue régimes, led by megalomaniacs do not hesitate to sacrifice their own people to further their own ambitions? And in a world where groups routinely use “human shields” as part of their strategy, and hide in hospitals and schools, is it still possible to speak realistically of distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants, or to rule certain categories of facilities “off limits” as targets of aerial bombing sorties? Given the often partisan divisions in the United Nations (and its many past failures), is there any international body that possesses the moral weight, and the pragmatic ability, to arbitrate international conflicts today? And how does a religiously-inspired commitment to non-violence (such as conscientious objection) fit into this changed situation? Such serious questions underscore the doubts some have about a truly “just” war in the 21st century, in a world that older understandings of warfare could never have imagined.

Cain Slaying Abel, By Peter Paul Rubens - The Courtauld Gallery, London, (Public Domain)
Cain Slaying Abel, By Peter Paul Rubens – The Courtauld Gallery, London, (Public Domain)

Q: What wars have popes officially sanctioned in the past? Have they approved of recent conflicts?

I think it would be difficult to find a case of ANY war in recent history that has been “sanctioned” by papal authority. In every case I am aware of, the Popes (and especially Pope John Paul II) have instead pleaded passionately with those involved to find non-violent ways to resolve their differences, have supported initiatives aimed at avoiding or ending war, and have used their moral influence to speak and act on behalf of the myriad victims of war. They have repeatedly condemned many of the ideologies and political visions that have been at the heart of these conflicts (Nazism, Communism, etc.), and have frequently worked behind the scenes in support of various dissident groups that were trying to overthrow totalitarian and dictatorial régimes.

More often than not, the papacy has been considered a well-intended, but politically naïve and hopelessly romantic, voice in these debates, and its views have been politely listened to, but without much concrete impact. National groupings of Catholic bishops, however, have often attempted to assess whether the conflicts their countries were engaged in met the standard “just war” tests; this was certainly the case in both the UK and the US in the lead-up to both of the recent Iraq wars, when major questions were raised about political motivations, the seriousness with which non-violent avenues were pursued, and the potentially de-stabilizing impact on the wider Middle East. These criteria can, however, be interpreted in very different ways, and the bishops have acknowledged that there was no unanimity in the Catholic population over the morality or immorality of those interventions.

Q: Pope Benedict XVI strongly supported the responsibility to protect, the international norm approved in 2005 that gives states the responsibility to use force to prevent atrocities. It is a clear endorsement of the moral imperative for violence in some cases- indeed, perhaps in many cases. Was this a controversial or surprising position?

The Church has always upheld the right, and the responsibility, of nations and their leaders (and the international community more generally) to act decisively to defend the dignity, the rights and the safety of their peoples when they are threatened; this position has been consistently stated by recent Popes, especially in the fact of horrific genocides and the oppression of vast numbers of people by their political leaders. I don’t think that the Catholic Church would speak about a “moral imperative for violence,” but we can certainly speak of proportionate and reasonable means used to defend people from harm, even when that may need to involve military interventions. The Popes have called for those kinds of interventions over and over again (including, right now, in Syria and in parts of the Middle East, to protect Christians from violence and aggression in some regions).

Islamic State members prepare to execute 21Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya, February 2015 (screen capture, ABC News)
Islamic State members prepare to execute 21Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya, February 2015 (screen capture, ABC News)

Q: I referenced the April 2016 meeting – partly hosted by the Vatican – that declared there is no just war. Is there more nuance to their position than it seems at first blush?

As I read over the materials from that conference, I believe that their focus wasn’t so much on eliminating the concept of “just war” per se, but on criticizing the way in which it has been invoked (often cynically and without really understanding it) as a justification for war, which was never what it was intended to be (it was meant to prevent war, and not to sanction it). In recent decades, many political leaders have begun to throw around the term flippantly and inaccurately, without “doing the hard work” of really applying its criteria, and trying to think of creative alternatives. I think Pax Christi has been concerned that a teaching originally rooted in a desire to restrain and avoid war has come to be used to support and endorse war in some quarters, so that war actually becomes the “default position,” which must now be argued against (just the opposite of the just-war tradition).

Many of the conference participants came from the developing world, from countries where they have seen, up close, the bitter consequences of war on their countries and people. And so what the conference seemed to be calling for was a shift in emphasis, to a “just peace”: focusing on the very real social, economic, political and religious issues that contribute to conflict, and on putting as much energy and creativity as possible into trying to resolve the tensions, inequities, hatreds and misunderstandings which frequently lead us to the brink of war. To them, an excessive focus on “just war” is misleading and unhelpful; they would rather see the world community focusing its economic, intellectual and political resources on addressing these issues in a proactive and preventive way … to address the grievances (often very real) which are the causes of conflict, rather than simply dealing with the conflicts themselves (which are often symptoms of more serious underlying problems). As one of the conference organizers said, “As long as we keep saying we can [stop violent aggressors] with military force, we will not invest the creative energy, the deep thinking, the financial and human resources in creating or identifying the alternatives that actually could make a difference.”

For these reasons, the Rome conference was calling on Christians to take more seriously the traditional religious imperative to be peace-builders and reconcilers, to actively promote peace on an international level, rather than simply passively resigning themselves to war as something inevitable and unending. This, the conference participants believe, can be a part of the distinctive contribution Christians can (and should) make to situations of conflict and violence around the globe, deeply rooted in the words and example of Jesus, which remain as counter-cultural, challenging and prophetic today as they were in the first century C.E.

Q: What is Pope Francis’s reaction to the statement? Has he contributed to Church teaching on Just War?

What we know for sure is what he wrote in his letter to the conference participants. In it, he speaks of “the unique and terrible ‘world war in installments’ which, directly or indirectly, a large part of humankind is presently undergoing” (a concept Francis has frequently employed), that we are in the midst of the next world war, but today it is one that is occurring in various parts of the world simultaneously, rather than in a single “theater” of war, as in the past. He speaks of the “needed and positive contribution” to “revitalizing the tools of non-violence, and of active non-violence in particular”. He says that Christians must not allow themselves to become “trapped within the framework of conflict” and indifference to others, but that they must act creatively, expressing the virtue of mercy through concrete solidarity, and finding new ways to engage in respectful, fruitful dialogue with those who think differently. But it remains, as Francis says, a “complex and violent world,” and so the right to legitimate self-defense, of countries and their peoples, remains unchanged. In fact, in August 2014, Francis gave his blessing to the use of military force to halt attacks by ISIS militants on Iraqi and Syrian minorities.

I think that those who have suggested Francis intends to just “throw out” the just-war doctrine have probably overstated the case. But it does seems likely that he might want to significantly nuance and balance that doctrine in the light of the world today, pushing Christians to support other, non-violent avenues, to pursue dialogue wherever possible, and to address the underlying roots of conflicts, rather than merely combating their symptoms. I think he would like to see the just-war doctrine take a somewhat lower profile in Christian discussions, and for there to be more concerted, energetic efforts on behalf of just-peace initiatives. From a Pope named for one of history’s greatest peacemakers and peace advocates, such an emphasis should probably come as no surprise.

Q: Christians are being kidnapped, raped, and murdered in the Middle East and other regions for their faith. Islamic State terrorists beheaded 21 Coptic Christians on the beach in Libya, for example. Shouldn’t the Pope be more aggressive in his calls for action against the slaughter of his flock? Is this really the best time to be decrying the use of violence for just causes?

My sense is that this is more of a perception than a reality. As I read the Pope’s comments, I hear him speaking out at least weekly (and sometimes daily) about the situation of Christians in the Middle East—in fact, I attended a major gathering last summer in St. Peter’s Square, where tens of thousands were gathered specifically to hear the Pope speak about the plight of the Middle East’s Christians. The Pope went to Istanbul to meet with Greek Orthodoxy’s Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and the two of them issued an appeal to the world’s conscience that said, in part: “Many of our brothers and sisters are being persecuted and have been forced violently from their homes. It even seems that the value of human life has been lost, that the human person no longer matters and may be sacrificed to other interests. And, tragically, all this is met by the indifference of many.” The Pope has been particularly vocal in speaking about the flood of refugees arriving in Europe in recent years, fleeing persecution, violence and war, and has called on the world’s authorities to act thoughtfully and decisively, to address the underlying ethnic and political conflicts in that region that drive so many millions to seek safety elsewhere.

I think that the challenge isn’t that the Pope doesn’t speak loudly, forcefully and repeatedly about this situation (he has!) … The challenge is that his voice doesn’t seem to get magnified by the bulk of the mainstream media, and doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact on the world’s leaders. The Pope’s ability to influence political and social change is limited by the willingness of political leaders to listen to him, and work in a coordinated way to address these issues. His voice simply doesn’t seem to carry sufficient political clout with those who are in a position to take action—but refuse to, for complex political, economic and tactical reasons.

In “The Truth Between Us,” blog series at The Times of Israel, Dr. Murray Watson (see his introduction here) and I explore a wide range of issues surrounding Christianity, Jewish-Christian relations, and the Christian communities here in Israel. The goal is to reach greater knowledge and understanding about complex issues that lie where Christians and Jews meet.

Look for our next post featuring a discussion of Pope Francis’s visit to Auschwitz. 

About the Author
Lazar Berman, a former Times of Israel journalist, holds a Masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University. He has worked at the American Enterprise Institute, and served as a Chaplain-in-Residence at Georgetown. Lazar's writing has appeared in Commentary, the Journal of Strategic Studies, Mosaic, The American, and other outlets.
Related Topics
Related Posts