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Vatican Conference rejects idea of “just war”

Vatican Conference rejects idea of “just war”

Members of a three-day event co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi have also strongly called on Pope Francis to consider writing an encyclical letter, or some other “major teaching document,” reorienting the church’s teachings on violence.

Conference participants affirmed a statement titled “An appeal to the Catholic Church to recommit to the centrality of Gospel nonviolence”  Reflecting on the experience of conflict and peace-making around the globe, the group hopes to re-frame the church’s approach to violence and conflict, rooted in the example of Jesus’ own non-violence and reject completely the notion of a just war.

Neither passive nor weak, Jesus’ nonviolence was the power of love in action. In vision and deed, he is the revelation and embodiment of the Nonviolent God, a truth especially illuminated in the Cross and Resurrection. He calls us to develop the virtue of nonviolent peacemaking.

Clearly, the Word of God, the witness of Jesus, should never be used to justify violence, injustice or war. We confess that the people of God have betrayed this central message of the Gospel many times, participating in wars, persecution, oppression, exploitation, and discrimination.

We believe that there is no “just war”. Too often the “just war theory” has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war. Suggesting that a “just war” is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict.

We need a new framework that is consistent with Gospel nonviolence. A different path is clearly unfolding in recent Catholic social teaching. Pope John XXIII wrote that war is not a suitable way to restore rights; Pope Paul VI linked peace and development, and told the UN “no more war”; Pope John Paul II said that “war belongs to the tragic past, to history”; Pope Benedict XVI said that “loving the enemy is the nucleus of the Christian revolution”; and Pope Francis said “the true strength of the Christian is the power of truth and love, which leads to the renunciation of all violence. Faith and violence are incompatible”. He has also urged the “abolition of war”.

Non-violent resolution of conflict has long been a powerful part of Christian witness, and pacifism an ancient and honored part of the tradition.  Is just war theory more a tool for justifying war than one for preventing it?


You can read the whole statement here.


image: A Ukrainian priest stands in front of a line of riot police during a protest (Zurab Kurtsikidze/AP)


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James Byron

Jesus wasn’t nonviolent: he said, approvingly, that Adonai was about to rain the mother of all airstrikes on earth; and cast the wicked into the everlasting fires of Gehenna.

Sure, he told his followers to turn the other cheek, but that had far more to do with submission to Adonai’s will than it did principled nonviolence. Violence by God’s hand is still violence.

And, of course, Jesus could be wrong (as he was about God ending history within his generation).

If the Catholic Church wants to endorse pacifism, it needs to drop the appeals to authority, and argue on the merits. Given that pacifism involves surrendering to the world’s thugs in the hope that they’ll miraculously find a conscience, all I can say is, good luck, ’cause they’ll sure need it.

Rod Gillis

As far as I can tell, from reading the entire statement linked at the end of the article, the conversation that Roman Catholics are having is based on a need for updating their own theological framework on the issues.

Keep in mind that natural law rather than biblical material was the driver in R.C. moral theology until relatively recently, and that he way in which scripture is used in constructing R.C. moral theology is matter of some debate in R.C. circles. Whether or not and to what extent one can translate biblical views into solutions to modern ethical issues remains controversial. And, I think those of us who are not R.C. can only benefit by asking ourselves similar questions.

Jos. S. Laughon

And Thomas Aquinas, along with hundreds of years of Roman Catholic scholarship, weeps.

“XXXVII. Of the Civil Magistrates.
It is lawful for Christian men at the commandment of the Magistrate to wear weapons and serve in the wars.”

While pacifism is, I guess tempting to some, it ultimately comes down to a form of ethical cowardice and is certainly not the historic Anglican/Episcopalian position.

Gregory Orloff

“While pacifism is, I guess tempting to some, it ultimately comes down to a form of ethical cowardice and is certainly not the historic Anglican/Episcopalian position.”

Wow, Jos. S. Laughon! You’ve just managed to smack Christian saints like Hippolytus of Rome, Basil of Caesarea, Martin of Tours, Boris and Gleb of Kiev and Dietrich Bonhoeffer across the face.

Hippolytus of Rome lists military service among the occupations that make one ineligible for enrollment in the catechumenate and baptism.

Basil of Caesarea ruled that a soldier returning from war, even in defense of innocents, was to refrain from communing at the Eucharist for three years, because “his hands are not clean.”

Martin of Tours was famously brought up on charges of cowardice and dereliction of duty when he refused to go to combat with his military unit after his baptism, saying “Now I am a soldier of Christ, so it is not lawful for me to fight” (though he did volunteer to stand on the front lines unarmed).

Boris and Gleb of Kiev chose not to resort to violence to resist evil in the internecine wars over the throne of their father in ancient Rus’, at the cost of their lives, in accord with Christ Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

And Dietrich Bonhoeffer didn’t seem to see no sin in plots to eliminate Hitler, but rather cast them in terms of the lesser of two evils — the difficult choice Christians often face in dire circumstances in this fallen world when lives of the innocent and the defenseless are at stake.

The “just war theory,” as laid out by Augustine of Hippo and refined by Thomas Aquinas (drawing on pre-Christian antecedents) is not the only Christian response to violence and war — a response that has been, across the centuries, far more nuanced and multifaceted than you let on, as Christians struggled to apply the gospel ethics of Christ Jesus in a complicated, gritty and often ugly world.

Gregory Orloff

And “just war theory” as been abused, misused and misconstrued to justify just about every war, in the eyes of its wager, as “no harm, no foul” — in a word, justified, and thus sinless and not immoral.

The parameters of “just war theory” aren’t even observed, and are perhaps unable to be applied, in light of how military technology has changed, today.

Sorry, Jos. S. Laughon. The Christian response to war is not as cut and dried as you would like, and it is always considered a sin, a contravention of God’s command: “Thou shalt not kill,” not “Thou shalt not kill if…” or “Thou shalt not kill unless…” or “Thou shalt not kill except when…”. Christ Jesus, Hippolytus of Rome, Basil of Caesarea, Martin of Tours, Boris and Gleb of Kiev, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer stand witness to this.

James Byron

“Basil of Caesarea ruled that a soldier returning from war, even in defense of innocents, was to refrain from communing at the Eucharist for three years, because ‘his hands are not clean.’ ”

And this is exactly why, however saintly its advocates (and many undoubtedly are), pacifism’s an immoral position. It claims there’s something inherently wrong with using force to protect innocent life.

Mohandas Gandhi said the Jews of Europe should willingly sacrifice themselves to outrage the conscience of the world (to what end he never explained). His position wasn’t an aberration, but the logical consequence of refusing to use force.

Individual pacifists are often astonishingly brave people, refusing to fight in the face of overwhelming pressure; but too often, the ideology gets a free pass it doesn’t deserve.

Ann Fontaine

For some reason I am thinking of Augustine’s comment that women raped in war can still be considered virgins.

Jos. S. Laughon

I said it was a form of ethical cowardice, not personal cowardice. To refuse to take action for fear of “bloody hands,” in the defense of the defenseless, is in fact being afraid to act.

Bonhoeffer’s response is by far the bravest. Sometimes we must undertake difficult ethical decisions out of Christian love for the abused and oppressed. Pacifism sacrifices these on the altar of some supposed moral rightness (a rightness never truly found in Scripture and tends to be wanting in the consensus of Christian tradition).

Marshall Scott

Other information from the Summa is available here , and it’s worth reading. Aquinas never denies that war is sin. He only acknowledges that there is a call to a common good that can make conflict necessary. (He also addresses whether clerics should take up or command arms, and would seem to undercut justification for “concealed carry;” but, I digress.)

The statement from the conference is accurate in that, near as I can tell, Aquinas does not use the words of Jesus to justify war. They are also accurate in naming that Aquinas’ position was that war might sometimes be necessary for justice, but that there were limits to be observed. So, Church’s position (including Aquinas) was oriented toward limiting war, not permitting it.

Rod Gillis

The Just war theory is a Thomist position as you reference. Since the article here is about the Roman Catholic Church and a request for fresh Papal teaching, it is perhaps useful to note the following. The the just war theory (Aquinas and others) is the framework used by Vatican II on the this subject. See Gaudium Et Spes (Church and the modern World) Chapter V the section on, Avoidance of War para. 79. However, that position has come under a fair amount of critical analysis by theologians. For one thing, the radical change in warfare brought about by nuclear weaponry together with modern geo-politcal realities gives rise to fundamental questions about the position of Vatican II and the just war doctrine in general.

There is increasing concern over the relationship between religion and violence. These are some of the factors underlying the plea to the Pope for an updating of Catholic teaching.

The 39 Articles in our tradition are part of a settlement imposed on the church by the Crown, so no surprises there. regarding the lawfulness of war.

Notwithstanding, individual Anglicans have been numbered among those Christians who have taken a pacifistic position.

Rod Gillis

Keep your copy of St. T.A.’s Summas handy. They will provide years of reading material in the bunker if you happen to survive a nuclear attack.

The church needs to construct ethical guidelines for the world we live in, not the world of some past age.

Scott Wesley Borden

This is a very wonderful start – I hope a teaching comes from it.

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