We will mark the second anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia on 2/24. Violence and unrest continue in the Middle East, particularly in places we refer to as the “Holy Land.” Now is an appropriate time to revisit our roles and responsibilities in promoting peace and solidarity. The following article by Kevin M. Dowd, Ph.D., is both timely and relevant:
When we speak of the common good, one of its primary components is peace. “Finally, the common good requires peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1909). Working together locally, nationally, and globally to ensure peace, stability, and security is therefore an essential aspect of solidarity. We do not act in solidarity only at local levels, among people we know personally or with whom we share a particular form of civic life, but we engage in global solidarity. We do this, above all, in the interest of promoting a more peaceful world.
As Pope Paul VI famously reminded us,
“If you want peace, work for justice.”
The biggest threat to peace, of course, is war and armed conflict.
In the Catholic tradition, there are two prominent moral approaches to war and conflict.
The earlier tradition is pacifism. For roughly the first three centuries of its existence, the Church was committed to pacifism. Soldiers who wanted to convert to Christianity had to renounce their military positions before they could be baptized. Any violence inflicted upon the Church, such as during the periods of persecution from the Roman Empire, was not resisted with violence in turn, but instead was seen as an opportunity for witness (the literal meaning of martyr) to the nonviolent Christ who was also tortured and killed by the Romans. To this day, there exist within Christianity many pacifists who are prophetically committed to upholding this early position of the Church, rejecting violence as the solution to violence, and trusting completely in God’s power to defeat evil.
Pacifism is nonviolent, but it is important to recognize that it is not passive. Father George Zabelka was the priest who blessed the atomic bombs used in World War II. He later became a peace activist, defining pacifism as active, nonviolent resistance to evil. He came to his pacifism by a recognition that Jesus was indeed nonviolent and required as much of his followers. Zabelka said, “It is not enough to believe in Jesus; you’ve got to believe Jesus.” Another famous American pacifist, whom Pope Francis held up in his speech to a joint session of Congress in 2015, was Dorothy Day. Referring to her work for justice, he said that “a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost.” Day understood that pacifism is not passive. Hers was an activist life, often being jailed for her resistance to violence and her opposition to atomic weapons. She refused to pay her federal taxes because so much of it would be used for military purposes. She paid her local taxes because that money was used for the common good. When the feds confronted her about taxes owed, she said, “Tell me how much I owe and then I won’t pay it.” Dorothy Day co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement with Peter Maurin, a movement that became quite suspect and unpopular when it protested American involvement in World War II, and which continues their pacifist Christian vision to this day.
The Just War Doctrine
The second major position of the Catholic Church concerning war was developed initially by St. Augustine in the period of time after Constantine had converted and Christianity was subsequently adopted as the official religion of the Empire. In this new position of political power and responsibility, Augustine drew on ideas of Cicero, the Roman philosopher who lived before Christ, and began to articulate what would later become the Just War Theory.
For the first time in Christian discourse, there was seen to be an acceptable use of violence authorized by the state in defense of one’s people and for the sake of justice; and hence, it was also seen as acceptable for Christians to serve in the military. (In fact, such service might even be required). St. Thomas Aquinas gave the teaching its classic formulation in the 13th century; however, the Just War Theory continues to be developed as we reflect on Scripture and Tradition in light of new circumstances and historical contexts. Aquinas did not have to think about the possibility of nuclear war or biological weapons.
Theologians, philosophers, military strategists, and others continue to think about what would be required to consider a war “just” in today’s world. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes the Second Vatican Council in teaching: “ . . . 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 to lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed” (CCC, 2308). Notice the focus on self-defense. The Catechism specifically refers to “strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force” (CCC, 2309). “A war of aggression,” on the other hand, “is intrinsically immoral” (Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church, 500).
Officially, the teaching of the Church recognizes that a war may be justified by the state if certain conditions are met. This is called jus ad bellum, or justification for going to war. The conditions are: “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 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 heavily in evaluating this condition” (CCC, 2309). Finally, the decision to go to war must be made by a lawful authority; for example, in the United States that authority ultimately belongs to the Congress: “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good” (CCC, 2309).
For a war to be just, it must also be conducted in a just manner. “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties” (CCC, 2312). In Catholic moral thinking, all is not fair in love and war! This is called jus in bello, or justice in war. The conditions for this include: “Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely . . . the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is bound to resist orders that command genocide. ‘Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and [humanity], which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.’ A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons—especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons—to commit such crimes” (CCC, 2313–2314). Furthermore, “The use of children and adolescents as soldiers in armed conflicts . . . must be condemned” (Compendium, 512). Finally, “ . . . the right to self-defense must respect ‘the traditional limits of necessity and proportionality” (Compendium, 501).
Although it does not have the pedigree and official status of the first two elements of Just War Theory, recent developments in the field include a third category, called jus post bellum. In this category, we are to consider what is required in justice after the war is concluded. This category continues to develop and to be debated, but usually includes such things as the obligation to help rebuild infrastructure and economies, to care for refugees, and to avoid unjust punitive measures against defeated enemies. The purpose of this category is to remind us that after a war is completed, we must work for reconciliation, rebuilding, right relationship among nations, and justice and peace.
The presumption in Just War teaching is that war is an evil that must be avoided if at all humanly possible. However, in a fallen world, we may not always be able to escape fighting, and in those very limited circumstances, war may be deemed by the state as justified. In other words, the evil of war, in certain cases, is tolerated in order to avoid a worse evil.
Whether one subscribes to the Just War Doctrine or to Christian pacifism—and the Church leaves both options open as distinct but complementary, including recognition of conscientious objectors to military service (CCC, 2311)—one must be committed to the work of peacemaking. In the words of the Catechism: “All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war” (CCC, 2308).
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Jesus, “for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Peace and security are essential elements of the common good, and therefore solidarity in working for peace in our communities and in our world is required. We are all in this together!
Kevin M. Dowd, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Anna Maria College. He is also author of Your Confirmation Bible Companion: What Scripture as ‘God’s Love Song’ Means for You (Twenty-Third Publications, 2020), and Teaching Kids to Respect Others: Reflections, Activities, and Prayers on Bullying and Prejudice (Twenty-Third Publications, 2018).
Image credit: Vytautas Markūnas SDB via cathopic.com