Brian Johnstone.

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Signs of Return to Life in Somali Capital. United Nations Photo. flickr cc.

Is the Catholic Church moving towards abandoning the traditional ‘just war’ theory? A Rome meeting in April of this year, organised by Pax Christi and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, brought together Christians active in justice and peace work throughout the world. A final statement, endorsed by the participants, called for a commitment by the Church to engage intensively in active non-violent conflict resolution.

Those who argue that the Catholic Church still recognises the ‘just war’ theory can cite The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993, # 2308). The conference challenged the traditional ‘just war theory’, and proposed “that the Catholic Church consider shifting to a Just-Peace approach based on Gospel nonviolence”.   They wrote: “We believe there is no ‘just war’. Too often, the ‘just war theory’ has been used to endorse rather than to 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.”

Questioning ‘just war’ reasoning

What can be said regarding this criticism?  The just war teaching was first formulated in the Constantinian era, when the fateful collaboration between the state and the Church began. It has a very dubious history. An historian of the ‘just war’, Leroy Walters, showed that theologians regularly used the teaching to defend the wars of their own nations. At least implicitly, Catholic bishops followed just war thinking in supporting the war policies of their nations. German and Austrian bishops did not publically oppose the wars of Hitler. US bishops did not publically condemn the1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Catholic Church rejected pacifism, and opposed and even persecuted the ‘peace churches’. The Catholic Church also rejected the right to conscientious objection, even as late as 1956. Finally, at the Second Vatican Council, the Church moved away from these positions. Reflecting on “the horror and perversity of war”, the bishops powerfully proclaimed: “All these considerations compel us to undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude”.

It is undeniable that political leaders have often used just war teaching to justify going to war. Such leaders protest that they are acting in self-defense or to defend the innocent. Critics rightly claim that such ‘justification’ is fiction. For example, critics argue that the real goal of the states engaged in war in the Middle-East is furthering their power interests.

Example of Jägertstätter

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Franz Jägertstätter was an Austrian farmer at a time when Austria had been annexed by Germany, and called up to serve in the army to fight in Hitler’s wars. Jägertstätter was engaged in active service for a short time, but decided that the war was immoral, and refused to serve any longer. He was convicted of sedition, and executed in Berlin.
“Non-Violence”. United Nations Photo. flickr cc.

He was not an absolute pacifist who rejected all war in principle. He followed the just war teaching, and applied it correctly. He rejected the arguments of his bishop and three priests, arguments that we can now see were examples of the misuse of the teaching to endorse war. Franz is now an enduring witness to the way a Catholic conscience ought to judge war, following the criteria of just war teaching. But he did not reject all war in principle. We now have to reflect on the position of those who, like participants in the conference, reject all war, and accept only non-violent resistance

The question of the general effectiveness of active non-violence has particular relevance for discerning acceptable ways of defending the innocent. Here arises the issue of the so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’ and the ‘duty to defend’.

Duty to defend the innocent

The question here would be, for example, what would be a morally acceptable way of defending those innocent persons and communities who are being attacked by ISIS? Do nations have a duty to defend these victims, and if so, what would be a just means of so doing? When asked about ISIS, Pope Francis said: “I can only say it is licit to stop the aggressor”. But he went on to add: “I am not saying drop bombs, make war, but stop the aggressor. The means used to stop him would have to be evaluated.”

Here Pope Francis implicitly appeals to a ‘just war’ criterion, namely that resistance to aggression is morally licit. He also implicitly recognises a duty to defend. However, he rejects one means of resistance, bombing, but does not specify any other. This he leaves to debate by others. The means are to be “evaluated” again in an implicit appeal to the just war criteria. I suggest that the Pope is leaving specific judgments to committed and informed persons and associations, and moving away from the institutional framework that hitherto prevailed in Catholic teaching.

The burning question that advocates on active-non-violence would need to answer is whether their goals and strategy could be more effective than bombing in dealing with ISIS and other such extremely violent groups.

A powerful witness at the conference for the effectiveness of active-non-violence was Archbishop John Baptist Odama, of Gulu, Uganda. The Archbishop has been engaged in work for peace in the region for twenty years, and has been involved in negotiations with the parties engaged in violence, including the self-styled prophet Joseph Kony, the leader of the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army. This group was responsible for 100,000 deaths in the 1980s and 1990s, and is still active in several countries. Despite many setbacks, the Archbishop is still committed to non-violence.

Speaking at the conference, he said, “There is no justice in the destruction of life and property”, so there should be “no spending of resources on military solutions”.  The witness of Archbishop Odama, who speaks from experience, carries more weight than the arguments of  armchair commentators claiming violence is the only way of dealing with ISIS. Pax Christi co-president, Marie Dennis, argued that, if non-violent strategies have worked in the past, they can also work with Islamic State.

Brian Johnstone is a Redemptorist priest and moral theologian who has taught at the Alfonsian Academy in Rome and Catholic University in New York, as well as at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.


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