A little-noticed revolution has occurred recently in Catholic thinking about war and peace. Effectively, Just War calculus has been abandoned for a new emphasis on non-violence, and a primary pursuit of peace.
The theory of the conditions for undertaking and pursuing a just war was developed from St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, but theologians and ethicists have found it increasingly difficult to find any possibility of reconciling conditions such as proportionality between ends and means, avoiding civilian casualties (who is a civilian in modern warfare?), and avoiding irreversible environmental damage. Atomic warfare in particular seems to many thinkers literally unthinkable.
Perhaps the problem is the framework itself. Does the world look different if we start with the primacy of peace and non-violence, rather than with the intricacies of modern war fighting, in other words beginning where the Gospels begin? This was the approach of a Vatican conference in April 2016 on ‘creative and active non-violence’ and working for a ‘Just Peace’. The final communique concluded:
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.
Last November, another Vatican conference on Perspectives for a World Free from Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament was the occasion for Pope Francis condemning not only the threatened use of nuclear weapons, but their possession. In a press conference during his return flight from Bangladesh in December, Francis gave as his “convinced opinion” that that the world is “at the limit of licitly having and using nuclear weapons”.
Needless to say, not all agree. A return to Early Church refusal of military service and total non-violence seems impossibly naïve. But why should a presumption of violence as a first solution to violent aggression prevail? Australia seems inexorably drifting into becoming a militarised police state, heavily dependent on weapons production for economic prosperity and pivotal in nuclear war fighting. Is it not time to change our mindset and challenge the national consensus?
Paul Rule is a founding member of SPC, with a long-time interest in Catholic peace movements.