The just war tradition is fast becoming a contested field of ideas in Catholic circles. The growing division of the Catholic community on issues of war and peace was on clear display at the annual “Social Ministries” meeting in the nation’s capital (Feb. 24-27), sponsored by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops and other national Catholic agencies. There an audience of diocesan social action workers from around the country vigorously challenged the pro-just war sentiments voiced by a range of speakers.
At one extreme of this debate are peace activists like members of Pax Christi USA, who do not see any use for the traditional just war theory. They can conceive of virtually no circumstances that would justify the use of military force. As Kathy Thornton, R.S.M., president of the Catholic social justice lobby Network, said at a recent antiwar rally, “To [our] legislators we’re saying the most patriotic thing you do is to say no to war.”
At the other extreme are the “enablers,” especially politically conservative Catholic intellectuals. They form a permissive just war school that would legitimate most uses of force contemplated by the U.S. government. For them the primary function of just war theory is to enable government to employ force in the pursuit of justice. They are skeptical, if not scornful, of applying just war norms to limit the savagery of war.
In this debate, the middle may turn out to be the cutting edge. There we find people wrestling with the complexities of church teaching, rather than simply overthrowing the tradition or using theology to bless war as an instrument of policy. Other conservatives, like John Finnis and Germain Grisez, for example, are aiming to fashion a coherent, pro-life moral theology. In doing so, they have developed a more restrictive understanding of what constitutes a just war.
Another broad party in the middle consists of those who take a similarly stringent view of just war principles. This group speaks of a “presumption” against the use of force and seeks to limit the scale of war by applying just war criteria restrictively. Here one finds the U.S. Catholic bishops, who in their statement Living With Faith and Hope After September 11 endorsed using nonviolent alternatives before resorting to war. Behind the scenes there are people like University of Notre Dame peace-studies professor George Lopez and the staff of the U.S. bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, directed by Gerard Powers. Above all, there is Pope John Paul II, challenging the culture of death in war-making as in abortion.
John Paul stands at the heart of this debate. His sweeping teaching on war and peace might be summarized thus: “If you want peace, seek justice [nonviolently]—and forgiveness.” That was the thrust of the pope’s message for the World Day of Peace, observed on Jan. 1. While welcoming the new Philippine ambassador to the Vatican on Feb. 8, the pope counseled, “The pillars of peace in your land, as everywhere else, are justice and forgiveness: the justice that seeks to ensure full respect for rights and responsibilities, and equitable distribution of benefits and burdens, and the forgiveness which heals and rebuilds troubled human relations from their foundations.”
To some proponents of the just war tradition, the pope’s insistence on forgiveness in the midst of “the war on terrorism” sounds worryingly softheaded. The pope—as critics see it—has been muddling the teaching with his cautious warnings about the consequences of violence and pleas for forgiveness. These hard-line just-warriors fear that the Second Vatican Council’s call to look at war “with a whole new attitude” was a fuzzy notion to begin with. They criticize the U.S. bishops for their articulation of a presumption against the use of force as a premise of just war theory.
On the other hand, many of these same just-warriors were reluctant to accept the Holy See’s pleas for “humanitarian intervention” or peacekeeping operations in places like Haiti and Bosnia in the 1990’s, believing U.S. troops should be reserved for fighting war. And they chafe at any hint that the just war theory is intended to limit military options and not just permit the use of force in “a just cause.” Catholics among them keep a stiff upper lip whenever the pope speaks of the dangers of war.
Most of all they worry that official Catholic thinking is slipping into closet pacifism. In his 1999 book, Morality in Contemporary Warfare, James Turner Johnson contends that modern Catholic teaching—going as far back as the First Vatican Council in 1869—has inclined toward pacifism out of revulsion for the lethality of modern war. The late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder came to the same view, from a pacifist direction, in his 1996 book, When War Is Unjust.
It is clear that the teaching has evolved markedly since Vatican II in the 1960’s, especially under the leadership of Pope John Paul II. During and after the Persian Gulf war, the pope repeatedly voiced his skepticism about war as a tool of international policy. In his 1991 encyclical letter Centesimus Annus, the pope referred to that conflict in declaring: “No, never again war, which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems which provoked the war.”
What does Pope John Paul II’s teaching have to say to the contending parties and the rest of us? Though scarcely noted at the time, Centesimus Annus celebrated nonviolent resistance as the cause of Communism’s collapse in Europe. It also contained the seeds of the pope’s essential teaching on nonviolence, war and peace. Above all, it argued for the effectiveness of nonviolence in confronting injustice in the world.
First, the pope teaches that violence always brings a train of woe in its wake. For that reason, we should be skeptical when people say the use of force can resolve conflicts in any real and lasting way. Second, a lesson he drew from the overthrow of Communism is that we must “learn to fight for justice without violence” in both domestic and international conflicts. Third, he believes the community of nations should undertake “a concerted worldwide campaign for development” as an alternative to war and a condition for peace.
Although his is a persistent voice on behalf of nonviolent solutions, the pope also called for “humanitarian intervention” or peacekeeping in trouble spots like Bosnia, Central Africa and East Timor, even if that meant using force to “disarm the aggressor.” His advocacy of humanitarian intervention, as much as his praise for nonviolence, is contributing to a rethinking of Catholic positions on the use of force in world affairs. Similarly, the pope’s World Day of Peace message for 2002 allowed for a nation’s right of defense against (global) terrorism. However, while this too should inform Catholic just war thinking, the right of defense is not the heart of his message, which must be read in the broader context of his teaching on international affairs.
An updated and complete Catholic theology of war and peace, following John Paul II, must grapple with an array of components. These include the culture of death, the effects of violence, the usefulness of nonviolence as well as just war, the need for justice through development and the place of forgiveness in peacemaking. By that standard, the stale U.S. debates between pacifists and just-warriors, and between less strict and more strict just war types, have very far to go.
As a first step, it is natural for Catholics to take a fresh look at the just war theory in light of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 and the war against terrorism. Catholic teaching, though, ought not evolve solely in response to circumstances. It must move ahead in view of the church’s theology of war and peace as well as its reading of the signs of the times. Pope John Paul II has set the stage for a reformulation of Catholic thinking about war, peace and nonviolence. Will the squabbling factions in the U.S. debate engage him?