The Catholic Church has used the Just War Theory since the time of St. Augustine to help discern when and how force might be applied in the defense of the nation in time of conflict.
According to the Just War Theory, all of the following must be in place before a military response could be considered legitimate:
- It can only be undertaken in defense (CCC §2263-2267) against an aggressor bent on inflicting damage that is lasting, grave and certain.
- All other means of putting an end to the conflict must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.
- There must be serious prospect of success against the enemy.
- The use of arms must not produce evils greater than the evils to be eliminated.
And then once war has begun, the acts of war must not target the civilian population and must not target enemy combatants who have surrendered or otherwise no longer present an immediate lethal threat.
Just War Theory sets high standards for a legitimate entrance into a war and even higher standards for right conduct within a war, standards that no armed conflict in recent memory has ever met – indeed, probably very few in the last 1,600 years since St. Augustine.
Therefore, the time has come to recognize that since the just war criteria are almost never met, conflicts need to be resolved through nonviolent means instead.
There are now many within the church who recognize that the Just War Theory is inadequate.
First of all, the thought that a war might be just is not only an illusion, it also makes war less unthinkable and thus plays into the hands of those who invent justifications for their aggression, often portraying it falsely as self-defense.
But second, ever since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is no longer possible to assume that the civilian population will necessarily be spared.
In this nuclear age, we cannot possibly be assured the anticipated benefit of waging war would remain greater than the expected harm, or that conventional warfare might not escalate into something far worse.
For that reason, the Catechism insists that “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, 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 §2314).
So, if the Just War Theory is inadequate, especially in this nuclear age, there remains only what we should have been doing all along anyway, namely Just Peace, which in the words of the Catechism is “the work of justice and the effect of charity” (CCC §2304).
And here I note the high praise of the Catechism for “those who renounce violence and bloodshed and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defense available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies. They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risks of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death.” (CCC §2306)
What does this just peace look like in practice?
Pax Christi International, the world-renowned Catholic peace movement, teaches the tools of nonviolent resolution of conflict, which are directly rooted in the teaching of Jesus Christ himself.
“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment,’” Jesus says in Matthew 25:21-22. “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.”
Just Peace has at its disposal numerous nonviolent practices and strategies, including nonviolent resistance, restorative justice, trauma healing, unarmed civilian protection, conflict transformation, peacebuilding strategies, mediated dialogue, legislative advocacy, economic sanctions and boycotts and, of course, negotiated nuclear, biological and chemical arms reduction and elimination.
A fuller description of many of these practices can be found at the Pax Christi Catholic Nonviolence Initiative page on the Pax Christi website.
Note also that while the Just War Theory limited itself to addressing conflicts between nations, Just Peace efforts apply also to the resolution of conflicts within communities and advocacy for the protection of human rights within societies – for instance as taught by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1965, when Pope Paul VI visited the United Nations, he implied the time had come to move beyond the Just War Theory when he declared “No more war, never again war. Peace, it is peace that must guide the destinies of people and of all mankind.”
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series this week for the U.N. International Day of Non-Violence (Oct. 2).
Bishop for the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas.