Since the time of St. Augustine, the Catholic Church has used the Just War theory to help discern when and how force might be applied in the defense of the nation in time of conflict — a timely topic in these days of Russian aggression against Ukraine.
The teaching of the Church regarding war and peace is spelled out very clearly in articles 2263-2267 and 2302-2317 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). According to the Just War theory all the following must be in place before a military response could be considered legitimate:
The problem we face in Ukraine is that alone this fourth element is missing, Ukraine has no prospect of success against Russia, and it would not be moral to sacrifice lives simply for the honor of the homeland. If NATO were to step in, the prospect of military success would be greatly improved but then it becomes likely that the use of arms would produce evils greater than the evil to be eliminated. For one thing, many more people would die.
And then once war has begun, the acts of war:
The Just War theory sets high standards for a legitimate entrance into a war and even higher standards for right conduct within a war. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is one of the most blatant violations in our lifetime, but the fact is no war in recent memory has met all of the just war criteria and probably very few in the past 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. Russia was doing this with its propaganda machine in the months prior to the invasion, including false flag scenarios.
But secondly, ever since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is no longer possible to assume that the civilian population will necessarily be spared, nor in this nuclear age can we possibly be assured that the anticipated benefit of waging war would remain greater than the expected harm, nor that conventional warfare might not escalate into something far worse. And of course, Russia is a nuclear power — as are we, and thus NATO.
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.’ 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.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
Just Peace has at its disposal numerous nonviolent practices and strategies, including nonviolent resistance, which is the main option available to the people of Ukraine at this time. The Russians will find that it is far easier to conquer a country than it is to rule a population that is united in resistance to their occupying presence. Nonviolent resistance is slow and unglamorous and requires humble self-sacrifice — turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving one’s tunic to the one who takes your cloak, but it alone has the ability to change hearts. It is the strategy used by Mahatma Gandhi and his followers to free India from oppressive British colonial rule, and it is the approach taken by Dr. Martin Luther King to free African Americans from unjust laws in our country. A fuller description of this and other non-violent practices and strategies can be found at the Pax Christi Catholic Nonviolence Initiative page on the Pax Christi website, at paxchristi.net/programmes/catholic-nonviolence-initiative/.
In 1965 when Pope Paul VI visited the United Nations, he implied that 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.”
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor released this statement on the Russian invasion of Ukraine Feb. 25.
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