­­­In “Protect Thy Neighbor: Why the Just War Tradition Is Still Indispensable” (Commonweal, June 17), Mark J. Allman and Tobias Winright defend just war theory as a traditional, viable, and peace-oriented expression of Catholic social thought. Their essay takes issue with the concluding document of an April conference in Rome sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International (available here, with media coverage and supporting documents). The document urged Pope Francis and the church as a whole to renounce just war theory, replacing it with a theory and practice of “just peace.” Contributors to the just peace ethic include the evangelical theologian Glen Stassen, and Catholics Eli McCarthy and Maryann Cusimano Love; it was endorsed by the World Council of Churches in 2013. The just peace ethic insists that peacemaking practices, virtues, and criteria are constitutive of Christian discipleship. More controversially, however, the conference document demands that Catholics “no longer teach or use just war theory.” There is no “just war,” it claims, and “just war theory” is used more to endorse war than to prevent or limit it.

Allman and Winright are, respectively, scholars of “jus post bellum” and “just policing,” two new just war categories they see as reformulating the theory for an era of unstable states, repressive governments, ongoing civil conflicts, and terrorism. Jus post bellum specifies that war must have a just cause and be conducted within constraints such as noncombatant immunity (stipulations of traditional just war theory). War must also be conducted and concluded so as to foster post-war rebuilding of civil society, rule of law, democratic institutions, and human security. Just policing refers to the limited use of force to ensure respect for national and international law and protection of human rights. Allman and Winright argue that just war theory is far more than a rationalization of violence. It is an indispensable framework for protecting the innocent, and as such, expresses Jesus’ command to “Love thy neighbor.” They see the just war criterion of last resort as already implying a robust commitment to proactive peacemaking, and believe that the Catholic Church does and should validate the use of limited armed force (the use of weapons to physically incapacitate, hurt, or kill), especially for national defense and humanitarian intervention. Allman and Winright call for “an honest dialogue on the church’s ethics of war and peace in all its richness and diversity”—a dialogue they see the recent Rome conference as abandoning.

Yet if the conference document shortchanged the role that armed force still plays in the Catholic commitment to justice, Allman and Winright downplay the clear trend in post-Vatican II papal teaching that advocates nonviolent resolutions to conflict and condemns war and violence in general. The fact is that “church teaching” is paradoxical, if not internally conflicted, because it both condemns and permits armed force. This is especially true of popes since Vatican II.  An honest dialogue must recognize that fact—and, I would argue, consider whether this very ambiguity is part of the “richness” of the Catholic peace witness. 

Christian social ethics has long contended with the problem of how to restrain violence. There is certainly no questioning Jesus’ own nonviolent example. Positively, Jesus’ Gospel of compassion, inclusion, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love of God and neighbor is about creating and expanding communities of love, justice, and solidarity. There is surely something paradoxical if not self-contradictory about Christians, starting with Augustine (and his teacher Ambrose), who justify killing in the name of love and the Gospel. 

According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus did distinguish between what belongs to God and to Caesar (12:17); and the earliest New Testament author, Paul, commends obedience to the Roman government in at least some respects (Romans 13: 1-7). Teachers and theologians in the early church warned against killing and military service, but tombstone inscriptions of the era also reveal that some Christians did serve in the Roman army. By the fourth century, Augustine defends Christian participation in government, the military, war, and killing as necessary to punish evil, preserve the social order, achieve temporal peace, and express love of neighbor. Thomas Aquinas, an important source of contemporary Catholic social teaching, grants that it is usually a sin to wage war, but agrees with Augustine that war can be just within limits, especially to protect “the common weal.”

Unlike the historic “peace churches,” Roman Catholic social ethics has always seen the church and its members as responsible to and in the world, building up just social practices, institutions, laws, and governments. The Roman Catholic Church is not a separatist or sectarian church, but a socially engaged and constructive one, even though its message is prophetic and countercultural.  At the same time, popes, other Catholic leaders, and official Catholic organizations consistently call for nonviolent conflict resolution, seeing the way to genuine peace as the creation of just and participatory social, economic, and political institutions. In the words of Paul VI, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

Since the Second Vatican Council, then, the Roman Catholic contribution to a political ethics of conflict transformation has leaned heavily toward peacebuilding and away from just war, especially at the level of magisterial teaching. To be sure, just war thinking has never been repudiated. Gaudium et spes recognizes a duty of the international community to prevent “crimes against humanity,” yet also makes just war subordinate to “fostering peace,” condemns “total war,” and describes war as a “horror and perversity” that should eventually be outlawed. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church elucidates the interdependence of the peace of Christ, justice, and love, defining war as the failure of peace.

John Paul II explicitly affirms the use of force for humanitarian purposes, and Benedict XVI  endorses the “responsibility to protect.” Yet the focus of recent magisterial statements is has been the incompatibility of violence with transformational justice.

John XXIII asserts, “it is contrary to reason to hold that war is now a suitable way to restore rights which have been violated.” John Paul, Benedict, and Francis all echo Paul VI’s cry, “No more war, war never again!” John Paul II reiterates that “Violence is evil,” “a lie,” “the enemy of justice,” and “a defeat for humanity,” refusing to bless military interventions such as the Gulf War and a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Benedict XVI concurs that “violence never comes from God,” and explicitly embraces gospel nonviolence, calling “love your enemies” its “magna carta.” Confronted by the prospect of a military intervention in Syria by the United States and France, Pope Francis insisted that “War brings on war! Violence brings on violence,” and led a peace vigil in St. Peter’s Square. In his message to the Rome conference, Francis urged the revitalization of active nonviolence and peacemaking, yet reaffirmed governments’ right to legitimate defense.

Local bishops’ conferences appropriate this papal peacebuilding mandate variously. In Medellín, Colombia, the Latin American bishops called for a nonviolent church (1968). While endorsing a policy of “strictly conditioned” nuclear deterrence in the 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace,” the bishops of the United States also embraced gospel nonviolence. In “The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace”(1993), the bishops were more critical of just war theory, underlining the potential of nonviolence as a principle of politics and government. In 2009, the bishops of Eastern Africa urged an end to hostilities tearing apart their continent, yet demanded international humanitarian “intervention” on behalf of the Sudanese people. Bishops of the “Arab Regions” responded to the “horrible” suffering in Syria and Iraq by asserting that “without true reconciliation based on justice and mutual forgiveness there will be no peace.” Nevertheless, like the popes, they upheld “the right of the oppressed to self-defense,” and called on “the international community” to use “proportionate force to stop aggression and injustice against ethnic and religious minorities.”

Church teaching about the use of force is paradoxical because it is not simply a stringent version of just war theory that prioritizes nonviolent peacebuilding and accepts armed force as a rare necessity. The paradox is that the teaching, and the popes in particular, use seemingly absolutist language against violence—violence is presented as a flat contradiction of the Gospel—while at the same time validating the limited use of armed force. This evident inconsistency is open to several interpretations. Is it simple incoherence? A pastoral concession? Or does it mark an unfolding and still conflicted shift from just war thinking to pacifism (as the Rome conference document envisions)? 

In my view, the paradox may be intentional, salutary, and permanent. On the one hand, Christians believe that God’s reign of love, reconciliation, and peace has been inaugurated decisively in the ministry of Jesus Christ, augmenting for all the human capacity for justice and reconciliation. On the other hand, there is a deep and real “Augustinian” undertow in a world still marred by sin and evil. In the words of Gaudium et spes, “Insofar as men are sinful, the threat of war hangs over them, and hang over them it will until the return of Christ. But insofar as men vanquish sin by a union of love, they will vanquish violence as well.”

Although Christians may accept their own unavoidable suffering as the cost of discipleship, they are called to protect and empower the vulnerable, and to resist all suffering that is unjustly caused. In guiding the church, perhaps the popes retain versions of just war theory (especially as humanitarian intervention) because they recognize what is often the urgent need to protect the innocent. At the same time, however, the popes have made peacebuilding the first, distinctive, and most important role of the church as church. They do not explicitly exclude the rare justification of armed force, but they do not see validating violence as part of the church’s mission, nor of papal leadership.


IN THE UNITED STATES, media attention and theological debate since the Rome conference have focused disproportionately on the merits of just war theory, to the detriment of promoting grassroots peacebuilding efforts. “Just peace,” not just war, should be the distinguishing mark and calling of the global Catholic Church. Just peace would involve conflict-transforming practices such as direct nonviolent action, diplomatic initiatives, interreligious political organization in civil society, unarmed civilian peacekeeping, public rituals of repentance, and initiatives of reconciliation. Just war theory can play a part, especially by pressuring politicians and government officials to adhere to the moral criteria they claim to honor. For example, Kenneth Himes, OFM, offers a trenchant critique of U.S. drone policy specifically on the grounds that it violates just war standards, especially noncombatant immunity and legitimate authority.

The church everywhere must be urged, motivated, and expected to promote peacebuilding. This is a mission in which U.S. Catholics and most of their leaders have fallen grievously short. Yet social scientists Maria Stephan and Erika Chenoweth argue that nonviolent resistance is twice as successful as armed revolt, producing resolutions that are much less likely to devolve into renewed violence (Why Civil Resistance Works). The Catholic Peacebuilding Network (sponsored by Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute and Catholic Relief Services) is an ecumenical and interreligious coalition that builds on and expands the church’s role as an agent for peace, especially in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, the Philippines, and Colombia. The Nonviolent Peaceforce reports that when unarmed civilian peacekeepers accompany women in South Sudan, the incidence of rape is zero. In its Women Peacemakers program, the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego, a Catholic institution, spotlights the important peacebuilding role of women. In David Gushee’s Evangelical Peacemakers, Sojourners editor Jim Wallis describes ten or more successful public, religiously inspired initiatives in the United States to avoid or limit the use of armed force by the U.S. government. Both the United Nations and the United States Institute of Peace now recognize the important role of faith-based peacebuilding. 

Active, nonviolent political mobilization and resistance can no longer be dismissed as utopian, naïve, or marginal. In many cases, they work. Gospel peacemaking is an integral dimension of discipleship and a powerful form of real-world politics, to which the global Catholic Church is not yet as committed as it should and could be. Catholics who are not directly touched by violence too rarely appreciate not only the devastating effects it has on other people’s lives and societies, but also their own complicity in that devastation and their own power to bring change.

Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, recognizes that the reason for lack of action on climate change is not knowledge, good theory, or the support of religious teaching. It is lack of political will. Francis calls the Catholic Church and all faith traditions to create momentum for environmental action through interreligious prayer, public shows of support, protests, and symbolic actions. One result was the Catholic-led pilgrimage from Rome to Paris to urge that the 2015 UN summit on climate change (COP 21) enact meaningful and binding policy on greenhouse gas emissions. Laudato Si’  has raised consciousness around the world, heightened commitment by Catholics, evoked corresponding documents from Jewish and Muslim leaders, and stimulated programs and initiatives such as the Global Catholic Climate Movement and the U.S.-based Catholic Climate Covenant. Why not a similar effort on just peace and peacebuilding? In June, the bishops of South Sudan, citing the Rome conference, called their congregations to work for justice, peace, and reconciliation to end their country’s civil war. Peacebuilding is a mandate for the global church as well.

The message of fifty years of social teaching is that the entire church’s mission is to celebrate God’s gift of peace. As peacebuilders, Christians are to take that gift beyond the church, nourishing it with other faith traditions. Catholic peacebuilding can work as leaven in societies desperately afflicted by violence, and in societies with a history of violent intervention abroad.

Lisa Sowle Cahill is professor of theology at Boston College

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Published in the September 9, 2016 issue: View Contents
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