A question for sports fans: What would you make of a coach who drills his team exclusively on last-minute desperation plays, while neglecting the basics? What would you make of players whose whole mindset was geared toward spectacular buzzer-beaters, but couldn’t play sound defense? In much the same manner, a church whose members never train themselves in nonviolent social strategies for resisting injustice or protecting the vulnerable—while their leaders spend centuries focused mainly on “exceptional” last-resort situations of the kind envisioned in just-war doctrine—is way off its game. Or in the wrong game altogether.

A year ago I participated in the Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference, an historic event organized by Pax Christi International and co-sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in Rome. At its close, the conference issued an appeal to the Catholic Church, urging that it “re-commit to the centrality of Gospel nonviolence.” The document reflected the consensus of eighty-some attendees from more than thirty countries—lay people, theologians, religious, and priests, including six bishops—that the church must abandon its reliance on “just-war” theory. By dedicating his 2017 World Day of Peace message to the theme, “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace,” Pope Francis has signaled that church leadership is listening.

What is so wrong with the just-war theory? The answer lies in the way it overlooks and even undermines alternative approaches. The critique that emerged at the meeting was that while many Christians have come to assume that Jesus’ nonviolent teachings are impractical in the face of violence, they know little about the practice, power, or effectiveness of those teachings. When Pope John Paul II looked back on the 1989 revolution that brought down the Soviet empire, he did not credit Ronald Reagan or Mikhail Gorbachev, but resolute nonviolent action by ordinary people. And rightly so. Political-science researchers Maria Stephan (a participant at the Rome conference) and Erica Chenoweth have extensively surveyed conflicts around the world since 1900 and found that nonviolent resistance campaigns have been twice as successful as violent struggles.

Why have we relied on militarism and so often ignored the power of nonviolence? Arguably, the church’s centuries-old focus on “just war” bears great responsibility. In this view, just-war teaching has distracted Catholics from learning, developing, and practicing strategic nonviolence. At times it has excused them from even trying.

What’s so wrong with just-war theory? The way it overlooks and even undermines alternative approaches

As an alternative, the conference called upon the Catholic Church to shift to a “Just Peace” framework for guiding its responses to war, violence, and injustice. Based in Gospel nonviolence, such an approach means much more than refraining from violence; in the words of the conference’s appeal, it offers a positive and proactive “vision and an ethic to build peace as well as to prevent, defuse, and to heal the damage of violent conflict,” even as it provides “specific criteria, virtues, and practices to guide our actions.” The conference’s request and great hope was that Pope Francis would issue an encyclical to call the church back to Jesus’ teachings and to underscore the power of active nonviolence.   

Prompting debate at the conference, and in the ensuing months, was a blunt statement in the final document asserting that “there is no ‘just war’,” together with a plea that the church “no longer use or teach ‘just war theory.’” Some who read news reports assumed, from Vatican co-sponsorship of the conference, that this appeal represented an official shift in church teaching, or amounted to another Francis surprise—to the alarm of some and celebration of others. Such reactions were premature. The message of the conference was to the Vatican, not from the Vatican.

In a certain sense, though, the conference and its message said nothing new, even at their bluntest. Consider the witness of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the notorious and very conservative head of the Holy Office at the time of the Second Vatican Council. The conviction that war can never be just is one that Ottaviani would have seconded, not censured. Pastoral work during World War II had once led him to write that “bellum omnino interdicendum”—war is altogether to be forbidden. The price that the poor disproportionately pay even when a cause seems just had convinced him that modern war, at least, is always massively unjust. The cardinal may have resisted almost every change initiated at the council, but not its changing attitude toward war.

Ottaviani’s successor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was also hardly known for left-leaning tendencies, yet he likewise said in a 2003 interview that the indiscriminate nature of modern weaponry means “we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a ‘just war.’” Later, as Pope Benedict XVI, he insisted in a February 2007 Angelus that Jesus’ teaching on love of enemies constitutes the very “nucleus of the ‘Christian revolution.’” And now, Pope Francis has welcomed the “positive contribution” of the April 2016 conference toward “revitalizing the tools of nonviolence,” and has gone on to make his own contribution in his World Day of Peace 2017 message. In that message he sketched out both the biblical basis for a “politics of nonviolence” and the historical successes of active nonviolence at overcoming injustice. 

The April 2016 conference thus represented a deepening discourse about a shift already long underway. Certainly it would be wrong to confuse the conference’s final appeal with an authoritative pronouncement from the church’s magisterium. The authority of its call to move from “just war” to “just peace” was the moral authority of grassroots peacebuilders from conflict zones around the world. But those two kinds of authority are now deeply and more publicly involved in a conversation.


For the sake of that conversation, it may help to clarify what conference participants were saying about just-war theory—and what they left unsaid. Historically, just-war teaching has addressed three overlapping audiences, according to three interlocking purposes.

1. Pastoral counsel. The just-war theory has long served to provide pastoral counsel to Christians in positions of civil authority. By the late third century, growth in the Christian community was spiking upward, and soon emperors beginning with Constantine abandoned their intermittent attempts to quash the movement. As their religion became legal, and then official, Christians started—as the hit musical Hamilton puts it—to be “in the room where it happens.” To be sure, suspicion of just-war theory among Christian peace activists tracks closely with suspicion regarding this “Constantinian settlement.” The “room where it happens,” they suspect, is neither a conference room nor a confessional, but a room where Christians have gone to bed with worldly power.

Protesting the Vietnam War outside the Pentagon, 1967 / Wikimedia

Yet even the harshest critics of fourth-century developments in Christianity are wise to acknowledge this much: every social movement comes to a watershed if it actually wins, and its leaders must decide how to institute the changes they have called for. When Ambrose chastised the emperor Theodosius for a merciless massacre, or Augustine counseled high-ranking officials to temper their exercise of the sword, they were accepting a challenge all activists share. Today’s antiwar activists must do something akin to what early just-war thinkers did, whenever they seek or gain the ear of policymakers—namely, they must appeal to the highest principles that policymakers are willing to accept, even if those principles fall short of Jesus’ teachings. To take up the task of advocacy at all—to say nothing of international diplomacy—is to learn how to use other people’s languages to win what one knows may be partial gains. If “love your enemies” falls on deaf ears, even a Christian pacifist may insist that a given war fails to serve a just cause, or pursues a wrongful objective, or is disproportionate and indiscriminate, or has been launched prematurely before other options have been explored. The April conference in Rome on nonviolence and just peace did not denounce this tactical use of just-war theory.

2. International law. As the medieval gave way to the modern era, pastoral counsel was secularized and codified into the norms, treaties, conventions, and institutions that constitute the framework of international law. It is hardly an accident that such leading just-war theorists of the early-modern period as Francisco de Vitoria or Hugo Grotius were also among the founders of international law. Some critics today view international law as doing little more than providing a façade of respectability for powerful nations—nations that defy accountability when they themselves stand accused. Yet how many antiwar activists would like to do without recourse to Geneva Conventions in making their case? What resettlement agency wishes for a weaker rather than a stronger basis for winning legal status for refugees? Similarly, what human-rights lawyer would advocate dismantling the framework of international law simply because just-war theory has historically played a role in its formulation? Those gathered in Rome last April made no such suggestion.

3. Forming the people of God? Here is the problem, however: Neither of these first two kinds of just-war discourse will do much to curtail warfare or create conditions of peace when a populace is formed in habits of fear, seduced by nationalism, trained to rely on military actions for easy solutions, and easily swayed by false leaders or misleading popular passions. It is here that most participants in the Rome conference directed their prophetic critique from the trenches of conflict zones around the world. In their view, if just-war teaching is supposed to form the church as a whole in its sacramental vocation and evangelizing mission of peace—which Pope John Paul II in his 2000 World Day of Peace message insisted must be a “not secondary but essential” commitment for all the Catholic faithful—then it has been an abject failure.

I have seen this failure happen, again and again, whenever parishioners have the courage to touch the hot button of war, across the pew or over coffee. A predictable sequence of events ensues. Soon the church’s tradition of teaching that “war can be just”—in exceptional circumstances and with careful discernment—has morphed into “the church does not say war is wrong.” National leaders marshal political support for a war, and patriotic fervor pressures people to “rally ‘round the flag” and “support our troops.” Meanwhile, bishops underplay Vatican reservations about a given war and prominently assure us that “nations have a right to self-defense.” By now, the statement that “war can be just” is more than halfway to becoming “loyal Catholics are loyal citizens who will support the war as a matter of course.”


If the Catholic faithful were really trained in just-war theory and encouraged to practice it in parish and diocesan forums, they would know that a just cause alone does not a just war make. Other moral criteria must bear heavily on just-war discernment as well. If the criterion of just cause trumps all other considerations, then what we really have is holy war, a tradition that the church has discarded. And for good reason. To sacralize a cause is to make one’s actions impervious to further scrutiny; by now, “war can be just” has become “win at all costs.” Rationalizations then follow for torture, carpet bombing, perpetually hovering drones, and the threat of nuclear holocaust to terrorize entire populations into submission. What Augustine once authorized as “necessity” has become “you gotta do what you gotta do.”

None of this is what careful moral theologians intend just-war teaching to do; their intention is to assist in minimizing the violence necessary to maintain a just order in a fallen world. But we must be honest about how just-war discourse has been manipulated again and again over the centuries, in war after war. In a system that claims to be so realistic, this too is a hard fact. Just-war theory cannot be counted as useful if it only works consistently among specialists, failing to mobilize stringent scrutiny of warfare in pews and populace. Even if just-war theorists find a few historical counter-examples to contest the claim of the Rome conference that “there is no ‘just war’,” they must recognize the theory’s failure to help the people of God scrutinize and resist unjust wars.

If just-war theorists wish to maintain the option of exceptional recourse to the “just war,” they should join in the call to encourage the teaching and training of active nonviolence within a robust framework of just peace. The logic of just-war theory itself, after all, implies that we can’t really know if warfare is necessary in the last resort unless we first resort to other strategies. But we can’t begin to claim to have done any first, second, or fifteenth resorting if our investment in those strategies is only a tiny fraction of our investment in military strategies. Nor can we make any such claim if churches are preoccupied with an option that was supposed to be exceptional.

The core, unassailable claim of the conference in Rome was that by focusing its teaching, pastoral counsel, chaplaincy, and advocacy on “just war,” the church has paid a huge opportunity cost, to the detriment of its own nonviolent practice. When too many priests, bishops, and moral theologians continue to rely on a just-war framework, they crimp the creative imagination of the faithful and invite nationalistic manipulation of their sentiments. It was only one particularly egregious example of this failure when George Weigel used just-war teaching to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq by demanding that Christians defer to the Bush administration’s “charism of political discernment.” Out of thin air Weigel had conjured a charism not shared by bishops or other religious leaders, let alone “public intellectuals” or individual Christians.

Though we seem stuck with a semantically negative term, active nonviolence is in fact a positive. Within a just-peace framework, it is certainly more than protest or civil resistance. It is creative diplomacy. It is behind-the-scenes conflict transformation of the sort that the Vatican and the Colombian church have brought to fruition in a breakthrough peace accord between guerrillas and the government. It is the training of local communities and regional leaders in processes of restorative justice, followed by the institutionalizing of those processes in legal systems. It is demilitarized police forces. It is trauma healing that diverts cycles of violence in devastated communities around the world, and supports veterans in deed, not merely with slogans.

Courageous Catholics and church leaders are already practicing many of these strategies, and the April 2016 conference brought their experiences to the fore. This commitment to the wider and deeper development of creative nonviolence is the growing edge of the Catholic tradition—and we must stop allowing reliance on just-war theory to blunt it. Curbing that reliance will be crucial if we are to deepen and improve our practice of the creative forms of nonviolent civil engagement that practitioners since Mahatma Gandhi have been teaching us.

As a global church, we can play a significant role in scaling up pilot projects for defending vulnerable peoples nonviolently, using models developed by groups such as Christian Peacemaker Teams and Nonviolent Peaceforce. Strengthening our own track record might even give the church the expertise and confidence needed to advocate for what Harvard’s Gene Sharp has called “transarmament,” whereby nation-states organize their citizenry in the “civilian-based defense” that makes a populace “unconquerable” and allows it to shift away from counterproductive military strategies. Even in World War II, widespread civil resistance was far more effective at this than history books written by militarists allow; Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway for example, but never really succeeded in ruling them. A Catholic Church with imagination undimmed by just-war preoccupations could lead the way in translating historical examples and contemporary pilot projects into policy and politics.

“Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace”: the title of Pope Francis’s 2017 World Day of Peace message makes an unmistakable point. We should no longer damn nonviolence with faint praise by recognizing it only as a heroic witness for saints, or as a tactic we recommend to protesters only when we fear their desperation will turn violent and upset our comfortable lives. Instead, as Francis implies, nonviolence must become normal and natural to us—must become our very “style of politics.” We must recognize its potential and indeed its power not just in private life, but for civil society movements, and in public life and governance itself.

But for that, we need practice. And on the right field, with the right game plan.

Gerald W. Schlabach is emeritus professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and formerly the chair of justice and peace studies there. He is the author of A Pilgrim People: Becoming a Catholic Peace Church (Liturgical Press, 2019), lead author of Just Policing, Not War (Liturgical Press, 2007), and coeditor of At Peace and Unafraid: Public Order, Security and the Wisdom of the Cross (Herald Press, 2005).

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Published in the June 16, 2017 issue: View Contents
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