Just War and Just Peace

    A conference for which the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace was one of the co-sponsors met in the Vatican on 11-13 April. Participants affirmed a statement calling for the Catholic Church to “re-commit to the centrality of Gospel Non-violence” and asking for Pope Francis “to share with the world an encyclical on nonviolence and Just Peace.” Some of the more important paragraphs:

        The time has come for our Church to be a living witness and to invest far greater human and financial resources in promoting a spirituality and practice of active nonviolence and in forming and training our Catholic communities in effective nonviolent practices. ...
        Clearly, the Word of God, the witness of Jesus, should never be used to justify violence, injustice or war. We confess that the people of God have betrayed this central message of the Gospel many times, participating in wars, persecution, oppression, exploitation, and discrimination.
        We believe that there is no “just war”. Too often the “just war theory” has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war. Suggesting that a “just war” is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict. ...
        We propose that the Catholic Church develop and consider shifting to a Just Peace approach based on Gospel nonviolence. A Just Peace approach offers a vision and an ethic to build peace as well as to prevent, defuse, and to heal the damage of violent conflict. This ethic includes a commitment to human dignity and thriving relationships, with specific criteria, virtues, and practices to guide our actions. We recognize that peace requires justice and justice requires peacemaking.

    The statement put me in mind of a dialogue on just war and pacifism that was held in Washington, D. C., in January 1973.

The meeting was sponsored by the United States Catholic Conference in response to criticisms that “the Church in the United States is ‘departing from its historic teaching on war indulge sentiments of pacifism.'” Two committees engaged in the dialogue, one representing the just war tradition and chaired by General Thomas A. Lane, the other, chaired by Bishop John J. Dougherty and including Gordon Zahn, Brian Hehir, and myself, asking for room for a personal Catholic pacifism and defending a right to conscientious objection.

    The very civil conversation went into discussions of history, theology, and law, exploring, for example, the difference between pacifism as a personal conviction and choice and as a policy for states. Concluding statements reflecting on the dialogue were made. The Lane committee expressed disappointment that the dialogue “failed to define, clarify and reconcile differences,”  failed, too, “to bring the question of conscience in war into a balanced perspective as part of the whole of a citizen’s civic duty.” The Dougherty committee found agreement “that the just war teaching, in its presently developed form, remains the basic affirmation of the politico-strategic ethic of the Catholic Church,” but they also said they didn’t believe that “the use of the just war theory exhausts the options for a Catholic Christian faced with the decision to participate in a war.”  Clearly, the focus was on the question of conscientious objection, whether general or specific, and the debate was all the more important because it occurred in the midst of the Vietnam War. As I pointed out, draft boards were refusing to grant conscientious objection status to young Catholics objecting to that war in particular but not to war in general. (I had had personal experience of this as a young curate in Yonkers.)

    The discussion was recorded, edited, and published as “Just War and Pacifism: A Catholic dialogue” (Washington: USCC, 1973).

    These questions never go away. Participants in the recent Vatican conference included people from areas of the world that are plagued by violence and kinds of great and fatal injustice, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. That we need to encourage and to foster non-violent mentalities and behaviors I think is obvious, even a Gospel-mandate. But if physical force were needed to prevent Boko Haram from kidnapping and enslaving hundreds of girls, or to rescue them, if it were needed to prevent the inhuman atrocities being inflicted daily, I would not regard such intervention as unjust.

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

Please email comments to editors@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Books