It was good to see articles dealing with the just-war theory in Commonweal. I agree wholly with Peter Steinfels’s argument that just-war theory must be retained (“The War against Just War,” June 16) and that Gerald Schlabach’s call for getting rid of it is based on assumptions unsupported by history (“Just War?” June 16).

Schlabach’s article is replete with what the late Canadian Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan would term “impoverished abstracts,” constructs that make everything perfectly clear by being shorn of all significant detail, not that Steinfels avoids them altogether.

Nuclear deterrence is the third rail that neither proponents of the just-war theory nor those who insist on “Gospel nonviolence” want to confront. (To my knowledge “nonviolence” is a word that, unlike “love,” appears nowhere in the New Testament.) The peace institutes flourishing throughout the land have “moved beyond” just-war theory, a very convenient progression since, if they ever dared to call an American war unjust, they would put themselves on a collision course with the Pentagon and the White House. As for those who hold to just-war theory, the vast majority of them, the editors of Commonweal included, don’t know quite what to say about it.  (They have plenty of company, of course, Pope Francis being one of their number.)

As it happens, I had something to say about it in my 1987 Commonweal article “Sidestepping the Challenge of Peace.”  I—who had some experience with the military mind since I had served as a paratrooper in Korea—contended that nuclear deterrence, given that intentionality was central to basic Catholic moral theology, was intrinsically evil because it depended on the firm intention of launch officers (daily communicants included) to set in motion on command, no questions asked, a process that would inevitably kill uncounted millions and leave us with a ravaged world in which, as Nikita Khrushchev put it, “the living will envy the dead.”

The pastoral on nuclear weapons, sad to say, was gutted by John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger, who heeded the cries of anguish from the “NATO bishops,” who were more concerned about a Soviet armor assault through the Fulda Gap than they were about what Jesus might think about starting a nuclear war.  So it was that the final version of the pastoral failed to condemn nuclear deterrence and dropped the provision implicitly condemning the use of nuclear weapons in response to an attack with conventional weapons.

The editors of Commonweal apparently agreed with the pope and the cardinal. The lead editorial in the next issue disagreed with me, insisting that there were “precious values” that had to be protected and called for the search for a “moral deterrent.”

That was a generation ago. Whether the current editors are carrying on that quest, I have no idea.

Michael Gallagher
Shaker Heights, Ohio


I wish to thank you for publishing, and Peter Steinfels for authoring, the brilliant, eloquent, and needed “The War Against Just War” in Commonweal.

I am heartened to learn Steinfels’s position in response to what sometimes seems to be Catholic absolutism in peacemaking that will not foster dialogue with those convinced that just-war norms remain crucial restraints on national use of force in legitimate defensive warfare.

Just-war norms, if followed, would have prevented the first and second invasions of Iraq under George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush respectively, and some of us demonstrated against those wars on those grounds.

Steinfels’s early study and engagement with French thinkers and his long-time, nuanced, balanced interpretation of a Catholic position on just war has led to this wonderful essay.

The cogency of his reasoning is indicated by the fact that he did not need to appeal to the sorry instance of Neville Chamberlain.

Thomas Hughson, SJ
Milwaukee, Wisc.


I find myself agreeing with aspects of both articles on so-called just war. Great dialogue! I agree with Schlabach that there has been enough talk of “just” war. In my sixty-three years as a witness to fairly constant war-making over my lifetime, that language does not fit any of my experience. Language does matter, as Steinfels notes. Call it “necessary war” if you must, but enough of the “just.”

I also agree with the likely irrelevancy of just-war pronouncements by Catholic hierarchy to what governments actually do with their military power as an exercise of national power. The gospels just don’t have much positive to say about the just use of political power, the coercive power of the Roman state having executed our God. It’s pretty tough to make a theological case for something as momentous and absolute as war on those sparse grounds. Still, that state-sponsored execution is a central part of our salvation story, grounded of course in faith and hope in the Resurrection. And, as Steinfels points out, there is the problem of evil in the world and how to respond to it. There is room for debate about how we respond to the problem of evil, and also to the evil of war.

The struggle to name, resist, and confront evil in all its forms is a part of the human, Christian, and Catholic story, a story in which we believe evil never has the last word. What is so encouraging to me about Schlabach’s article is his energetic call to make non-violent peace-making a more and more central part of the Catholic Christian story, not just leaving it to the Mennonites and Quakers among us. Debating just-war issues only, given the apparent irrelevancy of the debate to anything that actually happens, is not enough. We’ve got to act. There is much we can and should learn from the peace churches as well as from already committed Catholic peacemakers, about the prayer and spirituality of peacemaking as well as the day-to-day practice of how to live it, make it relevant, and make it work. Let’s do it!

Tom Crotty
Sinking Spring, Pa.


Thank you for the articles by Gerald Schlabach and Peter Steinfels in the June 16 edition of Commonweal.

As Schlabach states, “a just cause alone does not a just war make.” Often people of good will, including many Catholics, look only at the criterion of just cause to determine whether or not a war is justified. Church leadership does not effectively promulgate an understanding of the two parts of just-war theory: jus ad bellum (when to fight) and jus in bello (how to fight). Each of these categories is further subdivided into several principles, all of which must be carefully considered and satisfied in order for a war to be just. Schlabach states that just-war theory “overlooks and even undermines” alternative approaches. Yet last resort is an essential principle of jus ad bellum. How often do decision makers examine every possible alternative to settling a dispute before declaring war? The conscientious application of this principle of just-war theory would promote the non-violent peacemaking solutions that Schlabach recommends. He cites Pope Benedict XVI’s appeal to the principle of discrimination. This jus in bello principle states unequivocally that care must be taken so that non-combatants, their homes, and the infrastructure necessary for their lives are not destroyed. Too many Catholics dismiss the killing of civilians as “collateral damage.” Here again, careful study and application of this principle could shift the focus from conquest by any means to protecting human lives and rights with the least amount of destruction.

A prime example of misuse of just-war theory is the Second World War. From the perspective of many, if not most Americans, this war was justified. It has often been called “The Good War.” Hitler and the Nazis were running roughshod over Europe, killing millions. The Axis powers seemed poised to take over the world, as the shocking tragedy of Pearl Harbor verified. Congress then declared war. However, only three of the principles of jus ad bellum were met. The dominant rationale was just cause (attack by an aggressor). Right intention (stopping further aggression) and declaration by the legally constituted authority of a nation (U.S. Congress) were also satisfied. As far as I know, there was little or no discussion of two other ad bellum criteria, proportionality and last resort. In the case of the United States, the power to declare war is held by Congress. This declaration was the last time the principle of legally constituted authority according to the Constitution of the United States was met.

Once a war has begun, the second part, jus in bello, comes into consideration. It is no longer just the decision and action of government but is the responsibility of the military as well. Here is where the United States conduct of the Second World War often fails the test of just-war theory. The principle of non-combatant immunity was completely annihilated when weapons of mass destruction were used. One cannot call on a teleological argument that the end justifies the means. Some will attempt to justify the nuclear bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima as saving thousands of other lives; however, this violates just-war theory. Furthermore, the fire bombings of a number of Japanese and German cities ignored this principle. According to jus in bello, homes of civilians, undefended towns, hospitals, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, charity, and historic monuments may not be destroyed. The bombing of the Dresden cathedral was a particularly egregious violation of this principle.

I hope this discussion will continue in Commonweal and other publications. My fondest hope is that it will be widely presented and discussed in parishes. Since the Second World War, we have used our military in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, two wars in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and other smaller conflicts. I do not believe in any way that any of these conflicts met the criteria of just-war theory, either ad bellum or in bello. For American Catholics, this is possibly the most important issue of our era. Personally, I have often vacillated between pacifism and just-war theory. But I find myself more in agreement with Steinfels that a strict application of just-war theory, if fully supported by government and citizens, would put a stop to most wars.

Margaret P. Gilleo
St. Louis, Mo.


As these thoughtful letters indicate, Gerald Schlabach and I could have written much more, no doubt revealing points of agreement for fruitful dialogue. Just as he insists on an ethic that does not come into play only at the time of war, I would have liked to develop the line of thought opened by the late Jean Bethke Elshtain: Just-war thinking, she wrote, “presupposes a ‘self’ or citizen of a certain kind…attuned to moral reasoning…strong enough to resist the lure of…violence…laced through with a sense of responsibility…in other words, a morally formed civic character.” 

Here I will confine my remarks to Michael Gallagher’s highly pertinent letter about the “third rail” of nuclear deterrence. 

I do remember his 1987 Commonweal article. I had a hand in accepting, editing, and publishing it—and a hand in writing the editorial that disagreed with it. 

Two factual preliminaries: First, was the American pastoral letter on nuclear arms “gutted” by John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger? Did the Vatican’s intervention, pressing the worries of the French and German “NATO bishops,” keep the American drafters from condemning all nuclear deterrence and, in effect, calling for swift and unilateral nuclear disarmament? Or did the bishops, quite on their own, conclude that such a position would not only be politically unrealistic but internationally destabilizing? I believe the latter.

Second, the unusually long Commonweal editorial—“Is Deterrence Moral?”—did not appear in the next issue but four months later. It asked that question in the context of a host of issues, especially how to focus disarmament in the wake of hopes (and possibly illusions) stirred by the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting at Reykjavik and by Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) as a supposed replacement for deterrence. 

Does nuclear deterrence depend on launch officers’ willingness, at every moment, to commit a grossly immoral act?  That objection, raised by Gallagher and others before him, is a grave one. The American bishops struggled with it in a way that, as far as I can see, their French and German counterparts did not. Both Commonweal and Gallagher criticized that struggle. For Gallagher it should never have occurred. For Commonweal, although far more appreciative, it remained finally unresolved. 

This discussion should be renewed.  Unlike the case in 1987, Vatican officials are denouncing nuclear deterrence. In July the UN General Assembly approved a treaty to ban any possession of nuclear weapons. At the same time, amid talk of “fire and fury” (Donald J. Trump) and “enveloping fire” (North Korean military) many people are urging reliance on nuclear deterrence as the least dangerous policy. Morally and strategically, nuclear deterrence may be a terrible policy; evidently, it is not the worst one. My only plea is that those who condemn it recognize what motivates others who, in “fear and trembling,” as Commonweal’s 1987 editorial said, hesitate to do so. They fear that precipitous, one-sided, or unverifiable abandonment of these awful weapon systems, rather than very careful, reciprocal, and verifiable stepping away from this balance of terror, can actually increase the danger of what Gallagher, invoking Nikita Khrushchev, calls a “ravaged world” and the massacre of “uncounted millions.” 


Every writer who labors to craft unambiguous prose worries that he or she is not being clear enough. As John Courtney Murray, SJ, once said so well, “disagreement is a rare achievement, and most of what is called disagreement is simply confusion.” If an argument has not landed well enough to at least achieve true and helpful disagreement, the thought nags: Could I have done something else to communicate more clearly? And yet, as I read responses to my article on “just war,” I wonder whether something else is going on. If so, it constitutes additional evidence that even when just-war discourse aims to limit war, it undermines its own best intentions with a meta-message of support for war.

At the April 2016 conference in Rome that issued the appeal urging the Catholic Church to “re-commit to the centrality of Gospel nonviolence,” I was actually a voice warning against the sort of blanket condemnation of just-war theory that alienates conscientious practitioners of just-war analysis who have often been allies in antiwar efforts and peacebuilding work. My Commonweal article reflected reasons for this warning as I laid out and implicitly affirmed the first two of three historic purposes to which just-war teaching has been put: First, it has offered a way to provide pastoral counsel for Christians in positions of power, and second, it has thus built up the framework of international law. Indeed, half of my twofold purpose for this article was to continue my warning to fellow Catholic peace activists lest they discredit every use of just-war categories and thus overstate our case.

It is disheartening but also telling that critics of my article (beginning with Peter Steinfels) seem to have read past the nuance with which I tried to make a “yes but” argument concerning just-war discourse, and lectured me about all the useful ways that stringent just-war practitioners have applied the theory to critique and hopefully delimit specific wars. I had already stipulated such points in order to underscore what I take to be the “unassailable” central argument of the Rome appeal, which led me to support it as a consensus statement despite misgivings. Namely, the just-war tradition has failed in its third purpose of forming the people of God to be peacemakers who put loyalty to God and love of neighbors in other lands above national loyalty when even just-war principles themselves would counsel resistance to war.

Hasty readings on the way to a counter-defense of the just-war system demonstrates my point. Beyond the granular application of just-war criteria in specific times and places, which seek to meet policymakers where they are for the sake of violence reduction, “just war” is a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The system as a whole evokes a loyalty in both populace and pews that tends to authorize war even when its conscientious application requires resistance to wars. And the logical principle that abusus non tollit usum (misuse of something is no argument against its proper use) is simply not convincing as applied to the just-war theory. For in order to override both the plain words of Jesus and early Christian scruples against all bloodshed, and to justify exceptional recourse to violence in order to prevent more violence, the best and perhaps only argument has always been some claim of greater realism. But as I argued, the persistent manipulation of just-war discourse is itself a data point concerning reality, a “hard fact” with which its advocates must grapple far more. To evade such grappling by insisting it could still work in theory is something of a bait and switch.

I do agree that it is unwise of nonviolence activists to claim that no just war is ever possible—and was unwise in Rome—if for no other reason than that a disputant need only supply a single counter-example to deflect one’s larger argument. I would be glad if we could at least “achieve disagreement” over exceptions, but can only repeat my invitation to that effect: “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” since “the logic of just-war theory itself, implies that we can’t really know if warfare is necessary in the last resort unless we first resort to other strategies.” 

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Published in the October 6, 2017 issue: View Contents
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