A rosary is pictured hanging from a machine gun as Ukrainian soldiers stand at their positions near the Ukrainian town of Pervomaysk (OSV News photo/Gleb Garanich, Reuters).

My newsfeed knows what kind of stories I like: “Retired Russian General Says Putin is Leading Russia to Defeat”; “Russia’s Budget Deficit Has Surged”; “Russia Just Lost One of its Most Advanced Weapon Systems”; “New Reports on Putin’s Ailing Health.” For a short while I was also getting stories from the Hindustan Times about how the brave Russian soldiers were devastating the Ukrainian army—I must have clicked on the wrong article—but that has stopped, and the news is all good again. Like most people in the West, I find myself cheering Ukraine’s armed forces on as they inflict casualties on the Russians. This war is, as Leon Fink and others have argued, a “good war,” maybe the goodest war since World War II. The military defense of Ukraine seems to fit all the traditional Catholic just-war criteria. The lines are so clearly drawn between the aggressor and the smaller, freer nation it attacked that the war has captured our attention in the West. Add the Ukrainians’ plucky and unexpectedly successful defense against steep odds and the war in Ukraine has all the elements of must-see TV.

I don’t think this attitude is good for my soul. As the casualties mount on both sides of the conflict, I am increasingly troubled by the “good war” narrative. Not because I have any sympathy for the Russian version of events; this is clearly an unprovoked war of unjust aggression, prosecuted with criminal brutality against soldiers and civilians alike. I do not believe that Ukraine belongs to Russia’s sphere of influence any more than I believe in the Monroe Doctrine, or any more than I believe that an eighth-grader who is being bullied should accept the school pecking order as natural and inevitable. Nor do I have any affinity for Republicans whose opposition to support for Ukraine is an unappealing admixture of “America First” chauvinism and sotto voce admiration for Putin’s putatively Christian nationalism. Rather, as a Christian, I think there are reasons why lament rather than cheerleading should be our first response to the war in Ukraine. Three considerations should complicate the narrative of a good war for any Catholic.

The first is the disproportionate nature of the West’s response to the invasion of Ukraine when compared with conflicts elsewhere. The Catholic just-war criterion of proportionality is usually restricted to the consideration of whether the means used are proportional to the end sought. But a Catholic approach should also call into question the proportionality of our response to various conflicts going on in the world. The outpouring of aid for Ukraine has been motivated by a genuine concern for the victims of the invasion, a concern that is stoked by news stories updated every hour. The suffering of millions in Ukraine—and of Ukrainians scattered to other countries—has rightly attracted our attention and empathy. But the Russians have been shelling Syrian civilians and destroying their cities for years with barely a shrug from most of us in the West. In September 2018, the head of the Kremlin’s parliamentary defense committee announced that in Russia’s first three years of backing the Assad regime it had killed 85,000 people in Syria. Russia claims that these victims were all terrorists and that Russian forces killed no civilians, but that is clearly false. Millions of civilians have fled Syria, but only 20 percent of them have been welcomed by the West. Since the invasion of Ukraine began a year ago, the number of Ukrainian refugees Europe has accepted is about four times the number of Syrian refugees that it’s accepted in the ten years since the Syrian civil war began. The United States has fast-tracked refugee status for Ukrainian citizens, while other refugees from places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo wait. The conflict in Congo has been the bloodiest in the world since World War II, with the number of its casualties dwarfing those of the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts combined. But Congo never appears in my newsfeed, and most in the West pay no attention to war there.

As the casualties mount on both sides of the conflict, I am increasingly troubled by the “good war” narrative.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the “good war” narrative is unavailable to places where people are less like “us,” places where the majority is Muslim or Black. The just-war criterion of right intention prohibits going to war for self-interest; it should perhaps be expanded to critique the ways in which self-regard more generally skews the way we get involved in some wars and ignore others. In the weeks following the invasion last year, there appeared a smattering of articles in the Western press asking why the attention paid to Ukraine was so disproportionate, but I have not been able to find such articles more recently. Africans, meanwhile, seem not to have forgotten. Russia enjoys significant support among African leaders and African people, in part because Russia is seen as an alternative to Western neocolonialism. For us, the West are the good guys and the Russians are the bad guys; for much of the rest of the world, things are more complicated, in large part because our interventions in other parts of the world have not always been as altruistic as we like to think. The United States has poured arms into many places in Africa, Central America, and the Middle East, providing military aid to some very unsavory regimes and leaving devastation and chaos as our legacy. We should pause before concluding that pouring arms into Ukraine can somehow be innocent of such moral taint.


The second complicating factor for the “good war” narrative is the rise of Ukrainian nationalism, which is applauded in the West as a way to counter Russia’s attempt to erase Ukrainian culture. While I fully sympathize with the effort to resist Russian cultural imperialism, I worry that one of the casualties of the war will be prewar Ukraine’s openness to creating a multiethnic, multilingual democracy without the kind of militant nationalism that has been a scourge in so many places in the world, not least in Russia. It is of course true that not all nationalisms are the same, and the hardening of Ukrainian nationalism is an understandable reaction to a mortal threat. Nevertheless, nationalism—in its Russian form—was the principal cause of the invasion of Ukraine, and I am not convinced nationalism is something the world needs more of.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes the division of humanity into nations as a check on the pride of Babel, but it also says that “the idolatry of the nation and of its rulers constantly threaten this provisional economy with the perversion of paganism” (57). Seeing the division of the world into nations as a “provisional economy” complicates the just-war criterion of legitimate authority. Nation-states do not have absolute value, and all are challenged by the call to catholicity, which promotes the unity of the whole undivided human race. Defending the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian nation-state—that is, the borders Ukraine has had since 1991—is not an absolute value. One of the darker impulses of nationalism is to survey the horrific carnage unleashed to defend borders and to declare it “worth it.”

Which brings me to the third and weightiest reason to question the “good war” narrative: there is no such thing as a good war. Each Russian soldier sent back to his home village in a body bag is not a victory for the good side, but a wound in the heart of God. There is no question that the invasion of Ukraine is unjust, and I am in no position to tell Ukrainians how to respond. As a Catholic, however, I must lament the slaughter on both sides, the Ukrainian children killed by Russian missiles as well as the scared Russian teenagers used as cannon fodder on the front lines. Pope Francis has been criticized for not coming more firmly to Ukraine’s defense, but he is trying to do something more difficult: to respond to the invasion as a follower of Jesus Christ. Whatever else it is, the war in Ukraine is a massive failure by Christians on all sides to imagine the world as Christ would. Christ asks us to love our enemies, to respond to an excess of evil with an excess of love. We rarely stop to ask what that might look like.

There is no such thing as a good war. Each Russian soldier sent back to his home village in a body bag is not a victory for the good side, but a wound in the heart of God.

We tend to rely instead on just-war criteria to give a vaguely Christian sanction to whatever the military was going to do anyway. But the just-war tradition at its best is not a checklist of criteria to justify violence; the just-war tradition implicitly recognizes the primacy of nonviolence for followers of Jesus by demanding that a stringent moral test be passed before violence can be used. Even where those conditions are met, violence is always a last resort, a recognition of failure. Nonviolence should be the first resort, the default position for a Christian.

In fact, there have been many examples of active nonviolent resistance to the Russian invasion in Ukraine. An October 2022 report by the International Catalan Institute for Peace identified 235 acts of nonviolent resistance just in the period from February to June of last year. Such acts include farmers refusing to sell grain to Russian soldiers, firefighters refusing to join Russian departments, nonviolent protection of local officials and school directors, setting up alternative governments, and engaging Russian civil society with antiwar messaging. The report found that nonviolent resistance has protected civilians, strengthened local governance and community resistance while hindering the military and political goals of the Russian authorities, and undermined the Russian narrative about the war. Nonviolent activists say they would like their stories to be heard in the West and would like to be supported with as much enthusiasm and resources as violent resistance has generated.

Those who initially did not believe the Ukrainian military resistance had a reasonable chance of success—another just-war criterion—have mostly changed their minds. But no one yet knows how this war will turn out. To those whose fields and homes and loved ones and lives have been destroyed, will we ever arrive at a point where we will be able to face them and say it was worth it? That is a judgment we should tremble in fear to pronounce. As Pope Francis said two days before the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, “That which is built on ruins will never be a true victory.” We easily acknowledge the right to self-defense that Ukrainians have exercised as a justification for their use of violence. I am certainly in no position to scold the Ukrainian whose village is being overrun for taking up arms. But Eli McCarthy has emphasized the right to life as an alternative lens for viewing this conflict. If the hundreds of thousands killed and the millions displaced have a right to life and safety, then the definition of success changes. Avoiding carnage might take priority over defending borders. Nonviolent civilian defense, noncooperation, and peaceful protest might constitute a strategy for making Ukraine ungovernable by the Russians. As Pope Francis has pointed out, the Russian empire of Communist regimes fell thirty years ago because of nonviolent protest. It is not simple naïveté to think it might be effective again.

Nonviolent resistance, however, is not just a plausible strategy to defend Ukraine but also a path to conversion on both sides of the conflict. As Pope Benedict XVI said, “For Christians, nonviolence is not merely tactical behavior but a person’s way of being, the attitude of one who is so convinced of God’s love and power that he or she is not afraid to tackle evil with the weapons of love and truth alone. Love of one’s enemy constitutes the nucleus of the ‘Christian revolution.’” In the face of Putin’s “Christian nationalism” it is hard to imagine the power of Jesus’ Christian revolution, but that is what we are called to do. Again, my point is not to tell Ukrainians what to do, but to allow our imaginations to be captivated by those Ukrainians who know firsthand that there is no good war and who seek to try something else. 

This article appeared as one part of an exchange about the ethics of war in Commonweal’s May 2023 issue. You can read the other part of the exchange, by Tobias Winright, here.

William T. Cavanaugh is professor of Catholic studies and director of the Center for World Catholicism & Intercultural Theology at DePaul University. A version of this essay was delivered in February as an online talk for “War in Ukraine: Catholic Theological and Ethical Reflections One Year In,” an event organized by the Las Casas Institute in Oxford, UK.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the May 2023 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.