All my life I have been haunted by Catholic teachings on just war.  Well, I exaggerate. It was not until age three that I launched my first allegedly just war against my older brother James. Nonetheless, by the end of grade school I was semi-fluent in the teachings about just cause, legitimate authority, last resort, likely success, no deliberate attacks on noncombatants, and proportionality in means and ends. 

That fluency came mostly from two sources (leaving aside my parents and James), two journals that came into our home. The pacifist Catholic Worker regularly discussed just-war principles either to criticize them or to demonstrate how they ruled out any contemporary war. The just-war oriented Commonweal made those same principles the touchstone of its support of Western defense against Soviet totalitarianism while raising moral challenges to the nuclear balance of terror and the anti-Communist fever that fed wasteful armaments and anti-democratic entanglements overseas.

To my young mind, what pacifism and just-war principles had in common loomed much larger than what divided them, namely that America’s military actions stood under moral scrutiny and judgment. It did not take much maturity to recognize that “just war” principles could as well be named “unjust war” principles. So in high school and college I wrote papers branding as immoral the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and other U.S. military adventures. My Catholic teachers did not necessarily agree, but they understood the frameworks in which I argued. I cannot say the same for my Catholic classmates. For them, as I suspect for most people, morality pertained primarily to personal and not public-policy choices. If they applied moral principles to the question of war, these were inchoate, implicit, and heavily mixed with patriotism and Cold War ideology. They were not articulated in terms either of pacifism or just-war teaching. 

The force of these two moral currents, both in their convergence and divergence, continued to make itself felt. There was the draft facing all healthy males—and then the war in Vietnam, a major preoccupation of my time as a young member of Commonweal’s editorial staff. When I chose a PhD topic, it was a study of a group of French left-wing, anti-militarist intellectuals debating how their nation should respond in the 1930s to the rise of Nazi Germany’s power. 

Many years ago, I wrote in these pages (“Appointment with Hitler,” July 12, 1985) about the way my year in Parisian libraries researching those debates affected my views of pacifism and just-war teaching. To be sure, with few exceptions, the intellectuals I was studying were not Christians. The pacifists among them were not motivated by the Gospel but by convictions about capitalism, nationalism, class exploitation, and the “merchants of death” that were as passionately held and absolute as Dorothy Day’s or Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitments to nonviolence. Many had experienced the horrors of the trenches in World War I. It was impossible not to sympathize with their moral repulsion against war. 

Yet when it came to making recommendations for public policy, the record of those pacifist intellectuals was dismaying, to say the least. They made excuses for Nazism, fostered illusions about Hitler, and denounced every hint of French military response to German demands and growing military power. Pacifism did not mean passivity, they insisted; invasion could be met by organized mass resistance. Unfortunately, as I wrote here, when invasion came, “that resistance did not materialize. What materialized instead was the sorry spectacle of a few of those pacifist intellectuals setting up as embittered Nazi propagandists in occupied France, attacking the Allies and the Free French, and spinning fantasies of a peaceful United States of Europe established under Hitlerian auspices.”

Beyond those truly squalid cases of collaboration was the dismaying degree of self-righteous and wishful thinking that still makes me recoil when I hear it echoed, often with the same well-intentioned clichés and evasions, in contemporary Catholic discussions of war and peace.

When it came to making recommendations for public policy, the record of pacifist intellectuals was dismaying

My research did not end there. It included other left-wing intellectuals who were strongly anti-militarist but not pacifist. No less critical of much French foreign policy, no less appalled by the prospect of war, they concluded, reticently and painfully, that keeping the peace required France to arm itself and take the risk of confronting Hitler. Their evolving analyses were far from flawless. Nonetheless, their vision—a secular counterpart to just-war reasoning—proved not only more politically clear-eyed but morally more sustaining.   

That hardly exhausted all that could be said about pacifism in France or what did or did not contribute to the coming of war, France’s collapse, and what Jean Guéhenno, in his diary, called the “dark years” that followed. My time in Paris libraries did not preclude active opposition to what I judged to be America’s unjust war in Vietnam. Nor did my research extinguish my admiration for people, including many friends, whose pacifist principles have often provided a counterweight to the nationalist and militarist reflexes afflicting American politics, whose defiance of popular passions has demanded real courage, and whose insistence on the humanity of adversaries has planted seeds of peace and reconciliation. Finally, that year could not resolve the specifically Christian question whether faithful discipleship of Jesus entails refusal to resist evil through violence regardless of consequences, as thinkers such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder and a host of their followers have argued.

Yet, when all was said and done, my immersion in those morally consequential debates of pre-war France undermined any tendency to assume that pacifism automatically occupies the moral high ground, especially the moral high ground from which to judge just-war thinking. It might, in fact, be the other way around. It might be the reasoning and challenge of the just-war tradition that assures the moral honesty and integrity of pacifism.

Not that I sit comfortably with all elements of the just-war tradition, or the church’s failures to propagate and live up to it, or the absence of citizenly virtues that would enliven it. If I prefer to use terms like just-war “teaching,” “thinking,” “reasoning,” “principles,” and “tradition” instead of “theory” or “doctrine,” it is precisely because the former suggest something in process, open to criticism, and always in need of correction. But over my decades of struggling with the tradition’s strengths and weaknesses along with those of pacifism, few ideas have struck me as more wrong-headed than the belief that an essential step in converting people to nonviolence or active peacemaking is the renunciation of just-war thinking. (See “Just War?”)


The pressure for such a renunciation is growing. It was a leading demand, perhaps the leading demand, of the Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference held last April in Rome, with the support of Vatican officials and other religious leaders. Whatever was the conference thinking?

“We live in a time of tremendous suffering, widespread trauma and fear linked to militarization, economic injustice, climate change, and a myriad of other specific forms of violence,” the conference declared—and who could disagree? 

Syria, Libya, South Sudan, Central Africa, South China Sea, Myanmar, Nigeria, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey-Kurdistan, Israel-Palestine, Darfur, Yemen, Ukraine, Venezuela, and on and on. Massacres, rapes, starvation, torrents of desperate refugees. Most recently, an ignorant and temperamentally challenged American commander-in-chief slides toward a nuclear face-off against a thirty-something, isolated North Korean despot.

In the face of such brutal realities, one can heartily endorse every scrap of nonviolent peacemaking that can be summoned—and urge that the church summon more. But did the conference really imagine that nonviolence alone would stop all this bleeding? Is this really the moment to call for the enfeebling of one of the few recognized moral traditions of restraint? The idea that a key prerequisite for advancing nonviolent peacemaking is the Catholic Church’s abandonment of just-war teaching and principles rests in my opinion on a number of assumptions, all of them false. 


Assumption Number One: Nonviolence, peacemaking, and pacifism are essentially interchangeable notions. Accordingly, espousing just-war principles is incompatible with supporting nonviolent peacemaking.

The focus of the Rome conference was nonviolent peacemaking. It was acknowledged that nonviolence in itself can be passive or indifferent toward conflict-breeding injustice. Whether nonviolence serves peacemaking obviously depends on the ends as well as the means—and the circumstances. Nothing at the conference demonstrated a contradiction between (a) a conviction that circumstances may possibly arise in which nonviolence no longer serves peace and justice unless supplemented by lethal force and (b) a determination to strengthen whatever nonviolent attitudes, practices, and institutions might possibly prevent those circumstances from arising. 

The eighty-three conference participants submitted almost sixty brief reflections on their experiences with nonviolent peacemaking. Many recount concrete efforts to overcome enmities and build relationships in situations of civil war, tribal conflict, drug-cartel killing, neighborhood crime, and family abuse. The stories are informative and humbling, testimonies to courage, creativity, and spiritual depth. But most make no reference to just-war principles; no more than half a dozen articulate any critique. These testimonies confirmed theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill’s own reflection for the conference on how contact with people “on the front lines” changed her theological perspective. “These people do not debate ‘just war vs. pacifism.’ They simply get to work for peace with justice.” Conference participants described many forms of nonviolent peacemaking: building networks of trust; challenging injustices with demonstrations, disruptions, or civil disobedience; healing traumas; encouraging restorative justice; offering unarmed protection of civilians, and so on. Virtually all such nonviolent peacemaking efforts could and should be fully supported by believers in just-war principles.

And a lot of other, less extraordinary measures, too. We have devised international institutions like the United Nations and its civilian observers and armed peacekeepers, international courts, organizations addressing trade, public health, human rights, and other matters. We have devised peacemaking practices like foreign assistance, disaster relief, and refugee services. There are arms-control agreements and inspection agencies. 

Many of these institutions are flawed, in some cases egregiously; in almost all cases they are underfunded. Churches and individual Christians support many of these peacemaking endeavors, though far from sufficiently. When established methods of peacefully resolving conflicts—e.g., political liberties and democratic elections—are threatened by violence, difficult questions of conscience can arise about defending them. But there is no evidence that the expunging of just-war principles would increase support for these “normal” forms of building and preserving peace.   

Unfortunately, what is being proposed is more drastic, and strangely lacking in transparency

Pacifism is another matter. As a refusal to bear arms, cooperate with armed force, or engage in potentially lethal action under any circumstances, pacifism is obviously incompatible with any criteria, however stringent, that could admit the possibility of a just war. Like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and, long before them, this journal, I believe that conscientious objection to military service springing from longstanding, deeply rooted convictions about the ethics of killing deserves the respect and legal protection of the United States, whether those convictions are based on just-war principles or absolute pacifism.

But pacifism is not necessarily peacemaking. It may be—and sometimes has been—or it may not be.  Peacemaking is an empirical undertaking. The Christian pacifism dominant at the Rome conference is not. Such pacifists’ religious or moral commitments do not rest on the likelihood of any particular outcome. If refusing military preparations or action would most likely result in massive atrocities, loss of freedom, and human degradation, so be it. For Christian pacifists, that outcome would be painfully mysterious, but it would not change what they judge to be a divine obligation of nonviolence revealed in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus; it would not change their faith that tolerating these earthly horrors must somehow be part of God’s design for eschatological fulfillment.

This is not an easy faith to hold, and pacifists must resist a grave temptation to make it easier by consciously or unconsciously trimming their reading of present circumstances and possible outcomes to ease any dissonance with an underlying a priori stance. There are many ways of doing this, from exaggerating the effectiveness of nonviolent techniques to averring that in each and every case, whatever the evil consequences of rejecting military action, the consequences of undertaking it would be far worse. That was the failure of my left-wing French pacifist intellectuals. This kind of illusion and self-deception did not, and do not, serve peacemaking.  

The pacifists whose views dominated last April’s Rome gathering have a much profounder theological and spiritual grounding than those French intellectuals. But they run the danger of practicing the same “stealth” pacifism, presenting a program of peacemaking that claims to be pragmatic, practically effective, and solidly based on evidence—when in fact it is driven by a pre-existing doctrinal commitment not really subject to normal tests of evidence. For them, just-war thinking is morally invalid because of an absolute belief that the Gospel mandates a way of life in which resort to armed force can never be countenanced. 

This is a stark theological divide: exegetical, Christological, ecclesiological. It goes to the heart of how Catholic pacifists understand their faith and themselves. No wonder that materials produced by the Rome meeting often appear less focused on promoting just peacemaking than on denouncing the just-war tradition. Out of seventeen “Frequently Asked Questions” displayed on the conference website, one describes “gospel nonviolence”; one describes “a ‘just peace’ approach”; nine criticize just-war theory. And what is rooted in prior theological conviction gets translated, again, into allegations of fact.    


Assumption Number Two: From Constantine to yesterday, just-war teachings have legitimated wars. That claim has been so constantly repeated as to be taken for granted even by critical defenders of just-war thinking. According to the Rome meeting’s FAQs, for sixteen-hundred years the just-war “concept” has primarily “functioned to legitimate war, perpetuate war, and establish a war system.”

As someone with the misfortune to be trained in history rather than theology, I wonder whether this is more logical deduction than historical fact. Did post-Constantine Roman emperors make sure their military defenses of imperial borders had approval from the church? Did the freshly baptized chieftains of invading “barbarians” or feuding medieval lords check with churchmen before riding into battle? Was Charles V driven to invade Italy and sack Rome by just-war theory? Did Louis XIV feel the need to meet just-war criteria before marching into the Rhineland? And why were there so many wars perpetrated and war-systems perpetuated in eras and lands and cultures not burdened by these legitimating just-war principles?

In the modern period, I see little evidence, alas, that statesmen cared a whit about just-war teachings—or official Catholic approval, for that matter—in their decision-making. At best, they drew on some analogous ideas rooted not in Augustine but in common sense, international law, political calculations, and visceral fears. In my lifetime, I can think only of President George H. W. Bush’s awkward attempt to refer to just-war doctrine in his case for the first Gulf War—almost certainly a response to the American Catholic bishops’ invocation of those teachings in criticism of Ronald Reagan’s nuclear policy.

But this historical claim of legitimation comes in other flavors. One is a negative version. Even if just-war teachings did not provide positive legitimation for all sixteen hundred years of warfare, including the development of nuclear weapons, that “moral framework” has proved a “pervasive...failure” in not preventing it. (One could say the same about the commandments against theft and fornication.) Without the handicap of this “moral framework,” the church would have presumably been able to block these evils, including the Manhattan Project to defeat Hitler—but of course there would have been no Hitler.

This strikes me as a fantastic exercise in what is called counterfactual history. History is a bloody mess marked by shameful Christian betrayals of the Gospel. We understandably seek some key that would have made it all otherwise. For example, a church pure of all the sins incumbent on links to political power yet simultaneously wielding moral sway over a Christendom. This counterfactual narrative ignores, in fact, the fluctuating forms and fortunes of just-war thinking over many centuries, ignores the relationship between religion and power in the ancient world (indeed through most of human existence), ignores the church’s default role of providing civic order after the deterioration of Roman authority, ignores the realities of “inculturating” the warrior ethic during the succeeding eras of invasion and feudalism, and ignores the twists and turns of church-state ties and secularization lasting into the nineteenth century. To say nothing of plain old human ambition, greed, hatred, cruelty, and fear. The Just-War Theory as Original Sin story is not history. It is myth, and myth in the service of a theological precommitment. 

Two other versions of this assumption about the function of just-war thinking focus on contemporary Catholics. One is a slippery-slope version. Once you admit the possibility of any just war, you are well on the way to justifying all of them, even crusades or “holy wars.” The other version hangs on a Catholic law of conservation of imagination and energy. Church life is zero sum. Any attention and validity granted to the just-war tradition is necessarily subtracted from what would otherwise be expended on nonviolent peacemaking.   

Again, what is the evidence? Surely Catholic knowledge of just-war principles is uneven, sketchy, or just plain lacking. Surely Catholics are shaped by the surrounding political culture, including its uncritical national loyalty or vulnerability to war fevers. Surely there are grave deficiencies of formation and catechesis here—as in many other crucial areas of Catholic life. Is a church currently hemorrhaging members, struggling to communicate basic truths, reducing services for want of funds, and failing to replenish its leadership going to burst into a fount of peacemaking energy—if only the heavy hand of just-war teaching was lifted? 

Back on planet earth, simply imagine a survey (funding welcome). Take a sample of Catholics with more than a passing knowledge of just-war criteria. Take a similar sample of those with no such knowledge. Which will prove more cautious about military interventions? Which will be more supportive of diplomacy, international institutions and mediation, or negotiated settlements? Which will be more perturbed by civilian casualties or appalled by U.S. atrocities? Which will be more sympathetic to nonviolent peacekeeping initiatives? Which will be more generous about supporting relief services or economic development? I will put my money on the Just-War Sample. 

Assumption Number Three: Catholicism remains the monolithic, clerical, and authoritarian reality that it was before Vatican II.

The Rome meeting’s proponents of repudiating just-war teaching would doubtless disavow that assumption. But I find little in their stance that looks to the baptized in the pews for wisdom or seeks dialogue with a range of Catholic thinkers and leaders, including those with experience in diplomacy, military service, or political and economic institution-building. On the contrary, the Rome conference makes it clear that while its Appeal is meant for all Catholics, “the initial focus is on the pope and magisterium.”  The hope, as explained in a conference reply to a Frequently Asked Question, is that just-war teaching will be struck from the Catechism of the Catholic Church as no longer “Catholic” and similarly invalidated in statements by bishops conferences (like the U.S. bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter on nuclear arms) and other statements by bishops and Catholic organizations. 

In his reflection prepared for the conference, Fr. John Dear, SJ, was blunt about this strategy. “Catholics do not know anything about nonviolence,” he wrote, but “all support violence and war.” Therefore, the church must “reject the just-war theory once and for all.... Because we are a hierarchical church, I suppose we need to push Rome.... We may never have a better chance than under Pope Francis.”

In sum, Catholics are in the tow of just-war doctrine because it has been dictated from above; and they would change if it were not. Are the Catholic people, especially today, really so passive? Or will they make “just peacemaking” central in their faith lives only if persuaded, not ordered? To the extent just-war teachings are at all known and accepted in the pews, it may be because those teachings speak to obvious questions about peace, war, justice, and security. Don’t assume that if Catholic authorities renounce those teachings, Catholics would flock to the nonviolent peacemaking practices celebrated by the Rome conference. There are, after all, other options: realpolitik, utilitarianism, a blank check for the government, jingoism.  

The tendency of opponents of just-war teachings to favor old-fashioned argument from authority doesn’t stop with well-chosen papal quotations. It extends to favored secular authorities. The works of Gene Sharp, an eminent theoretician of nonviolent civilian resistance, are elevated almost to biblical status. The Rome meeting also gave a kind of canonical status to a recent work, Why Civil Resistance Works, though without naming it: “Recent academic research,” declared the final Appeal, “has confirmed that nonviolent resistance strategies are twice as effective as violent ones.”

Why Civil Resistance Works by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan (Columbia University Press) is an impressive study, weighty with eighteen Tables and eleven Figures and numerous cases, statistical comparisons, and methodological qualifications. One wonders how many of the peace activists who affirmed its conclusion in Rome had actually opened it. Its authors, to their credit, acknowledge the many problems surrounding their methods, definitions, and measurements. Most importantly, it is essentially a study of insurgencies, of intrastate rather than interstate conflicts. Its findings about the advantages of nonviolent over violent resistance are highly pertinent to Hamas and the Taliban, to the Muslim Brotherhood, Black Lives Matter, dissenters in Hong Kong, China, or Venezuela, and to indigenous and separatist movements in many places. Applying its findings to the Pentagon, NATO, Iraq, Iran, nuclear proliferation, the Paris Accords, or Russia is a very different matter. (Theoretically, of course, any interstate conflict or threat of conflict could be turned into an intrastate one if one nation preemptively surrendered to its adversary and then conducted a nonviolent resistance campaign against it—e.g., if South Korea surrendered to the North and then waged a nonviolent campaign against Kim Jong-un. The authors do not examine this kind of scenario.) A favorable review in Peace News, a British publication, noted that Eastern Europe may have freed itself from Soviet domination through nonviolent action; but instead of disarming, these nations promptly joined NATO rather than entrust their newly won independence to nonviolence. To elevate Why Civil Resistance Works into a crushing reply to all the questions just-war teachings address does it a disservice. 

To my mind, the extraordinary assurance that opponents of just-war teachings find in a few vaunted authorities or a few selected historical episodes (e.g., of resistance to Nazi Germany) bear a strong resemblance to the uncritical we-have-the-answers apologetics of pre–Vatican II Catholicism.     

Assumption Number Four: The deep theological differences between pacifism and just-war thinking can be smoothed over with an attractive vocabulary of “peacebuilding,” “just peace,” and “Gospel nonviolence” that in practice treats those matters as settled.

Yes, language matters. Every serious exponent of just-war teachings regrets that the very phrase can be misunderstood and abused—and has been. Every good-faith critic of those teachings knows that, too. If it were only being proposed that the church always label this body of thought “just-and-unjust war” teachings, I would welcome it. Or, if you wish, call them “unjust-war” teachings. Then again the church could reframe its entire teaching about serious conflict in the language of “just peacemaking.” It could place traditional moral analyses regarding legitimate or illegitimate use of lethal or military force within a larger emphasis on nonviolence and the full panoply of promising nonviolent responses. Some would argue that the pope and many church leaders have long since been doing that.  

Unfortunately, what is being proposed is more drastic. And strangely lacking in transparency. The Rome meeting, for example, reported that just-war theory was discussed “with nuance”; and that participants “included people who value the just-war theory” and “people who saw reason for violent force in policing or peacekeeping.” No further traces of those views made it into the conference documents. Nor did the substance of a discussion of “the ramifications of...making an explicit rejection of the concept of ‘just war.’” It isn’t clear whether the conference hoped for an outright official rejection of the teachings or just their quiet asphyxiation.

The tendency of opponents of just-war teachings to favor old-fashioned argument from authority doesn’t stop with well-chosen papal quotations

One way or another, just-war teachings seem to be consigned to the dustbin of history mainly by changing the way they are talked about. What about the hard questions—e.g., genocide,  sovereignty, nuclear deterrence and proliferation—that have given new life to the just-war tradition in our time? Never mind. Better to talk about “just peace” or “Gospel nonviolence.” The new terminology imports implicit answers to those agonizing questions but without ever directly confronting them. 

It won’t work.   


I began this essay by noting the moral convergence I initially found in just-war and pacifist principles, especially when set against the accepted outlooks of most Americans, Catholics included. I was not unaware of the ultimate divergence of these two approaches. Yet they enjoyed something more than peaceful coexistence—a kind of working alliance around the general concern of putting military force under moral scrutiny and the particular concern, in notable cases, of opposing American military actions. Some Catholic neoconservatives aside, most advocates of just-war thinking have been strong advocates for church support of pacifist witness and conscientious objection.

Has that fruitful coexistence now ended? Influential Catholic pacifists have decided that this is the time to declare war on just war. To that end, they equate nonviolence, peacemaking, and pacifism; they stereotype the just-war tradition as responsible for sixteen hundred years of violence and for inhibiting contemporary nonviolent initiatives; they urge central Vatican or papal authority to officially jettison the tradition; and they do all this not so much by directly confronting just-war questions as by dissolving them in a bath of alternative concepts and vocabulary.

I am confident they are acting out of their deepest convictions and best intentions. But theirs will be a hollow victory. Certainly for peacemaking and moral restraint of war. Probably for pacifism, too. 

There is a better way. Encourage pacifists not only in their personal witness but also in their efforts to convince the church at all levels of what is a theological case, not one of practical peacemaking. At the same time, press everyone to the work of just peacemaking: those who remain adherents of just-war thinking, pacifists convinced that lethal force is impermissible for Christians no matter the circumstances, dedicated activists “on the front lines” more absorbed in immediate challenges than disputed principles, indeed all the ordinary peacemakers whose efforts should not be overlooked, humanitarian and health workers, educators, diplomats pursuing cease-fires and settlements, arms inspectors, election overseers, legal reformers, environmental scientists and engineers, development economists, and even politicians. 

Welcome them all to explore and embrace the widest possible use of nonviolent means to prevent, halt, and heal armed conflicts. Whether that is likely to work in each and every case and what Christians should do if it seems unlikely can remain contested questions. By their fruits you shall know the answers.

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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