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.