Douglas Roche


May 2, 2016

'We believe that there is no 'just war.'" This pungent declaration jumped off the page of a statement issued by a three-day Vatican conference that set the stage for a possible intervention by Pope Francis ruling out the justification for war to resolve conflict.

The Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace teamed up with Pax Christi International (a vibrant anti-war group) to bring 80 experts engaged in global nonviolent struggles to Rome to develop a new moral framework rejecting ethical justifications for war.

They called on Pope Francis "to share with the world an encyclical on nonviolence and just peace." Since the pope sent a substantive message to the conference calling for "creative imagination" to nourish justice in a globalized world, it seems likely to me that we will, at a future moment, hear from Francis on abolishing war.

Such a major statement would undoubtedly capture world attention the same way his encyclical Laudato Si' on the environment did.

I'm not sure if Pope Francis will completely abandon the "just war" theory so long held by the Church. But if he touches the subject he's likely to send St. Augustine's teachings into a freefall.

In the fourth century, Bishop Augustine of Hippo issued a set of criteria to evaluate whether the use of violence could be considered morally justifiable. Legal authority could authorize a "just war," Augustine wrote.

Nine hundred years later, St. Thomas Aquinas, another influential theologian, set out conditions that must be met. These, principally, are that the damage must not exceed the good to be sought (proportionality) and the use of arms must not produce evils greater than the evil to be eliminated.

Throughout history, these criteria have been observed mostly in their breach, and, in modern times, the invention of weapons of mass destruction rendered limitation and proportionality in warfare obsolete.

The atomic bombs used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed 200,000 people, most of them civilians. The wars of recent times have killed four times as many civilians as military personnel.

When the Second World War ended, after the deaths of millions of non-combatants as well as the slaughter of troops, the United Nations resolved to end warfare save for two instances: in self-defence and when authorized by the Security Council. Though circumscribed, the just war theory lived on.


For years, I have felt the just war theory is completely outdated. Granted, it tried to curtail the harmful effects of warfare, but it did, in the end, condone violence. Why was violence condoned? I think it was because hardly anyone thought in terms of the universal peaceful development of humanity. Life was brutal and the strongest survived.

But the new age brought two things simultaneously: massive killings of innocents, on the one hand, and an international institution dedicated to enforcing peace, on the other.

In other words, I doubt St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas would have justified war had weapons of mass destruction and the United Nations been around in their time.

The Church has increasingly recognized not only the futility of war but the injustice of it. The Second Vatican Council condemned mass warfare. When Pope Paul VI visited the UN in 1965, he cried out: "No more war!" Pope Francis, urging the abolition of war, said faith and violence are incompatible.


Still, the Church has to deal with modern aggression. Francis himself has said the ISIS terrorists must be stopped. What kind of military action is justifiable in today's circumstances? Certainly, many more political, diplomatic and spiritual resources must be deployed.

But the fundamental question remains: is war ever justified? The practitioners of justice and peace who attended the Vatican conference evidently thought not. They recounted the successful negotiations for peace in places like Uganda and Colombia and explored how "active nonviolence" can be productive.

They agreed that the just war theory has too often been used to endorse rather than prevent war and that maintaining it 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."

These experts want a "global conversation" on nonviolence to respond to "the monumental crises of our time." Can we move world thinking from "just war" to "just peace?" Their report doubtless went to Pope Francis' desk.