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Drew Christiansen, S. J.

The Theology of Peace and the Ethics of War:
Catholic Social Teaching and the Just War Tradition

July 12, 2002

When I was first asked to make a presentation on Catholic Social Teaching and the Just War, I thought a twenty minute framework was very tight, but do-able.  When I was later told I had only ten minutes, I said to myself, “Impossible.” But, as I have sometimes said when I have been placed in similar situations, thank God for the Catholic practice of the ten-minute homily.

I have six points to make-briefly:

1.      In the whole corpus of Catholic Social Teaching today, the Just War has a decreasing and subordinate role.  It is part of a larger theology of peace.

2.      This theology of peace consists of four elements: (1) a theology and practice of human rights, (2) an ethics of development, (3) an ethos of solidarity, and (4) an approach to world order.

3.      In official Catholic teaching, the conception and application of just-war canons have been increasingly stringent or restrictive.

4.      Both the subordination of the just war to the theology of peace and the stringency of application to current policy is illustrated by official Catholic responses to September 11.

5.      The role of the Just War in Catholic teaching has also been affected by a growing appreciation for the possibilities of nonviolence in world affairs.

6.      The evolution of Catholic teaching on war and peace offers opportunities for Catholic-Mennonite collaboration, which I will address in my closing remarks.

(1) The Theology of Peace and the Ethics of War. My first thesis is that the Just War Tradition plays a limited, though significant role, in the broader Catholic theology of peace. The Second Vatican Council called for Catholics to look at war “with a whole new attitude.”  While the Council’s proposal initiated a great deal of discussion among peace activists, in the Cold War setting the Church’s public posture often depended more on the Council’s proviso for national self-defense than for exploration of what it might mean to have “a whole new attitude” toward war.

A number of trends, however, did contribute to a stricter understanding of Just War and the evolution of a theology of peace.  Beginning with World War II, there was a rapid rise in civilian victims of armed combat. In World War II, civilian casualties numbered about forty-five per cent of the total. By Vietnam, the percentage had risen to sixty-five per cent of the total. In Panama, a so-called “limited conflict” where the U.S. government never revealed its statistics, informal estimates ran between ninety and ninety-nine per cent of the total casualties were civilians.  The rise of civilian casualties in conventional conflicts together with the prospect of mutually assured destruction in a nuclear exchange raised the stakes over the principle of non-combatant immunity as a rule of war very high.

Secondly, ecumenism and ecumenical collaboration in anti-war movements led to an increased appreciation for the links between the Just War Tradition and non-violence.  This linkage found its singular expression in the assertion of the 1983 U.S. bishops’ peace pastoral, The Challenge of Peace, that the Just War and non-violence shared a common presumption against the use of force. (I’ll have more to say about non-violence toward the end of my remarks.)

Thirdly, over the same forty year period, beginning with Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letter Pacem in terris (Peace on Earth), official Catholic social teaching was developing a positive doctrine of peace which became the basis for Catholic involvement in international affairs. It focused less on the resolution of conflict than on the construction of just societies and a just international order, which are the essentials of a peaceful world. It was summarized in Pope Paul VI’s much quoted sentiment, “If you want peace, work for justice.” While the Cold War made it difficult to address this agenda, there was progress; and the end of the Cold War helped clarify how much the broad agenda of Catholic Social Teaching is a peace agenda.  Pope John Paul II summarized this new understanding in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus annus when he wrote, “Just as there is a collective responsibility for avoiding war, so too there is a collective responsibility for promoting development.”

(2) The Theology of Peace.  Development is one of four components of the Catholic vision of peace. The others are human rights, solidarity and world order. For now let me say just a word about human rights and the peace agenda.

In addition to the Second Vatican Council, one of the greatest legacies of Pope John XXIII is the Church’s labor on behalf of human rights inspired by his encyclical Pacem in terris.  That letter regarded the promotion, safeguarding and defense of human rights as the end of all politics and the substance of a peaceful world.  Arguably, the greatest practical contribution of Catholicism to public life in the last half-century is the work of justice and peace commissions, human rights offices and bishops’ conferences in defending the rights of people in their own countries.

At the International Catholic-Mennonite Dialogue at Thomashof, Germany, two years ago Mario Higueros, a Mennonite pastor from Guatemala, presented one of three papers on the topic “What Is a Peace Church?” His rather astonishing thesis was that in Guatemala the Catholic Church, and particularly the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, was a peace church because of its sustained defense of the human rights of the indigenous peoples and the poor generally. Another indication of the effectiveness of the Church’s teaching on human rights is the Nobel Peace Prize winners who received their inspiration from Catholic Social Teaching, including Lech Walesa, Kim Dae Jung, and Bishop Felipe Ximenes Belo of East Timor.  While among theoreticians and some activists, human rights work is often seen as in tension with conflict resolution, Mario Higueros, like the Nobelists, gives witness from the ground that human rights work is a form of peacemaking.

(3) Stringent Application of the Just War Norms. One of the challenges John Howard Yoder offered to practitioners of the Just War Tradition was questioning “the conceptual adequacy” of just-war norms to address the conditions of contemporary warfare. In particular, he charged there was a kind of sliding scale by which Just War would open itself up to justify whatever the current means of war required.  Now, while some just-war thinkers may exercise the criteria permissively, the consistent direction of official Catholic just-war thinking has been to narrow the range of the permissible use of force. Let me give some examples.

Addressing the threat of nuclear war, The Challenge of Peace (1986) condemned nuclear war-fighting, rejected first use and even limited use of nuclear weapons, and gave only strictly conditioned acceptance to deterrence.  A decade ago, following the Gulf War, The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace, in light of creeping policies of “personnel protection” offered a refined definition of the standard of civilian immunity requiring that “military personnel must take due care to avoid and minimize indirect harm to civilians.” It questioned the Powell doctrine’s strategy of “decisive and overwhelming force”; it asked for application of principles of accountability to air forces, and it criticized the targeting of civilian infrastructure.

Many of these issues, whether in conventional or nuclear warfare, are still live issues today, and they demand constant vigilance. The task is daunting. The Harvest of Justice admitted that “in the absence of respect for life and a culture of restraint, it will not be easy to apply the just- war tradition, not just as a set of ideas, but as a system of effective social constraints on the use of force.”

(4) After September 11. In the wake of the attacks of September 11, Church officials did rely on the Just War Tradition to assert the right and duty of states to defend their states against terrorism.  The reserve on the question of the use of force in official Catholic responses, however, provides evidence of the qualified state of just-war thinking in Catholicism today. Without in the least excusing terrorism, the U.S. bishops in their “Living with Faith and Hope after September 11,” attempted to set the use of force in a broader context. “We still must address,” they wrote, “the conditions of poverty and injustice which are exploited by terrorists.” They added, “Stopping terrorism must be a priority, but foreign policy cannot be wholly subsumed under this campaign.” As to the use of force, they wrote, “Because of its terrible consequences, military force, even when justified and carefully executed, must be undertaken with a deep sense of regret.”

The inclusion of the Just War in a broader theology of peace was most evident in Pope John Paul II’s World Day of Peace Message, “No Peace without Justice, No Justice without Forgiveness.”  While the message opened with a reflection on September 11, it primarily addressed two themes. The first was the Catholic vision of peace built on the twin pillars of the protection of human rights and equitable sharing in development. The second concerned the importance of forgiveness to sustaining a just peace.  Pope John Paul has a long record of addressing issues of apology and forgiveness, culminating in the Day of Pardon and his visit to the Wailing Wall during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. The World Day of Peace Message for 2002 introduced forgiveness, not just as a need for the Church in relation to its own history, the theme of the jubilee events, but as a requirement for the peace of the world at large. The introduction of forgiveness as a component of the Catholic theology of peace, I submit, points up just how far the Just War as narrowly conceived has been transcended in this pontificate.

(5) Nonviolence. More than any other factor, the evolution of active non-violence in Catholic thinking accounts for the changed status of Just War in contemporary Catholic teaching.

In World War II, pacifist Catholic conscientious objectors went to prison without the official support of their Church. The Second Vatican Council praised nonviolent activists and pleaded for national laws to make room for conscientious objection, though in theory at least ‘CO’ status should have been a logical correlate of the notion of an unjust war. After the anti-war movements of the ’60s and early ’70s and the nuclear debates of the late ’70s, the U.S. bishops allowed that there were two legitimate Christian traditions with respect to war, nonviolence and the just war. But according to the Challenge of Peace, nonviolence was only a personal vocation; the state ethic was Just War.

By the 1990s, after the People Power Revolution in the Philippines and the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, continued reflection on the experience of nonviolence and ongoing ecumenical dialogue led to an even deeper assimilation of nonviolence to Catholic Social Teaching. In 1991, Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Centesimus Annus attributed the fall of communism to the Christian practice of nonviolence, and pleaded for the use of nonviolence in domestic disputes and the renunciation of war in international ones. By 1993, with the tacit approval of the Holy See, the U.S. bishops made a dramatic move in The Harvest of Justice saying that nonviolence was a public obligation incumbent on citizens, political leaders and government policymakers. In a dramatic reversal, they even summarized Catholic teaching in a novel way. They wrote:

1) In situations of conflict, our constant commitment ought to be, as far as possible, to strive for justice through nonviolent methods. 2) But, when sustained attempts at nonviolent action fails to protect the innocent against fundamental injustice, then legitimate political authorities are permitted as a last resort to employ limited force to rescue the innocent and establish justice.

One bishop of the drafting committee, who probably would prefer not to be named, said, “This is development of doctrine, and I like it.” Catholic teaching on conflict today remains a hybrid consisting of both nonviolent and just-war elements. But in the theology of peace, nonviolence has a prominence and a priority that are quite remarkable considering where the Church was fifty years ago.

(6) On Collaboration. Finally, a word about collaboration.

Mennonites have developed important tools for conflict resolution and peacemaking, and are on the ground working for reconciliation in many zones of conflict. Catholics, especially Catholic bishops, have been called to be conciliators in many divided societies, and Mennonites are working with Catholic Relief Service and others to improve our peacemaking skills abroad. The Harvest of Justice, however, points us to our own American institutions and asks that Catholics and Americans generally work to increase the U.S. capacity for non-violent resolution of conflicts and to improve education on a broad front on the practice of active non-violence. In conclusion, I would propose that one way to build peace together is to undertake a campaign to redress the lack or neglect of such institutions on the part of our beloved country. An essential part of that effort, of course, must also be fostering a culture of peace through the Christian communities of virtue to which we belong. That, however, is another topic, which the International Dialogue will take up in its five-year report, and one that I hope we can address in our discussion.  Thank you very much.

Drew Christiansen, S. J.
Acting Director
Woodstock Theological Center
Washington, D.C.

Counselor for International Affairs
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

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