Vatican Conference on Non-Violence Rejects “Just War” Theory

James William Glass, "Richard, Coeur De Lion, On His Way To Jerusalem" (c. 1850)
James William Glass, "Richard, Coeur De Lion, On His Way To Jerusalem" (c. 1850) (photo: Screenshot)

Pax Christi, the international Catholic organization that promotes peace, has called for the Vatican to end its support for "Just Wars" and to instead take up the mantra of "Just Peace." The group believes that "dropping bombs" doesn't do any good, and inflicts harm on innocent civilians. But in calling for an end to all wars, Pax Christi rejects Catholic social teaching dating back 1,700 years, to the time of St. Augustine.

Vatican Conference on Non-Violence

Pax Christi International, with the backing of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has just concluded their three-day conference on non-violence, which brought together 80 theologians and peace activists from around the world. The conference drafted a statement which will be presented to Pope Francis by Cardinal Peter Turkson, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The statement says, in part,

Any war is a destruction and there is no justice in destruction of life, of property…so no spending of resources for the destruction of life.”

The statement calls on the Church to no longer use or teach "just war theory," which recognizes war as morally justifiable in certain circumstances. Conference participants believe that modern methods of warfare make "just war" an impossibility. Too often, they allege, the "just war theory" has been used to endorse, rather than to prevent or limit military action.

The "Just War" of St. Augustine

St. Augustine of Hippo lived in Africa from 354 to 430 A.D., and served as bishop of Hippo Regius, in what is now Algeria. Augustine was one of the first Christian theologians to defend the idea of "just war."

According to Augustine, individuals should not immediately resort to violence; but God has given the sword to government for good reason. The Bible, in Romans 13:4, says that government

" God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer."

One could, according to Augustine, be a soldier and serve God honorably. In his Contra Faustum Manichaeum (book 22, sections 69-76), Augustine argues that Christians as part of government should not be ashamed to protect peace and punish wickedness.

Carrying that to its logical conclusion, Augustine taught that failure to act in the face of a grave wrong that could only be stopped by violence would be a grave sin. Defending oneself or one's family, or defending others who are under assault by an unjust attacker, can sometimes be a necessity, especially when authorized by a legitimate authority:

"They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill.'"

In his book City of God, Augustine contrasted the earthly and heavenly cities: one pagan, self-centered and contemptuous of God; and the other, devout, God-centered, and in search of grace. In The City of God, Augustine first used the phrase "just war":

"But, say they, the wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars."

Thomas Aquinas Lays Out the Conditions for Just War

Nine hundred years after Augustine first wrote of the possibility of "just war," St. Thomas Aquinas built on the work of the earlier theologian to lay out the conditions under which a war could be just. He identified three guiding principles:

  • Proper Authority.  A "just war" must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the State.
  • Just Cause.  War must occur for a good and just purpose, rather than for self-gain. ("In the nation's interest" would not be a sufficient reason. Oil interests in the Middle East, for example, would not be a reason to employ the weapons of war.)
  • Right Intention.  "The purpose of all wars," said St. Augustine, "is peace." And Aquinas understood that even in the midst of violence, the central motive must be peace. (Stopping attacks by ISIS would be an appropriate use of lethal force.)

Different Views Today

The statement released by the non-violence conference calls upon Pope Francis to write an encyclical on peace and non-violence, and calls on Catholic institutions to no longer use or teach Just War theory. It states:

Clearly, the Word of God, the witness of Jesus, should never be used to justify violence, injustice or war. We confess the people of God have betrayed this central message of the Gospel many times, participating in wars, persecution, oppression, exploitation, and discrimination.”

But still today, the Catholic Church teaches that there are times when violence is appropriate. For example, police officers have the right to shoot and kill a criminal engaged in a crime, in order to protect the community. A father has the right to kill a home invader, in order to protect his family. And a nation has a right to defend its borders against incursion, or to defend another nation which is under assault--such as in World War II, when America joined the Allied Forces in war against Nazi Germany.

Pope Francis has called for the “abolition of war”; but he has also said that war is permissible to stop the "unjust aggressor" in the case of violence perpetrated by ISIS against peoples in Muslim nations and around the world. In 2015, the Vatican supported a United Nations resolution which called for international force to stop the Islamic State.