Contradiction or Coherence? What to Make of Pope Francis’ Statements Regarding Just War, Self-Defense and Ukraine

While some suggest that the Pope’s messaging is internally conflicted, others argue that the Holy Father’s statements both illuminate and are illumined by his broader teaching on war.

Pope Francis consecrated Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, stating that the act expressed our complete trust in the Virgin Mary in the midst of the cruel and senseless war  in Ukraine on March 25, 2022.
Pope Francis consecrated Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, stating that the act expressed our complete trust in the Virgin Mary in the midst of the cruel and senseless war in Ukraine on March 25, 2022. (photo: Vatican Pool/Corbis / Getty)

There is no such thing as a just war: They do not exist!” Pope Francis said in a March 18 address that touched on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. His words aligned closely with what he had already told Patriarch Kirill of Moscow two days earlier during a video conference between the two religious leaders: “Wars are always unjust.”

That same day, however, the Vatican released the Holy Father’s opening address to a gathering in Bratislava, in which he seemingly offered his support for “the suffering women and men who are defending their land,” presumably referring to those Ukrainians who have taken up arms against Russian invaders.

In response, some Catholics are asking regarding these and other seemingly contradictory papal messages on the topic of war and self-defense in Ukraine: Which is it?

“What would you call the Ukrainian defense effort? Is it not obviously warfare?” wrote Catholic journalist Phil Lawler in a piece claiming that the Holy Father had contradicted himself. On Lawler’s account, support for Ukrainian self-defense implies that the country is waging war justly, according to the Church’s long-standing tradition of just-war teaching.

“But Pope Francis has apparently dismissed that tradition,” added Lawler, suggesting that if there is no such thing as a just war, “then a country would have no moral choice but to surrender.”

 

Breaking From Tradition?

George Weigel took a similar position in his recent article entitled “No ‘Just Wars’?” The Catholic scholar argued that in light of the Church’s long-standing recognition of the moral legitimacy of the defense of national sovereignty, particularly as expressed in the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, “it is not easy to understand the trajectory of Vatican commentary during the war’s first month.”

“It is simply not the case that serious Christians can no longer use the categories of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ in thinking about warfare,” Weigel wrote. “Russia’s war in Ukraine is unjust and ignoble. Ukraine’s war is just and noble. Informal papal comments do not change that reality. They can, unfortunately, obscure it.”

Catholic commentator Monica Migliorino Miller offered a similar perspective, suggesting that the Pope is scrapping just-war theory.

“If Francis is correct that, ‘There was a time, even in our Churches, when people spoke of a holy war or a just war. Today we cannot speak in this manner,’ then one may reasonably conclude that even defensive wars are unjust,” she wrote.

The above voices seem concerned about maintaining the moral legitimacy of military action. Ironically, their conclusion that the Holy Father has broken from the just-war tradition is shared by a very different set of Catholics: those advocating for pacifism.

Emerging from the war in Ukraine is “the recognition that if we are to avoid World War III, de-escalation, diplomacy and peace-building are the only route forward,” argued Marie Dennis, program chair of Pax Christi International’s Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, using Pope Francis’ language of “no such thing as a just war” as her jumping-off point.

The courageous action of Ukrainians employing “nonviolent strategies” of defense, Dennis says, “point to a future where nonviolence will be the universal ethic that humans, for the sake of survival, have finally embraced.” And although he makes the case that Ukraine suggests a “middle path” between nonviolence and just war, Trinity College religion professor Mark Silk says that Pope Francis has “aligned himself with the pacifist camp.” 

 

Pope’s Comments in Wider Context

However, several Catholic theologians and philosophers question conclusions that the Holy Father has simply abolished the just-war tradition, including the moral legitimacy of armed defense. 

“Actually, I don’t think Pope Francis has said anything that novel,” Catholic philosopher Ed Feser told the Register.

Instead, Feser suggests that the Pope’s admittedly scattered theological commentary on the subject can be understood coherently — and squared away with the Church’s broader tradition — when considered in light of what the Holy Father has already taught about war in his more formal documents, especially Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All). 

Feser said that in Paragraph 256 of that 2020 papal encyclical, Pope Francis affirms that it is not wrong “to carry out military action in defense against aggressors,” but that the Holy Father also emphasizes that the conditions for “just war of this type must be interpreted very strictly, given the unprecedented destructiveness of modern methods of warfare.”

“We can, in modern times, no longer think of military action as just one further policy option ‘on the shelf’ alongside the others,” said Feser, summarizing the Pope’s teaching, and noting its continuity with what other prelates have taught, including popes prior to Vatican II and traditionalist hero Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani.

“I think that, in substance, Pope Francis is really just saying something similar to what Ottaviani was saying [in the 1940s], but without as much theological precision.” 

The California-based philosopher added that “we shouldn’t think that as long as we can find technical reasons for checking off the boxes on a list of just-war criteria, then we are justified in unleashing just any military action we like. We need to be much more careful than that.”

Adam Rasmussen, a theologian teaching at Georgetown University, agrees that just-war theory is “still valid” and that Fratelli Tutti develops the teaching “by restricting the criterion of ‘just cause’ so that self-defense is considered the only acceptable just cause today.” 

In fact, he points out that Pope Francis’ language simply echoes what his predecessors have already said, such as St. John Paul II’s 2003 teaching that war is not always inevitable, “but is always a defeat for humanity,” and St. Paul VI’s emphatic message of “War never again!” delivered to the United Nations in 1965.

 

Paradigm of Peace

Rasmussen told the Register that Pope Francis’ teaching is reflected in his actions and words regarding the war in Ukraine. The Pope has repeatedly condemned Russia’s unjust aggression, while also avoiding directly calling out the country or Vladimir Putin, a practice consistent with the Holy See’s long-standing preference for avoiding escalation and keeping backdoors of diplomacy open. Pope Francis has also expressed approval of Ukrainian defenders, called for peace negotiations and an immediate end to hostilities, and, in union with all the bishops of the world, consecrated Ukraine and Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

“So his position is completely focused on peace,” the theologian explained.

Gerard Powers, director of Catholic peace-building studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute, agreed, stating that while the Holy Father has not “rejected” the just-war tradition entirely, “he is reinforcing the Church’s age-old imperative to build a just peace,” while also emphasizing a “highly restrictive interpretation of just-war criteria against the temptation to take a permissive approach to just war.” Thus, while Powers says the Holy Father isn’t condemning Ukraine’s use of force or defensive warfare in principle, there is an emphasis on peace that might appear “functionally pacifist.”

Powers told the Register that, in addition to the destructiveness of modern war, a factor behind the Church’s move toward a narrower vision of just war and an emphasis on peace-building is “a growing appreciation of the power of nonviolence over the past half century,” championed perhaps especially by St. John Paul II. A just-peace approach, Powers explains, not only pursues an end to violence, but also proactively seeks to address the underlying causes of war. 

 

Becoming Unaccustomed to War

This focus might also explain why, though the Pope seems to think Ukraine’s self-defense is justified, he has spoken out forcefully against “accustom[ing] ourselves to war.” In particular, the Holy Father recently said he was “ashamed” to learn about the ratcheting up of military spending by NATO member states in response to the war in Ukraine.

“The madness!” the Pope exclaimed at a March 24 meeting with members of the Italian Women’s Center, criticizing the dominance of “economic-technocratic-military power” on the world stage. “The real answer is not more weapons, more sanctions, more political-military alliances, but another approach, a different way of governing the now-globalized world.”

In a piece entitled “Military preparedness is not a sin,” the scholar Jeff Mirus said that such comments, while rightly warning against an arms race and highlighting the need to foster peace, “say nothing about the responsibility of nations to provide for their own legitimate defense in an imperfect world.” 

Powers said the Pope’s opposition to new moves strengthening militaries isn’t inconsistent with the legitimacy of self-defense, but is rather “a warning of the moral perils of an escalation of the war in Ukraine and/or a new Cold War.”

When asked if the Pope’s and his predecessors’ call for an end to war might suggest that just-war theory is an “interim ethic” — a moral framework licit only so long as applicable conditions remain — Powers said he was open to the possibility.

“But dramatic changes in the international order are needed before banning war will become a moral or political possibility,” he added.

Feser said he doesn’t see such a scenario ever happening this side of heaven, and thus sees just-war theory as perennially valid.

“I think it is completely idle and unrealistic to think that elimination of all weapons of any kind could ever happen. So, yes, I would say that military preparedness is always justifiable and that just-war theory will always be necessary.”

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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