Massimo Faggioli has suggested that the war in Ukraine might prove to be “a turning point” in Catholic teaching about war and peace. Michael Sean Winters writes that “the most significant intellectual development in the life of the church this year was the emphatic reinstatement of just war theory as the principal Catholic moral approach to violence.” Perhaps “reinstatement” is an overstatement, for just-war theory was never really set aside, not even by Pope Francis, even if he no longer uses the term.
Of course, there’s more than one version of just-war thinking within the tradition. Cahill and others identify two basic approaches to just-war theory: one that offers “energetic defenses of war” and another that advocates a more “restrictive” or “stringent” use of just-war reasoning and principles. In my view, if there was any real debate in Catholic circles on the ethics of war and peace in recent decades, it was between these two approaches, not between just-war theory and pacifism—that is, not until the 2016 Appeal’s condemnation of just-war theory. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, many articles, blogs, and op-eds by Catholics and others representing the two broad approaches to just-war thinking have offered a moral evaluation of the fighting by both sides, as well as of the provision of support and arms by their allies.
Representing the less stringent camp, George Weigel maintains that “the just-war tradition is the normative way of thinking about the challenges of war and peace within a classic Catholic understanding of international relations,” even as he acknowledges that this tradition includes a “peace imperative,”—a “jus ad pacem” commitment for “conducting a just war in such a way that a just peace is its result.” While acknowledging the complexities of just-war analysis, Weigel holds that Russia’s “war on Ukraine is clearly” and “unambiguously” unjustified as well as unjustly conducted, whereas Ukraine’s “is a war of legitimate self-defense, which…has been conducted proportionately and discriminately.” Similar analyses have been offered by J. Daryl Charles, Anglican theologian Nigel Biggar, and others associated with the less restrictive approach to just war.
From the more stringent camp, Gerald J. Beyer worries that his “fellow citizens and colleagues in the academy in the U.S. do not grasp the reasons for the war and its monumental stakes.” Beyer warns that “this war is about annihilating a country and its people and continuing Russian expansionism if left unchecked.” He emphasizes that he is not “hawkish,” much less a “warmonger”: he opposed the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, Beyer says he “abhors war and believes that all other reasonable means should be exhausted before the use of lethal force is undertaken,” but he is “convinced there are times—albeit rare—when the evil is so great that no measure other than force will prevent grave atrocities on a massive scale.” While he supports the active nonviolence, civil resistance, and just peacemaking practices advocated by the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative and others, Beyer believes that these “alone will not stop the Russian juggernaut.” Other Catholic theologians and ethicists—including Anna Floerke Scheid, David DeCosse, Ramón Luzárraga, Ashley Beck, and myself—take the same view.
Cardinal Robert W. McElroy spoke on “Our New Moment: Renewing Catholic Teaching on War and Peace” at the University of Notre Dame on March 1, 2023. Like Faggioli, McElroy believes the war in Ukraine is a turning point. The Church, he argues, still needs to prioritize nonviolence, but we also need “a deep renewal, restructuring and expansion of the Catholic teaching on the legitimacy of war in extremis.” McElroy recognizes the flaws of just-war theory and the risks of its misapplication, but he thinks the “ethical tools” are present “to be forged into a larger ethic of war” for times such as this one. He laments the lack of an “ethics of war termination,” though this question has actually received significant attention from just-war theorists in recent years.
Both McElroy and Faggioli mention the U.S. bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, which sought to “help Catholics form their consciences and to contribute to the public policy debate about the morality of war.” I know it helped me as I wrestled with these questions at the time. When the United States went to war against Iraq twenty years ago, Drew Christiansen, SJ, asked “Whither the ‘just war’?” and replied that Catholic teaching, as reflected in documents like The Challenge of Peace, has “evolved as a composite of nonviolent and just-war elements.” In his recent book, Preventing Unjust War, Roger Bergman argues that The Challenge of Peace, which “takes nonviolence seriously” and “teaches a strict interpretation of the just-war tradition,” offers a “richness” that is “missing from the Appeal” of 2016. He thinks the bishops “got it right”: “We should simultaneously develop strategies of nonviolence and hold to a strict understanding of when war can be justified, and when it cannot—but we should not jettison the tradition until it is genuinely obsolete.”
I agree. I recommend a return to the bishops’ insistence that proponents of nonviolence and just-war theorists can work together in a complementary way. Indeed, Pope Francis’s 2017 message on nonviolence makes the same point: “Peacebuilding through active nonviolence is the natural and necessary complement to the Church’s continuing efforts to limit the use of force by the application of moral norms.” Accordingly, in his recent book on Catholic social teaching, the pacifist theologian William O’Neill, SJ, encourages both sides of the debate to “not condemn” but rather to “learn each from the other” and work together. Such a joint effort could eventually produce the “larger ethic” Cardinal McElroy hopes for—what I would call an ethic of legitimate defense, both armed and unarmed. Perhaps the Ukraine-Russia war will further stimulate collaboration among Catholic theologians and ethicists. Maybe it will even lead to a new synthesis, one that will help guide Catholics and others to defend and achieve a just and integral peace. We can hope.
This article appeared as one part of an exchange about the ethics of war in Commonweal’s May 2023 issue. You can read the other part of the exchange, by William T. Cavanaugh, here.