Was Jesus a pacifist? Understanding just-war theory in a nuclear age

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As tensions intensify in the Middle East and in relations between the United States and foreign countries, so does the fear of a possible nuclear war – and nobody wants that. Yet it does raise the question of whether taking part in such a war, or any type of war, would be something morally viable – if it would violate the evangelical principles of charity towards one’s neighbor or whether Jesus ever intended to allow the use of violence.

To better understand the just-war theory that the Church has affirmed throughout the ages, Dr. Terrance Wright, professor of philosophy at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, helped outline some of the basic principles of this theory in dialogue with the Denver Catholic, raising points that he also addresses in his book Dorothy Day: An Introduction to Her Life and Thought, a volume written on the American Catholic journalist and pacifist in process of canonization.

Basic aspects of the theory

“Since the states have a responsibility to defend their citizens, they have a right to use force [when necessary]. War can then be justified if it is an act of justice – if it is trying to make sure that each gets its due and peace is restored,” Dr. Wright explained.

The just-war theory consists of two parts: jus ad bellum and jus in bello. The first one refers to legitimate reasons a state may engage in war and the second to how it must be carried out to remain just.

St. Thomas Aquinas argues three basic reasons for a just war based on St. Augustine (ST II-II, q. 40):

  • The authority by which the war is engaged must be legitimate – a ruler entrusted to the common good.
  • The cause must be just.
  • The one waging war must intend to advance good and prevent evil.

Jus ad bellum: The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains further on legitimate conditions to go to war (CCC 2309):

  • The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain.
  • All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.
  • There must be serious prospects of success.
  • The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil eliminated.

Jus in bello: With regards to the matter of justice within war two aspects are worth highlighting:

  • You cannot kill non-combatants
  • You cannot use excessive force to achieve the end (proportionality)
Catholic pacifism and nuclear warfare

Modern warfare, nonetheless, has changed the way war is fought, affecting the moral decisions it involves.

“The Church has seen that the proportionality of nuclear warfare is an inherent evil,” Dr. Wright said. “The extent of the damage and number of non-combatants that would be killed makes it prohibitive.”

This has contributed to the rise of a different type of Catholic pacifism.

“Catholic pacifism can fall into two categories,” he explained. “One of them is what we call the ‘just-war pacifists,’ [who] accept the principle of war but say that contemporary warfare makes it impossible because you can’t avoid killing non-combatants.

“Absolute pacifists believe that the use of force is always wrong. So, they may accept the principal that states have a right to defend their citizens, but… the only method open to us is what they would call the ‘weapons of the spirit’: prayer, fasting and penance. The use of force would always be wrong, they argue, because it contradicts the teachings of the Gospel.”

The Church has seen that the proportionality of nuclear warfare is an inherent evil. The extent of the damage and number of non-combatants that will be killed makes it prohibitive.”

Some of the passages absolute pacifists often refer to are the Sermon of the Mount (Mat 5) – “turn the other cheek,” “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” – and other words of Jesus or his own example of sacrifice.

A statement from Gaudium et Spes also contributed to these positions, as it opened the idea of a “conscientious objection,” which said it was a coherent Catholic position to refuse to participate in war, he explained.

Just-war theory today

Dr. Wright understands the difficulties a Catholic may experience when supporting the just-war theory or pacifism.

On one side, he sees that many may find the just-war theory hard to reconcile with the Gospel. On the other, he thinks it’s hard to take pacifism strictly, “particularly when trying to defend the innocent.”

In an interview with the Denver Catholic, George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, argued that the theory does not violate the Gospel but compliments it with reason.

“Just-war thinking tries to live out the Gospel imperative of responsibility for one’s neighbor,” he said. “Or to put it in biblical terms, just-war theory tries to answer the question, ‘What should the Good Samaritan have done if he got on the scene an hour or so earlier, just when the robbers started to beat up the traveler?’”

He believes one of the greatest problems with most pacifist thought is that “it gives no answer to the question of how one keeps a Bashir al-Assad or Vladimir Putin from murdering innocents with impunity – although some pacifists have tried to think through effective means of nonviolent resistance to murderous tyranny.”

In his book Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace, Weigel appeals to the complementarity of reason and faith, stating that the Church has always taught that humans have the capacity to shape the world in a Godly way through the use of reason; and a “radical ethics of intention,” such as pacifism, would deny the human capacity to do so when applied to the public order.

Just-war theory tries to answer the question, ‘What should the Good Samaritan have done if he got on the scene an hour or so earlier, just when the robbers started to beat up the traveler?’”

Moreover, he talked about a “common mistake” he believes just-war pacifists make in their approach to the theory.

“It’s a great mistake, made by everyone from Jimmy Carter to certain Vatican officials, to reduce the just war tradition to ‘in bello’ questions,” he said. “The first purpose of the just war tradition is to create a framework for collaborative moral reflection about ‘ad bellum’ issues: who’s got the authority to use military force? What’s a just cause? And so forth.”

As the tensions among nations increase, Weigel believes there is something very important governments and Catholics should keep in mind: “That prudence is the greatest of political virtues and that prudence involves the hard work of driving the stake of principle into the hard soil of reality without making reality any messier than it already is.

This article was originally published May 28, 2018.

COMING UP: Catholic schools plan to reopen for in-school learning this fall

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Having endured a rather challenging last few months of the school year, parents of Catholic school students can now rest easy with the knowledge that Catholic schools will be open this fall.

In a letter issued May 29, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila and Denver Catholic Schools Superintendent Elias Moo announced plans to reopen Catholic schools for in-school learning for the 2020-21 school year. At the forefront of these plans is the health and safety of students and faculty.

“We will carry out in-person instruction with increased health protocols and processes to ensure that our schools are going above and beyond to protect the health of every member of our Catholic school community, especially our most high-risk members,” said Archbishop Aquila and Moo in their letter. “We are confident our schools’ protocols and processes will keep our school environments as healthy and as safe as possible for all members of our communities.”

To help ensure healthy school environments are maintained, a task force composed of school leaders, nurse practitioners, doctors and a virologist has been assembled. This group is working with schools to identify the best health measures and policies in preparation for the coming school year.

For those parents who may not feel comfortable sending their children to school for any in-school learning, the archdiocese and Office of Catholic Schools are also formulating a virtual distance-learning option. Families who are interested will still be able to receive instruction in core content areas while remaining connected to their local school community. More details on this option will be available at the end of June.

Recognizing the unique challenges parents have faced over these past few months as schools have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Archbishop Aquila and Moo expressed sincere gratitude for their increased efforts in making distance learning a success.

“None of this would have been possible without the incredible efforts made by our parents to play an even bigger role in their children’s education,” they said. “While balancing your own work, caring for your families and other day-to-day responsibilities, you have stepped up to make sure we had a productive finish to the school year.”

Given the fluidity of the COVID-19 pandemic, Archbishop Aquila and Moo said that Catholic schools will continue to abide by mandated health protocols while working to keep Catholic schools operating for the good of the communities they serve.

“Our Catholic schools are a critical part of the educational ecosystem and fabric of our state, and we remain committed to working in a spirit of cooperation with our local and state officials when possible as we all seek to advance the common good of our communities,” they concluded.

As plans for reopening Denver’s Catholic schools are continually developed, parents are invited to participate in a survey to help school leadership consider the needs of the community so they can open schools in the safest possible manner. The survey can be accessed by visiting denvercatholicschools.com.