Was Jesus a pacifist?

Understanding just-war theory in a nuclear age

As tensions intensify in the Middle East and in relations between the United States, Russia or North Korea, so does the fear of a possible nuclear war – and nobody wants that. Yet it does raise the questions 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.

The just-war theory that the Church has affirmed and reaffirmed throughout the ages then becomes puzzling and begins to appear as something that clearly contradicts what Jesus ever intended to do.

To better understand the theory at hand, 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.

“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,” he explained.

Basic aspects of the theory

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

“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 will 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.

In defense of the theory

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.”

George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told the Denver Catholic 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 dismantled the common “mistake” that 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.

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA