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: Local artists choose life in pro-life art show

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For someone who’s always been in love with art, it’s not surprising that Brett Lempe first encountered God through beauty. Lempe, a 25-year-old Colorado native, used his talent for art and new-found love of God to create a specifically pro-life art show after a planned show was cancelled because of Lempe’s pro-life views.

Lempe was “dried out with earthly things,” he said. “I was desperately craving God.”

Three years ago, while living in St. Louis, Mo., Lempe google searched for a church to visit and ended up at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis.

“I was captivated by the beauty of the 40 million mosaic tiles,” he said.

Lempe is not exaggerating. This Cathedral is home to 41.5 million tiles that make up different mosaics around the sanctuary. Witnessing the beauty of this church is what sparked his conversion, he said, and was his first major attraction towards Catholicism.

Lempe continued on to become Catholic, then quit his job several months after joining the Church to dedicate himself completely to art. Most of his work post-conversion is religious art.

Lempe planned to display a non-religious body of artwork at a venue for a month when his contact at the venue saw some of Lempe’s pro-life posts on Facebook. Although none of the artwork Lempe planned to display was explicitly pro-life or religious, the venue cancelled the show.

“I was a little bit shocked at first,” he said. “Something like me being against abortion or being pro-life would get a whole art show cancelled.”

Lempe decided to counter with his own art show, one that would be explicitly pro-life.

On Sept. 7, seven Catholic artists displayed work that gave life at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Denver.

“Catholicism lends itself to being life-giving,” Lempe said.

The show included a variety of work from traditional sacred art, icons, landscapes, to even dresses.

Students for Life co-hosted the event, and 10 percent of proceeds benefited the cause. Lauren Castillo, Development director and faith-based program director at Students for Life America gave the keynote presentation.

Castillo spoke about the need to be the one pro-life person in each circle of influence, with coworkers, neighbors, family, or friends. The reality of how many post-abortive women are already in our circles is big, she said.

“Your friend circle will get smaller,” Castillo said. “If one life is saved, it’s worth it.”

Pro-Life Across Mediums

Brett Lempe’s Luke 1:35

“This painting is the first half at an attempt of displaying the intensity and mystical elements of Luke 1:35,” Lempe said. “This work is influenced somewhat by Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ painting as I try to capture the moment when the “New Adam” is conceived by Our Blessed Mother.”

Claire Woodbury’s icon of Christ Pantokrator

“I was having a difficult time making that icon,” she said. “I was thinking it would become a disaster.”

She felt Jesus saying to her, “This is your way of comforting me. Is that not important?”

“Icons are very important to me,” she said. “I guess they’re important to Him too.”

Katherine Muser’s “Goodnight Kisses”

“Kids naturally recognize the beauty of a baby and they just cherish it,” Muser said of her drawing of her and her sister as children.

Brie Shulze’s Annunciation

“There is so much to unpack in the Annunciation,” Schulze said. “I wanted to unpack that life-giving yes that our Blessed Mother made on behalf of all humanity.”

“Her yes to uncertainty, to sacrifice, to isolation, to public shame and to every other suffering that she would endure is what allowed us to inherit eternal life.”

“Her fiat was not made in full knowledge of all that would happen, but in love and total surrender to the will of God.”

All photos by Makena Clawson