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: Transforming quarantine into retreat

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This bruising Lent, in which “fasting” has assumed unprecedented new forms, seems likely to be followed by an Eastertide of further spiritual disruption. What is God’s purpose in all this? I would be reluctant to speculate. But at the very least, the dislocations we experience – whether aggravating inconvenience, grave illness, economic and financial loss, or Eucharistic deprivation – call us to a more profound realization of our dependence on the divine life given us in Baptism: the grace that enables us to live in solidarity with others and to make sense of the seemingly senseless.

If we cooperate with that grace rather than “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14), it can enable us to transform quarantine, lockdown, and the interruption of normal life into an extended retreat, a time to deepen our appreciation of the riches of Catholic faith. Dioceses, Catholic centers, and parishes are offering many online opportunities for prayer, thereby maintaining the public worship of the Church. Here are other resources that can help redeem the rest of Lent and the upcoming Easter season.

* Shortly before the Wuhan virus sent America and much of the world reeling, I began watching Anthony Esolen’s Catholic Courses video-lectures on the Inferno, the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’ve long admired Tony Esolen’s Dante translation and his lucid explanation of the medieval Christian worldview from which Dante wrote; and there was something fitting about watching Esolen accompany Dante and Virgil through hell during a hellish Lent. Professor Esolen’s explication of Dante’s Purgatory and Paradise (also available from Catholic Courses) are just as appropriate these days, however. For the entire Comedy is a journey of conversion that leads to the vision of God; and that is precisely the itinerary the Church invites us to travel during Lent, as the Forty days prepare us to meet the Risen Lord at Easter and experience the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

* Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was arguably the greatest papal homilist since Pope St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century. The March and April sermons in Seeking God’s Face: Meditations for the Church Year (Cluny Media), help put the trials of this Lent and Eastertide into proper Christian focus.

* I’ve often recommended the work of Anglican biblical scholar N.T. Wright. Two chapters (“The Crucified Messiah” and “Jesus and God”) in The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (InterVarsity Press) make apt Lenten reading in plague time. The fifth chapter of that small book, “The Challenge of Easter,” neatly summarizes Dr. Wright’s far longer and more complex argument in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press) and makes a powerful case for the historical reality of the Easter events. Like Wright, Pope Emeritus Benedict’s reflections on the empty tomb and the impact of meeting the Risen One in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (Ignatius Press) underscore the bottom of the bottom line of Christianity: no Resurrection, no Church.

* Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series is the greatest audio-visual presentation of the faith ever created. If you’ve never watched it, why not now?  If you have, this may be the time to continue with Bishop Barron’s Catholicism: The New Evangelization (an exploration of how to put Catholic faith into action) and Catholicism: The Pivotal Players (portraits of seminal figures in Catholic history who did just that – St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, St. John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and Michelangelo).

* Pope St. John Paul II’s centenary is the Monday following the Fifth Sunday of Easter: an anniversary worth celebrating, whatever the circumstances. The first 75 years of this life of extraordinary consequence for the Church and the world are relived in the documentary film, Witness to Hope – The Life of John Paul II. Liberating a Continent, produced by the Knights of Columbus, is a stirring video evocation of John Paul’s role in the collapse of European communism – and a reminder, in this difficult moment, of the history-bending power of courage and solidarity.

* The Dominican House of Studies in Washington and its Thomistic Institute are intellectually energizing centers of the New Evangelization. The good friars are not downing tools because of a pandemic; rather, they’re ramping up. Go to thomisticinstitute.org to register for a series of online “Quarantine Lectures” and an online Holy Week retreat. At the same home page, you’ll find Aquinas 101, 52 brief videos that make one of Catholicism’s greatest thinkers accessible to everyone, free and online, through brilliant teaching and striking animation.

And may the divine assistance remain with us, always.