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‘Just war’ no more? What did Pope Francis say, and what does it mean?

Pope Francis with UN peacekeeping soldiers. Credit: Sylvia Loking / Alamy Stock Photo

In a statement from the Holy See press office on Wednesday, the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis had spoken with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who has previously appeared to lend his support to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

According to the Vatican, during the video conference, Pope Francis said that “There was a time, even in our Churches, when people spoke of a holy war or a just war. Today we cannot speak in this manner. A Christian awareness of the importance of peace has developed.”

“Wars are always unjust,” the pope said, “since it is the people of God who pay. Our hearts cannot but weep before the children and women killed, along with all the victims of war. War is never the way. The Spirit that unites us asks us as shepherds to help the peoples who suffer from war.”

The pope has taken a very active role in calling for peace in Ukraine, even taking the unprecedented step of personally visiting the Russian embassy to the Holy See to ask for peace, while stopping short of explicitly condemning the Russian government by name, since papal diplomacy has always held in favor of strict neutrality in order to be able to press all sides for peace.

Ukrainian Catholic bishops, on the other hand, have repeatedly condemned the Russian invasion as an act of illegal aggression, and denounced the targeting of civilian population centers and the deployment of weapons like butterfly mines and vacuum bombs. Those same bishops have repeated calls for aid to the Ukrainian people, both humanitarian and military, as the country attempts to resist the occupying force.

But some Catholics are now asking if Pope Francis’ message on Wednesday means that Catholics can no longer claim that any participation in war is “just,” even for those fighting to resist invasion, and must adopt a policy of pacifism, despite centuries of Church teaching on the circumstances in which armed conflict can be justified.

So, where is the pope coming from, and what has the Church taught over the centuries?

Francis and Fratelli tutti

The Ukraine conflict is not the first time Pope Francis has spoken about the concept of a “just war” in the modern era. His 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti devoted a lengthy section to the subject.

“War is not a ghost from the past but a constant threat,” Francis wrote, calling it “the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment.”

“War can easily be chosen by invoking all sorts of allegedly humanitarian, defensive or precautionary excuses, and even resorting to the manipulation of information. In recent decades, every single war has been ostensibly ‘justified.’ The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the possibility of legitimate defence by means of military force, which involves demonstrating that certain ‘rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy’ have been met.”

“Yet it is easy to fall into an overly broad interpretation of this potential right. In this way, some would also wrongly justify even ‘preventive’ attacks or acts of war that can hardly avoid entailing evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

The pope drew special attention to the reality of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical, and biological, which have changed completely the destructive potential of conflict in recent decades:

“The truth is that ‘never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely.’ We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war.’ Never again war!”

This isn’t to say, however, that Fratelli tutti abrogated the concept of a just self-defense. In another section addressing “legitimate conflict and forgiveness,” Francis wrote:

“We are called to love everyone, without exception; at the same time, loving an oppressor does not mean allowing him to keep oppressing us, or letting him think that what he does is acceptable.”

“On the contrary,” the pope said, “true love for an oppressor means seeking ways to make him cease his oppression; it means stripping him of a power that he does not know how to use, and that diminishes his own humanity and that of others. Forgiveness does not entail allowing oppressors to keep trampling on their own dignity and that of others, or letting criminals continue their wrongdoing.”

What does the Catechism say?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church begins by reaffirming that “the fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life.”

“Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war,” it says.

“All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. However, as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”

The Catechism states that “the strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration,” and lays out the criteria for determining moral legitimacy:

  • 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 to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

“These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the ‘just war’ doctrine,” says the Catechism, and “the evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”

So, is Francis saying the Catechism is wrong?

If you simply take Francis’ comments on Wednesday with one passage of Fratelli tutti and set them against one part of what the Catechism says, it could look that way. But that isn’t how you should read papal teaching, or the Catechism.

The Catechism affirms the concept of a “just war,” but is clear that a “just war” is possible “as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power” to stop it.

In Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis essentially argues that such international authorities do now exist:

“There is a need to ensure the uncontested rule of law and tireless recourse to negotiation, mediation and arbitration, as proposed by the Charter of the United Nations, which constitutes truly a fundamental juridical norm,” Francis wrote in 2020.

“The seventy-five years since the establishment of the United Nations and the experience of the first twenty years of this millennium have shown that the full application of international norms proves truly effective, and that failure to comply with them is detrimental.”

“The Charter of the United Nations, when observed and applied with transparency and sincerity, is an obligatory reference point of justice and a channel of peace. Here there can be no room for disguising false intentions or placing the partisan interests of one country or group above the global common good.”

Read in full, Pope Francis appears to be saying that what is outmoded is the concept of two countries electing war as a legitimate means of settling their differences, and where war does break out it must be the result of a criminal action requiring a response, namely a police action by the international authorities.

While Catholics and political leaders might disagree with the pope’s assessment of how “effective” the UN and other international bodies have proven to be in avoiding wars or ending them once they have broken out, he isn’t ruling out the just use of force per se.

Rather, the pope seems to be arguing that the international community has established sufficient institutions and norms that war is now a criminal act, its resistance a matter of moral self-defense by the victims, and the necessary intervention of the international community is a kind of “police action.”

Francis, St. John Paul II, and Vatican II

Of course, in recent decades, many wars have, as Francis points out in Fratelli tutti, been launched by nations with the justification that it was a necessary preventive or corrective intervention — Vladimir Putin himself has sought to justify the invasion of Ukraine in this way.

And Francis is not the first pope to denounce unilateral military action outside of international institutions.

In 2003, Pope St. John Paul II made repeated interventions ahead of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which was justified, in part, by Saddam Hussein’s supposed possession and development of weapons of mass destruction. The pope was clear in what he saw as the moral obligation of nations to resort to international institutions and laws in place of self-justified military action.

In his address to the Vatican diplomatic corps in January of that year, St. John Paul called for “respect for law” as a “certain requirement” if humanity was not to “sink into the abyss”.

“Life within society – particularly international life – presupposes common and inviolable principles whose goal is to guarantee the security and the freedom of individual citizens and of nations,” John Paul said.

“These rules of conduct are the foundation of national and international stability. Today political leaders have at hand highly relevant texts and institutions. It is enough simply to put them into practice. The world would be totally different if people began to apply in a straightforward manner the agreements already signed!”

“What are we to say of the threat of a war which could strike the people of Iraq, the land of the Prophets, a people already sorely tried by more than twelve years of embargo? War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations.”

St. John Paul also referenced the charter of the United Nations and international law as precluding war “even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good,” except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions.

Read next to Pope Francis’ own statements on the subject, the two popes actually seem to have very similar views on the unacceptability of nations deciding for themselves when it is acceptable to go to war.

And both are drawn from elements of the the Second Vatican Council.

It was Gaudium et spes, Vatican II’s pastoral council on the Church in the modern world, from which the Catechism draws the idea that an “international authority” might have a role to play in preventing war.

And the text teaches that “Divine Providence urgently demands of us that we free ourselves from the age-old slavery of war. If we refuse to make this effort, we do not know where we will be led by the evil road we have set upon….It is our clear duty, therefore, to strain every muscle in working for the time when all war can be completely outlawed by international consent.”

Francis’ most recent comments on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, then, shouldn’t be read as a kind of pacifists’ charter, but an explicit articulation of what the Church has been teaching for decades about modern warfare.

But what about Thomas Aquinas, and Augustine?

The Church has always held out the idea of a “just war,” and proposed criteria by which it is possible to judge if a war is just, both in how it is declared and how it is fought.

But this theory was developed and is rooted in an understanding of war which arose in a different era, when armies met for pitched battles in country fields, before the era of weapons of mass destruction, house-to-house urban combat, and the kind of “total war” which saw entire cities flattened during World War II.

St. Augustine is widely credited with coining the concept of a “just war” and with proposing criteria for judging when a war is just. These same conditions are essentially repeated in the Catechism’s own list (see above).

But Augustine never proposed war as good in itself, rather he considered it an unavoidable reality between nations, kingdoms, and empires which needed to be minimized whenever possible.

In a footnote of Fratteli tutti, Francis acknowledges that Augustine “forged a concept of ‘just war’ that we no longer uphold in our own day,” but noted that he “also said that ‘it is a higher glory still to stay war itself with a word, than to slay men with the sword, and to procure or maintain peace by peace, not by war.’”

St. Thomas Aquinas also wrote about the concept of “just war” theory, and used Augustine’s writings as a basis for his own.

Thomas also insisted on the importance that a “just war” be declared by a competent authority as a fundamental criteria, and noted that private individuals were not allowed to wage war because the rule of law allowed for them to pursue their claims against injustice in a proper forum.

Francis’ position, which itself seems like a development of St. John Paul’s own views, seems to be that with the advent of international institutions, nations can no longer lawfully declare war as a means of addressing their grievances since a component legal forum exists to settle them.

The pope seems to be saying that individual states who make war today are like individuals who launched military campaigns in the era of Augustine.

From this perspective, countries like Ukraine aren’t a nation “going to war” but the victims of a violent crime — a crime they have every right to resist, and the international community has every right to police.

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