A few days after the Vatican unveiled Amoris Laetitia, the Pope’s impressive exhortation on families in the contemporary world, it hosted another event—one much less worthy of praise.
The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, along with Pax Christi (an international Catholic peace movement), sponsored a three-day conference on alternatives to the Church’s Just War tradition. Vatican Radio did several stories on the conference, including one entitled, “Catholic Peace Activists Call on Church to Update Teaching.” That was a generous way to describe the proceedings—the dozens of activists who traveled to Rome to attend the conference didn’t simply come to “update” Catholic teaching on Just War principles. They came to repudiate and destroy them—all in the name of “peace.”
That much was clear from the resulting declaration issued by Pax Christi, “An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Recommit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence.”
After rejoicing “in the rich concrete experiences of people engaged in work for peace around the world,” the statement depicts Jesus as a complete pacifist, and argues that no true follower of his could be anything other than a pacifist. Then it gets to the heart of the matter: “We believe that there is no ‘Just War,’” it declares, ignoring centuries of experience showing that there can and have been Just Wars under limited and clearly defined principles. It continues: “Too often the ‘Just War theory’ has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war.” One can, of course, agree with that assertion, without holding to the belief that there is no “just war.”
The next sentence of Pax Christi’s statement reads, “Suggesting that a ‘Just War’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict.” This is demonstrably untrue. Responsible governments throughout the world utilize “hard power” (military troops and force) alongside “soft power” (peaceful negotiation) consistently in an effort to avoid war. Those who follow the Just War tradition—including many in the military and diplomatic corps—place a premium on clear-eyed negotiations, and see war only as a last resort. But they also realize that the existence and maintenance of “hard power” is often crucial in preventing war and bringing about peaceful resolutions; for once you take military force off the table you risk dramatically increasing the possibility for violence. Even a cursory study of history reveals that unilateral disarmament only emboldens warmongers.
But the Pax Christi statement asserts: “Recent academic research, in fact, has confirmed that nonviolent resistance strategies are twice as effective as violent ones.” There are no footnotes, however, to any academic research showing how pacifists will defeat ISIS or could have brought down the Third Reich if only they’d been given the chance.
There have been modern academic pacifists who, selectively citing Scripture, invoke Christ for their cause and depict all the early Christians as pacifists (until the Church supposedly went “bad,” accepting war). But these claims have been repeatedly answered: and theologians and philosophers such as Reinhold Neibuhr and Elizabeth Anscombe have eloquently critiqued pacifist presumptions.
The decree from Pax Christi is also highly partisan. It announces that “all of us are practitioners of justice and peace,” as if non-pacifists somehow aren’t. It speaks of “tremendous suffering, widespread trauma and fear” linked to “widespread militarization,” “economic injustice” and “climate change,” but not of the radical Islamic terrorism that is spreading at such an alarming pace. It praises “accompaniment in Palestine” but is silent about solidarity with the people of Israel.
The fringe views emerging from the Vatican conference were enough to concern commentators across the political spectrum. Robert Christian, the editor of Millenial, said that it would be a “grave mistake” for the Church to abandon its Just War teachings, and explained why: “To do so would unravel the Catholic commitment to social justice and the common good by forcing the Church to support inaction or half-baked schemes in the face of terrorism, genocide and invasion.” Mark Tooley, the editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, added:
The divinely ordained vocation of governments to defend their people with lethal force from dangerous aggressors is deeply embedded in Catholic and historic ecumenical teaching. The Church’s Just War tradition is over 1,500 hundred years old, which dates to St. Augustine, was refined by St. Thomas Aquinas, and which has largely been sustained by nearly every branch of Christianity except some small Protestant pacifist traditions. Theoretical pacifism suits academics and activists. It’s not very plausible for real life rulers or endangered peoples.
And Damon Linker of The Week, certainly no fan of military adventures, nonetheless defended the Just War tradition, and asked, apprehensively, “Will Pope Francis Dump the Just War Doctrine?”
The answer, thankfully, is no. In a message sent to the Conference, Pope Francis reminded the participants of Vatican II’s teaching that “governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted.” Cardinal Peter Turkson, who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, also spoke to the Conference and quoted Francis’s statement about ISIS: “It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor.” But neither the Pope nor the Cardinal had the frankness to tell the simple truth: that if pacifism had prevailed among civilized leaders, especially in the modern age, there would be no international “peace” conferences to speak at, for totalitarianism would have long since conquered the world, and every person of faith or conscience would either be dead or in a concentration camp.
Modern Popes and bishops, to their credit, have strongly criticized Christians who have a boundless enthusiasm for certain forms of capitalism which violate Catholic social teachings and create serious harm. Yet, when it comes to claiming the banner of “peace,” Catholic leaders usually only challenge them in the mildest ways, withhold necessary criticisms, flatter their egos, and even feed their pacifist illusions. Why the inconsistency?
It is one thing to honor individual Christians who cannot in good conscience take up arms and are willing to suffer for their beliefs. It is quite another to encourage movements which call on democratic societies to conform to pacifist demands—in the face of tyrants and mass-murderers—and are blind to the incalculable suffering pacifist policies would lead to.
The pacifist temptation has long been rejected by the Catholic Church, for abundantly sound reasons, drawn from Christian teachings on mercy, compassion, the common good, and authentic peace. In a world where Christians are being savagely tortured, crucified and decapitated, the Church should not succumb to that temptation now.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.