I desire mercy, not sacrifice (Hos 6:6; Mt 9:13).
‘Just war’ according to the Scholastics
Formal ‘just war’ doctrine in Western Christianity is thought to have commenced with Saint Augustine. This was based on the following passage written by the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans:
For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer (13:4).
Augustine, in his Contra Faustum Manichaeum, argued that Christians did not need to feel ashamed of protecting peace and punishing wickedness when mandated to do so by a government. However, he asserted that this argument was personal and philosophical: “What is here required is not a bodily action, but an inward disposition.” In the meantime, in his work The City of God, Augustine elaborated:
They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ . . . the wise man will wage Just Wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars.
Saint Thomas Aquinas
In the Summa Theologica written 900 years later, Saint Thomas Aquinas revised Augustine’s stance by formulating three criteria that were all required to be met in order for a war to be considered ‘just.’ These criteria were that:
- The war had to be declared and waged by a legitimate authority (e.g., the state);
- The cause for war had to be both just and good (e.g., to restore something that had been lost), rather than carried out for self-gain or power; and
- The right intent for the war needed to underlie the decision to go to war.
Specifically, according to Thomas:
In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. Moreover it is not the business of a private individual to summon together the people, which has to be done in wartime. And as the care of the commonweal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the commonweal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that commonweal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Romans 13:4): “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil;” so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the commonweal against external enemies. Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Ps 81:4): “Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner;” and for this reason Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 75): “The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority.”
Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says (QQ. in Hept., qu. x, super Jos.): “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”
Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention so that they intend the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (Can. Apud. Caus. xxiii, qu. 1): “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war” (Question 40: War).
Thus, the three criteria set forth by Thomas were elaborated into the following seven sub-criteria that all needed to be met for a ‘just war’ to be in effect:
- It had to be carried out as a last resort;
- This could only be done by a legitimate authority;
- The war to be carried out for a truly just cause (i.e., not just any cause);
- There had to be a significant probability of success as a result of the proposed war;
- The intent underlying the decision to go to war had to be ‘right’ (i.e., not in revenge for perceived or actual wrongs);
- The degree of force used could never be more than what was needed to attain success (i.e., proportionality); and
- Civilians could never be the primary target of the war.
‘Just war’ in patristics
No ‘just war’ doctrine exists in most of the writings of the Greek Fathers. Even in the case of circumstances often considered to be ‘unavoidable,’ these Fathers of the Church repeatedly maintained that war was the lesser of greater evils, but evil nonetheless. Saint Athanasius, however, declared that:
Although one is not supposed to kill, the killing of the enemy in time of war is both a lawful and praiseworthy thing. This is why we consider individuals who have distinguished themselves in war as being worthy of great honors, and indeed public monuments are set up to celebrate their achievements. It is evident, therefore, that at one particular time, and under one set of circumstances, an act is not permissible, but when time and circumstances are right, it is both allowed and condoned (Letter to Amun).
And Saint Basil the Great maintained that:
Our Fathers did not consider the killings committed in the course of wars to be classifiable as murders at all, on the score, it seems to me, of allowing a pardon to men fighting in defense of sobriety and piety. Perhaps, though, it might be advisable to refuse them communion for three years, on the ground that they are not clean-handed (Canon 13).
‘Just war’ doctrine in modern times
In The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2003), four conditions have been listed as necessary for any war to be considered morally legitimate. These conditions are that:
- 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; and
- The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
In the meantime, at the instigation of Saint John Paul II, the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace (2004) elaborated on the ‘just war’ doctrine in its Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:
If this responsibility justifies the possession of sufficient means to exercise this right to defence, States still have the obligation to do everything possible “to ensure that the conditions of peace exist, not only within their own territory but throughout the world.” It is important to remember that “it is one thing to wage a war of self-defence; it is quite another to seek to impose domination on another nation. The possession of war potential does not justify the use of force for political or military objectives. Nor does the mere fact that war has unfortunately broken out mean that all is fair between the warring parties.” The Charter of the United Nations intends to preserve future generations from war with a prohibition against force to resolve disputes between States. Like most philosophy, it permits legitimate defence and measures to maintain peace. In every case, the Charter requires that self-defence must respect the traditional limits of necessity and proportionality. Therefore, engaging in a preventive war without clear proof that an attack is imminent cannot fail to raise serious moral and juridical questions. International legitimacy for the use of armed force, on the basis of rigorous assessment and with well-founded motivations, can only be given by the decision of a competent body that identifies specific situations as threats to peace and authorizes an intrusion into the sphere of autonomy usually reserved to a State.
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Is 2:4).
Saint John XXIII fearlessly declared that it was “contrary to reason to consider war as a suitable way to restore rights.” He added:
There is a common belief that under modern conditions peace cannot be assured except on the basis of an equal balance of armaments and that this factor is the probable cause of this stockpiling of armaments. Thus, if one country increases its military strength, others are immediately roused by a competitive spirit to augment their own supply of armaments. And if one country is equipped with atomic weapons, others consider themselves justified in producing such weapons themselves, equal in destructive force . . . Hence justice, right reason, and the recognition of man’s dignity cry out insistently for a cessation to the arms race. The stock-piles of armaments which have been built up in various countries must be reduced all round and simultaneously by the parties concerned. Nuclear weapons must be banned. A general agreement must be reached on a suitable disarmament program, with an effective system of mutual control. In the words of Pope Pius XII: “The calamity of a world war, with the economic and social ruin and the moral excesses and dissolution that accompany it, must not on any account be permitted to engulf the human race for a third time.”
Everyone, however, must realize that, unless this process of disarmament be thoroughgoing and complete, and reach men’s very souls, it is impossible to stop the arms race, or to reduce armaments, or—and this is the main thing—ultimately to abolish them entirely. Everyone must sincerely co-operate in the effort to banish fear and the anxious expectation of war from men’s minds. But this requires that the fundamental principles upon which peace is based in today’s world be replaced by an altogether different one, namely, the realization that true and lasting peace among nations cannot consist in the possession of an equal supply of armaments but only in mutual trust. And We are confident that this can be achieved, for it is a thing which not only is dictated by common sense, but is in itself most desirable and most fruitful of good . . .
Men nowadays are becoming more and more convinced that any disputes which may arise between nations must be resolved by negotiation and agreement, and not by recourse to arms. We acknowledge that this conviction owes its origin chiefly to the terrifying destructive force of modern weapons. It arises from fear of the ghastly and catastrophic consequences of their use. Thus, in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice. And yet, unhappily, we often find the law of fear reigning supreme among nations and causing them to spend enormous sums on armaments. Their object is not aggression, so they say – and there is no reason for disbelieving them – but to deter others from aggression. Nevertheless, We are hopeful that, by establishing contact with one another and by a policy of negotiation, nations will come to a better recognition of the natural ties that bind them together as men. We are hopeful, too, that they will come to a fairer realization of one of the cardinal duties deriving from our common nature: namely, that love, not fear, must dominate the relationships between individuals and between nations. It is principally characteristic of love that it draws men together in all sorts of ways, sincerely united in the bonds of mind and matter; and this is a union from which countless blessings can flow (1963, Pacem in Terris).
Pacem in Terris was the first papal encyclical to be addressed to all humanity, not just to the Catholic Church. It was the first encyclical to break definitively with ‘just war’ doctrine as previously outlined in the Western theological tradition. It was also the first encyclical to proclaim that all human persons are invested with inalienable rights that are unassailable by any earthly authority. In addition, Pacem in Terris shifted for the first time to the fundamental choice of an optimistic perspective of the human person, in stark contrast to the rather negative vision that had previously characterized a very large portion of Western Catholic (cataphatic) theology.
Blessed Paul VI maintained that authentic peace comes only through integral human development, while Saint John Paul II declared that “violence is evil . . . [and] the enemy of justice.” He said, “Violence and arms can never resolve the problems of man . . . violence is a crime against humanity for it destroys the very fabric of society.” Pope Benedict XVI stated that violence degrades the dignity of the victim and the perpetrator.
Western Christianity today on ‘just war’
As has been eloquently elaborated by Pope Francis (2013) and Peter, Cardinal Turkson (2016), the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace:
“Faith and violence are incompatible . . . [The doctrine of ‘just war’ has been] used and abused by political leaders . . . it was initially meant to make it difficult to wage war because you needed to justify it. This now has been interpreted these days as a war is just when it is exercised in self-defense . . . or to put off an aggressor or to protect innocent people. In that case, Pope Francis would say: ‘You don’t stop an aggression by being an aggressor. You don’t stop a conflict by inciting another conflict. You don’t stop a war by starting another war.’ It doesn’t stop, we’ve seen it all around us.
Trying to stop the aggressor in Iraq has not stopped war. Trying to stop the aggressor in Libya has not stopped war. It’s not stopped the war in any place. We do not stop war by starting another war. People think that this [nonviolence] is utopian, but Jesus was that. From the point of view of us Christians, and talking as Christians, our master also taught us a way of dealing with violence [‘turning the other cheek’]. Is it worth following what our master taught us? What he taught s this nonviolence . . . There are several diplomatic means we can use to stop aggression. If nothing else at all, stop that with which people cause the aggression. Why don’t you talk about curtailing arms trafficking? The really big instruments of war come from factories and industries which produce weapons and some of these weapons are now in these theatres of war.
The more-than-80 participants in the first-ever Vatican conference convened last year to specifically examine the ‘just war’ doctrine of Augustine and Thomas explicitly declared in their conclusions:
There is no just war. Too often the ‘just war theory’ has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war. Suggesting that a ‘just war’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict. We need a new framework that is consistent with Gospel nonviolence. We propose that the Catholic Church develop and consider shifting to a Just Peace approach based on Gospel nonviolence (2016, An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence).
As Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, Uganda, said:
[‘Just war’ doctrine] is out of date for our world of today. We have to sound this with a strong voice. Any war is a destruction. There is no justice in destruction . . . It is outdated. The conditions [listed in The Catechism] are only given to say in reality there should be no war. [Jesus] always asked His followers not to resort to violence in solving problems, including in His last stage of life. On the Cross, He said, ‘Father forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.’ In this statement, He united the whole of humanity under one Father. He does not take violent words and violent actions. That is the greatest act of teaching as to how we should handle our situations. Not violence.
Pope Francis (2016) reiterated that:
The basic premise is that the ultimate and most deeply worthy goal of human beings and of the human community is the abolition of war. In this vein, we recall that the only explicit condemnation issued by the Second Vatican Council was against war, although the Council recognized that, since war has not been eradicated from the human condition, “governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defence once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted.” Another cornerstone is to recognize that “conflict cannot be ignored or concealed. It has to be faced.” Of course, the purpose is not to remain trapped within a framework of conflict, thus losing our overall perspective and our sense of the profound unity of reality. Rather, we must accept and tackle conflict so as to resolve it and transform it into a link in that new process which “peacemakers” initiate . . . In our complex and violent world, it is truly a formidable undertaking to work for peace by living the practice of non-violence! Equally daunting is the aim of achieving full disarmament “by reaching people’s very souls,” building bridges, fighting fear and pursuing open and sincere dialogue. The practice of dialogue is in fact difficult. We must be prepared to forgive and take. We must not assume that the others are wrong. Instead, accepting our differences and remaining true to our positions, we must seek the good of all; and, after having finally found agreement, we must firmly maintain it (Message on the occasion of the conference on ‘Nonviolence and Just Peace’).
These past few years, Pope Francis has openly declared that “The world once more is at war and is preparing to go even more forcefully into war . . . the fruit of war is death.” This year he further said:
International peace and stability cannot be based on a false sense of security, on the threat of mutual destruction or total annihilation, or on simply maintaining a balance of power. Peace must be built on justice, on integral human development, on respect for fundamental human rights, on the protection of creation, on the participation of all in public life, on trust between peoples, on the support of peaceful institutions, on access to education and health, on dialogue and solidarity. From this perspective, we need to go beyond nuclear deterrence: the international community is called upon to adopt forward-looking strategies to promote the goal of peace and stability and to avoid short-sighted approaches to the problems surrounding national and international security.
In this context, the ultimate goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons becomes both a challenge and a moral and humanitarian imperative. A concrete approach should promote a reflection on an ethics of peace and multilateral and cooperative security that goes beyond the fear and isolationism that prevail in many debates today. Achieving a world without nuclear weapons involves a long-term process, based on the awareness that “everything is connected” within the perspective of an integral ecology (cf. Laudato Si, 117, 138). The common destiny of mankind demands the pragmatic strengthening of dialogue and the building and consolidating of mechanisms of trust and cooperation, capable of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.
Growing interdependence and globalization mean that any response to the threat of nuclear weapons should be collective and concerted, based on mutual trust. This trust can be built only through dialogue that is truly directed to the common good and not to the protection of veiled or particular interests; such dialogue, as far as possible, should include all: nuclear states, countries which do not possess nuclear weapons, the military and private sectors, religious communities, civil societies, and international organizations. And in this endeavour we must avoid those forms of mutual recrimination and polarization which hinder dialogue rather than encourage it. Humanity has the ability to work together in building up our common home; we have the freedom, intelligence and capacity to lead and direct technology, to place limits on our power, and to put all this at the service of another type of progress: one that is more human, social and integral (2017, Message to the United Nations Conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination).
Eastern Christianity today on ‘just war’
The Patriarch, Bartholomew I, said:
The irrationality of war is evident from its effect on humanity and on the natural environment . . . Through spiritual vigilance and focusing on safeguarding the world from destruction, war and the causes of war must be addressed and eliminated. Peace can only be upheld if the causes of war and hostility in our times are being addressed. Some of the causes of war relate with discrimination, subjugation, hostility, and depressing social conditions. As the causes of war intensify, our chances of upholding peace in the world fade away. For these reasons, we must use all of our resources on a global scale to eliminate these causes. The uncontrollable issues that are the strongest contributors to war deal with nations over-emphasizing preparations for war and increasing the manufacturing initiatives of military ammunition (1999, Address in Athens).
War and violence are never means used by God in order to achieve a result. They are for the most part machinations of the devil used to achieve unlawful ends. We say “for the most part” because, as is well known, in a few specific cases the Church forgives an armed defense against oppression and violence. However, as a rule, peaceful resolution of differences and peaceful cooperation are more pleasing to God and more beneficial to humankind (1999, Address in Novi Sad).