Just-war theory appraised

Challenging tradition, Catholics critique a principle that has justified war more often than prevented it

Apr 25, 2016 by and

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A first-of-its-kind conference April 11-13 in Rome gathered Catholic educators and activists around the idea of moving beyond just-war theory to a greater emphasis on proactive peacemaking and Jesus’ life.

Pax Christi International secretary general Greet Vanaerschot and PCI co-president Marie Dennis speak with Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, at an April 11-13 conference on nonviolence and just peace in Rome. — Gerry Lee/Maryknoll

Pax Christi International secretary general Greet Vanaerschot and PCI co-president Marie Dennis speak with Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, at an April 11-13 conference on nonviolence and just peace in Rome. — Gerry Lee/Maryknoll

“Nonviolence and Just Peace: Contributing to the Catholic Understanding of and Commitment to Nonviolence” was coordinated by the global Catholic peace network Pax Christi International and hosted by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

“The significance of this meeting is not that it said something that’s a great leap from what popes have been saying,” said Gerald Schla­bach, a Mennonite who entered into communion with the Catholic church in 2004 and participated in the meeting as an invited guest. “The significance is that peace activists are now having the conversation with the pontifical council.”

National Catholic Reporter said the gathering was the first time just-war theory has been reconsidered under the auspices of the Vatican.

A key critique of just-war theory — which for more than 1,500 years has used logic and ethics to set out parameters for when violence is warranted — is that its criteria typically have been used to approve war rather than prevent it. As modern weapons have become more powerful and nonviolent campaigns more effective, conference organizers say the criteria grows increasingly outdated.

Theory not rejected

Schlabach, a professor in the theology department of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., said that while some headlines about the event heralded the conference’s “rejection” of just-war theory, the Vatican hasn’t endorsed a document calling for changes that the conference produced.

About 80 participants who have worked at grassroots-level peacemaking in dozens of countries around the world pressed Pope Francis and high-ranking cardinals to do more to promote nonviolent, humanitarian and economic development intervention strategies.

Participants specifically called on the pope to consider writing a “major teaching document” reorienting the church’s teachings on violence.

While a rejection of just-war theory from “the prophetic edge” of Catholic peace organizations was conveyed, it’s another matter to see how leadership prioritizes the matter in its slow, deliberative process.

“There’s a call to move to a just-peace framework, because the [just-war] rhetoric itself is problematic,” Schlabach said.

“The specialists may recognize that the just-war theory gives a finely tuned criteria for evaluating war, but in the popular rhetoric and wider church, there’s instance after instance of not studying the theory.

“The message people get is that the Catholic Church has said violence is justifiable. So the rhetoric and language is not viable.”

Schlabach, a former professor at Bluffton (Ohio) University, is married to Joetta Handrich Schlabach, a pastor at Faith Mennonite Church in Minneapolis.

Start with Jesus

Some observers point to a movement among Catholics to give renewed emphasis to Jesus’ life, the Sermon on the Mount and the broader New Testament.

“There has been a broad shift to doing theology by reading Scripture rather than more philosophical natural law tradition,” Schlabach said. “You can trace that out in different pastoral letters and so on about war and nonviolence. Rather than beginning with broad philosophical categories, you really start with Jesus. That makes it more receptive.”

He cites Pope John Paul II’s participation inspiring the solidarity movement against the Soviet Union in Poland as a watershed moment for Catholics.

“Whereas some people give John Paul [or U.S. President Ron­ald Reagan] credit, John Paul himself gives the credit to people on the ground in Central Europe ready to begin living the truth within the shell of this whole system of totalitarian lies,” Schla­bach said.

Nonviolent success stories like this and Gandhi’s strategies with the British Empire in India have allowed greater reception to practices laid out in the Sermon on the Mount.

The group’s final document states: “In all of this, Jesus is our inspiration and model. Neither passive nor weak, Jesus’ nonviolence was the power of love in action.”

He said Mennonites have played a role in helping along the way, citing John Paul Lederach’s work with Catholic Relief Services and the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for Peace.

“You have a lot more on-the-ground work in peacemaking, and you have bishops around the world, especially in the Global South, who have been ready to learn new ways of responding,” Schlabach said. “. . . You just have a lot of accumulated experience and wisdom of Catholic peacebuilders that’s giving them a reputation more than just peaceniks in the streets.”

That experience is slowly working its way up some hierarchical channels, and the Vatican is learning the power of nonviolence.

“It hasn’t worked its way into the pews and the bishops around the world, but more and more people in the Catholic world pick up on those signals and are thinking more about their own ways, watching the world and looking for the alternatives,” he said.


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  • Rainer Moeller

    Oh well, I’m a skeptic here.

    The slogan “Just peace instead of just war” is well known to me as a slogan of the Protestant Left (for the record, I very much regret the influence of the Protestant Left on Mennonite thinking)

    But excommunicating “just war” didn’t prevent the Protestant Left to support wars whenever they wanted, did it? The most outspoken cases were (a) WWII (at the side of the Allied Forces) and (b) the Civil War in South Africa and Southwest Africa (at the side of the Blacks).

    Why was this? Because the Protestant Left combined the peace principle with a particular ethical system. In this system, there are highly praised moral principles (peace) which must never be constrained by other principles. Notwithstanding, every principle can be overrun in a state of urgence (or emergency). But it must never be defined by principles, if, when and where this state of emergency exists (for that would lead us back to a just war theology). Instead, the state of emergency must be determined ad hoc (by gut feelings or, as you prefer, by revelation).

    In practice this means that Protestant ethics is anti-universalist and is no base for an agreement of opposing forces. Insofar it is different from Catholic ethics.

    The problem is, of course, if Mennonites (or, for their sake, Catholics) want to borrow the ethical system, too, with which the Protestant Left has alleviated the burden of radical pacifism for themselves.

  • Rainer Moeller

    Then there’s all this Protestant stuff about “peacemaking”. Can a peace be made? I would have thought that our task is peace keeping, not peace making.
    Gandhi didn’t look for peace, he looked for Indian self-government. MLK didn’t look for peace, he looked for better life conditions for Blacks.

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