The Church’s View on War and Peace

What is Peace?

The Church, because it sees peace as the legacy of Jesus, the greatest ‘Prince of Peace’, and so the outcome of Divine love and order, has a much broader vision of what peace is than merely the absence of armed conflict. True peace is of God so it involves the harmony of all people pursuing justice for all. In this way peace is, at its heart, a reflection of God’s Kingdom. Throughout the 1960s, Popes John XXIII and Paul VI proclaimed in Pacem in Terris, Gaudium et Spes and Populorum Progressio that peace cannot exist where there is injustice, inequality between people and nations (economic or otherwise), thirst for power, pursuit of endless profit as an end in itself, nor when there is an arms race. Ultimately, whenever there is disregard for or breach of the commandment to ‘love our neighbour’ we cannot rightly be said to have peace; not the peace God intends for us. More recently, Pope Francis has emphatically reminded us again that caring for Creation and cruelly destroying the resources of poorer nations and communities also stands in the way of true peace.

This more holistic idea of peace is often called ‘positive peace’, ‘just peace’ or ‘sustainable peace’ by  scholars and practitioners. Though it is often without the religious or Christian perspective this secular view largely converges with the Church belief that peace needs many elements to truly be called peace. The United Nations, for example, the Sustainable Development Goals very tidily sum up its view of peace as something that derives from a number of conditions being met. Other scholars, like those who work at the Institute for Economics and Peace and produce the Global Peace Index, understand peace to be the outcome of various ‘pillars or factors of peace’, like well-functioning governments and equitable distribution of resources, which work together to produce a system of peace.

Top: UN Sustainable Development Goals. Bottom: Pillars of Peace, Institute for Economics and Peace

Just War Tradition

The Church is emphatically for peace in all places and for all people, and has time and again advocated vocally for the prevention or cessation of war and supports the long tradition of pacifism in the Church. Yet, under certain circumstances, it also believes that war is morally permissible perhaps even necessary. Built on centuries of tradition and scholarship the Church uses the ‘Just War Theory as the basis upon which it discerns the permissibility of a war and the morality of its conduct. The Church  believes that a State has a right to defend itself, and its peoples, from an act of aggression, though the manner in which it does so will still need to be bound bound certain principles.

In the West we can trace the Just War Theory back at least as far as the 4th Century and the work of St Augustine of Hippo. Since then it has undergone, and continues to undergo, rethinking and refining. Nonetheless, it is traditionally divided into two strands that cover the conditions by which one discerns if it is morally permissible or necessary to wage war (called jus ad bellum), and second, the type of conditions with which that war can be fought (called jus in bello). More recently, scholars have added a third strand concerning the resolution of conflict and the moral and practical responsibilities various parties have during the transition from war to peace (called jus post bellum). There are many significant Church documents that set out this position and provide nuance, history, detail as well as practical application of the Theory and these are listed in the ‘Further Reading’ section below, but what follows is a brief overview of the main tenets of Just War Theory.

Pre-War Considerations (or jus ad bellum)

This element is concerned with the conditions that need to be met in order for the decision to go to war to be a  morally sound one, that is, these criteria are used to determine under what conditions it is morally permissible to break the commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’. Those who have responsibility for the common good must evaluate their decisions based on these criteria, after which they have the right to impose on citizens obligations that are needed for the defence of the nation. Still, the State is to make fair provision for people, who for reason of conscience, refuse to bear arms. Other ways for them to serve the community must be found.

The conditions to wage a war:

  • Just cause: this is usually considered the most important and it requires that the war can only be waged when there has been lasting, grave and certain damage inflicted on the nation or community of nations. The most common just cause is aggression or the violation of sovereign territorial integrity or another political community.
  • Right intention: the reasons used to justify the war (above) must be the reasons political leaders commit to military action. This is important because if it is not for the highest moral reasons but for political expediency or some other lesser goal then the military action is disproportionate. A wrong intention also makes it more likely that other moral violations will occur during the war.
  • Legitimate authority: only authorised leaders legitimately representing a political community can declare and wage wars. This is aimed at not only making sure the war being waged is supported by the people, but also to limit the frequency with which wars occur.
  • Proportionality: it must be shown firstly that all other means of resolution have been thoroughly exhausted; war must be an absolute last resort; if war is the only option, leaders must be able to show that they reasonably expect the state of affairs will be better off if war is engaged that if it is not.
  • Probability of Success: there must be serious and probable prospects of success, this implies that a clear notion of success be known before engaging in war.

Waging War – (or jus in bello)

This part of the Theory outlines the morally acceptable ways in which war can waged. It relies on the belief that just because war has broken out it does not mean all moral principles and the utmost respect for life can be disregarded. It is universally agreed that civilians should not be intentionally targeted and all efforts to protect the life of non-combatants must be made. Generally speaking, the loss of civilian life that occurs as ‘collateral damage’ is usually considered morally allowed in the sense that it is a tragedy but a person ought not to be punished for it. Identifying civilians and combatants as well as measuring the intentionality of ‘collateral damage’ has become more complex since the end of the Second World War as warfare, particularly the rise or terrorism and advanced weaponry like drones have become the norm.

Beyond protecting civilian life the means by which a war can be waged are also circumscribed by one important principle:

  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction necessarily weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. This principle calls  for the act of violence to be proportionate to the just reason for going to war.

Resolving Conflict (or jus post bellum)

This is a relatively new area of scholarship and one not traditionally included in the Church’s Just War doctrine, but it is receiving greater scholarly and theological attention given the number of conflicts which include a third party getting involved in either the conflict or post-war reconstruction. Theologians and scholars working in this area seek to return to Christian traditions of restoring peace after conflict and to, in effect, bring Just War Theory full circle by having us return to issues of active peacemaking and working for a just peace. Discerning the morality, rights and responsibilities in post-war decisions is particularly important because knowing how much and in what ways others can, or should, intervene in another community or nation’s political and economic life during this usually very complex and charged period are incredibly difficult issues fraught with not just moral tensions but with the very real possibility that if done badly conflict will resume. Some of the issues might include discerning who decides and then builds (or rebuilds) a certain type of political system, should it replicate what was there pre-conflict or be something different? What will restorative justice look like? Should there be punishment, of whom, by whom? Are there power imbalances between countries that make local decision making impossible or marginalised? These kinds of issue have, for example, been key to certain periods of operations in Afghanistan and in countless humanitarian or peacekeeping operations, such as in East Timor.

A New Theory Altogether?

Beyond those working on a jus post bellum element to be included in the Just War Theory there are some who argue that it is time for it to be scrapped as official Church teaching  and a doctrine of just peacemaking through non-violence be instituted. These scholars argue that though Just War Theory places a high value on peace and sees war only as a last resort, in the face of the ever increasing power of modern weapons, and also examples of the effectiveness of non-violence in response to unjust aggression, they argue that non-violence is the better, more ethical option. They argue the Just War Theory weakens the Christian moral imperative to develop methods for nonviolent conflict because it always leaves us recourse to violence, however restricted that recourse may be. Further, they suggest that non-violence is central to Jesus’ message and the way he lived his life and so must be a central virtue in the way we live out the Gospel.

Two major conferences on this issue were co-hosted in Rome by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi in April 2016 and 2019. The former is the Vatican body that promotes and leads the Church on issues to do with the Church’s social teaching (as of January 2017 it is part of an expanded department called the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development); Pax Christi is an international Catholic coalition with branches and networks in many countries which promotes and advocates for the ‘Peace of Christ’.

In between these two conferences, Pope Francis already made clear his commitment to peace and non-violence in his 2017 World Day of Peace Message entitled “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace“. He said, ‘when victims of violence are able to resist the temptation to retaliate, they become the most credible promoters of nonviolent peacemaking. In the most local and ordinary situations and in the international order, may nonviolence become the hallmark of our decisions, our relationships and our actions, and indeed of political life in all its forms’.

In his 2020 Encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis went even further than this declaring that war cannot be a solution to any problem and even issued a caution about previous interpretations of Just War theory.

He stated: “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.” (Fratelli Tutti, 258)

He was particularly concerned about new technologies and the development and use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons which now have the power to wreak unprecedented and indiscriminate damage against innocent civilians, non-military infrastructure and the environment. The use of such weapons would not be justifiable even under Just War theory.

Pope Francis went on to articulate his belief and hope for an end to wars “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!” (Fratelli Tutti, 258).

Sources and Further Reading

Alongside the sources embedded in the text the following have been useful in the preparation of this essay.

  • To learn more about peace and conflict in Australia and how you can get involved click here.