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The End of Catholic Just War Theory?

Fred1Next week, the Vatican will host a conference about the Just War Theory. This article will address the main issues to be discussed at the conference. Fred van Iersel is specialised in social ethics and the Just War Theory. In this blog he explains what in the conference in the Vatican is at stake.

Status quo of the Catholic Just War Theory

The state of the affairs up until now is that Just War theory does not legitimize war as a normal instrument in foreign affairs. Instead, it only legitimizes defense in accordance with article 51 of the UN Charter. So in fact the Catholic variety of Just War Theory supports the framework for conflict resolution on the basis of international law. Catholic Social Teaching on War and Peace strongly supports international law as a key element of a peaceful world order. So for example, it rather supports the UN sanctions than wars.

The Catholic Church is very reluctant to legitimize wars. In fact it hardly accepts any war, because it uses the framework of Just War criteria in a very restrictive interpretation. Through this restrictive use it underlines the exceptional nature of Just War. In fact, it has developed a convergence with a ‘prudent pacifism’ which tends to establish institions and policies promoting conflict prevention.

Catholic Just War Theory already now is dependent on a comprehensive theory of justice as contained in Catholic Social Teaching. Thus, a possible development from a Just War Theory to a so called ‘Just  Peace’ can hardly be regarded as a major development. Already in Just War Theory, Justice implies commutative justice (between citizens, as in an ethics of transactions), distributive justice including a preferential option for the poor, and legal justice, including support for international law and democratic constitutional states. Over the last decades, Catholic Social Teaching has added a component of ‘social justice’, aiming at proactive structural justice and an end to structural violence. Al together these elements of the catholic approach to Justice already tends to strengthen conflict prevention on a basis of social justice. This approach already converges with the concept of Just Peace as formulated by Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International.

What is the use of the Catholic Just War theory? It formulates basic questions any state should pose itself before taking a decision to go to war: Is there a just cause? Is there a legitimate authority (including support from the UN Security Council); can a war be proportionate, not only regarding the aimed effects (objectives), but also regarding the indirect effects; is war really the last resort in an international conflict (are diplomatic means exhausted? Understood this way, it may be hard to finish the Just War Theory, because its questions and criteria are based on natural law and natural right, which in turn are key elements in Catholic moral theology.

The use of the Catholic Just War Theory can be shown in six areas. First of all, it opposes absolute wars (wars that are an aim in themselves, for example as expression of a supposed identity of a nation or an ethnic group). Secondly, it opposes total wars, in which no distinction is made between military and civilian sectors in a state and society; in total wars the targeting is including civil sectors of society. Also total war does imply the use of industrial resources in one’s own society. Thirdly, Catholic Just War Theory opposes The Supreme Emergency Exception (SEE), a supposedly legitimate way of lifting up ethical standards to save a state. The SEE has been defended by John Rawls and Michael Walzer; not so by the Catholic Church. Fourthly, the Catholic variety of Just War opposes disproportionate use of weapons. Fifthly, the Catholic variety of Just War theory provides a frame of reference for diplomatic contacts with states at the eve of war. As such it functioned at the eve of the Gulf Wars. Sixthly, since international law is valid but imperfect, situations may occur where military intervention may be legitimate even if there is no legal basis for it. This was the case in the humanitarian intervention from Tanzania against Uganda (1979). This a typical case of natural law providing a legitimacy when international law is deficient.

Has the Just War theory become obsolete?

There are several valid reasons to discuss and review the Just War theory.

In the first place, as a recent COMECE document shows, the ethics of peace needs a triangle of legitimacies. In fact there are three paradigms for peace. First of all:  peace through justice (pax opus justitiae) ; secondly peace through compassion, reconciliation and forgiveness (pax opus misericordiae) ; and thirdly peace through security as in human security and international security and defense issues focusing on stability (pax ordo tranquillitatis). The debate should focus on the relation between these three paradigms, without reducing the three paradigms to each other.

Secondly, it does not necessarily include a concept of reconciliation after an armed conflict; Just Peace, on the contrary, does. One might say, that the concept of Justice in Just War Theory needs extension or perhaps replacement by a more comprehensive concept of peace that also includes reconciliation. 

Thirdly, the concept of Just defense always legitimizes war through reference to a past, not a future. It is a past injustice (occupation, aggressive war) that provides a legitimacy for defensive wars, aiming at restoration of justice. It tends to isolate one dimension of time (the past injustices) from the future stable and just peace.

Fourthly, contemporary conflicts often include religious violence. Religions are abused to legitimize armed conflicts. The Church already rejects this abuse. But this rejection might be made much stronger by leaving the Just War Theory. The reviewing of the Just War Theory may be fruitful in lifting up blockades for interreligious dialogue.

Fifthly, contemporary armed conflicts often are no wars in the sense of international law. So another moral frame of reference is needed to judge the actions needed.

Sixthly, in his Encyclical LaudatoSi’ Pope Francis discusses both the causes and effects of wars. According to the Pope, the poorest are most affected by the effects of wars, as well as nature.  He discusses the disproportionate effects of wars. Also Pope Francis warns that if the measures to prevent escalation are not taken, he will not support those who seek a pretext for war. So In fact, the present papacy tends to discourage war altogether.

The Future Need of Catholic Just War Theory

The present status of the Catholic Just War Theory is such that it already contains a lot of elements of the so called Just Peace paradigm. So a transition to this paradigm will not be as huge as it seems.  The present reasons why the Catholic Just War Theory may have become in need of reviewing are quite convincing, too.  Nevertheless, one might ask whether there are possible reasons for the Church to stick to the Catholic Just War Theory.

The history of the Catholic Just War Theory shows that it presupposes a theology of world history and the power of sin in it, as in St. Augustin’s and St. Thomas’s work.  The role of evil in history cannot be put aside by declaring one does not want it. To find oneself at war, the only thing needed is that some state or group defines one as an enemy, even if this is not mutual. That, in short, is the main theological reason why the Church so far has accepted the notion of legitimate defense. The concept of the sovereign state as conceived in the Westphalian peace and elaborated since, has proven to have some effect on the containment of political violence. But sovereign states more often have tended to develop into absolutists states. Democracy and human rights – both of which are accepted by the Catholic Social Teaching, tend to counterbalance this. The sovereignty of states, the security of its citizens (or all people in it), the democracy and the human rights are well worth defending. 

This argument may lead to an integration of an ethics of security and defense politics (pax ordo tranquillitatis)  in a future Catholic paradigm for peace. Whether or not this paradigm still is called Just War is a secondary question. Basically, the theological insight that evil and war are not erased when one is opposed to them, must be leading in the integration of key elements of the Just War theory.

A solid possibility for this may be found in the approach of Just War not as a categorical legitimacy of war, but as a method, a set of questions and criteria. If these are well defined, and defined strictly, they can provide good arguments to oppose wars to come.  

Any conservation of the Just War Theory, however, can only be fruitful if it is integrated into a broader approach of peace, on the basis of integration of the three paradigms, and on the basis of an approach of theological anthropology and its view on the role of the evil of war in world history.

Expectation: Catholic Just War Theory as a Doctrine

The Vatican is hosting a conference organized by a Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and an NGO, Pax Christi International. These are among the key players in informal diplomacy and in developing programs in support of peace. It is quite understandable that these organizations ask for a review of the catholic Just War Theory, because this theory is not very helpful for conflict prevention.

But there is more to a change of doctrine. When the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church was published, in 2004, the then President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Renato Martino, urgently pleaded for abolition of the Just War Theory. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, however, immediately stated that it was a competence of this Congregation, not of the Council, to launch a change of doctrine. Indeed, Just War Theory is also an element of the Catechism of the Church, a part of doctrine. It is not only about practical social and political issues, but also about Doctrine. Above I already referred to the Augustinian realism about the pertinence of war in history. This can also be found in one key text of the Second Vatican Council Gaudium et Spes no. 79. This text of course expresses the urgent need for peace and our hope for it, but it also expresses the insight in the enduring nature of war in world history.

Therefore, my expectation is that the Just War Theory as a Doctrine will not be changed overnight. Rather, I expect the start of a process of reflection leading to a combination of expanding the paradigms for peace mentioned above, and a sharpening of the criteria of the Catholic Just War Theory, while reducing its status from a doctrine to an instrument of reducing the risk of war through the reduction of its possible legitimacy.

Prof. dr. Fred van Iersel, Tilburg School of Catholic Theology in Tilburg, The Netherlands

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