When is it good to kill another human being? The only correct answer, the one offered by the Church, is “never.” As Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Mt 5:38-39). Or as the Catechism states, “The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life.”
But too often the Church–by which I mean all Christians–has been content to answer theoretical questions about just war, capital punishment, and self-defense, and to avoid questioning our own failures to build peace so that killing might be avoided altogether.
Today, Pope Francis is questioning our attitudes and actions, helping to orient us toward the more radical requirements of peace. In the face of the Russo-Ukrainian war, Francis has held a staunchly “pacifist” line, condemning the logic of war and the horrors of this particular conflict, in part by failing to align the Vatican with one military strategy or another. Francis opposes war and violence, full stop. For example, while he has clearly stood behind Ukrainians–men, women, and children– who have been devastated by war, he has also chosen not to explicitly condemn Russia for the invasion. This has been a source of frustration for many. Massimo Faggioli, a longtime defender of Pope Francis, critically chronicles Francis’s position. Francis’s stance and actions contrast sharply with the calls to aid Ukraine with weapons or air support, as images from the eastern European country reveal the devastating consequences of Putin’s decision. After the invasion, Catholic conservative commentators likewise continue to advance the theory of just war.
Since the Second World War, the prevailing view goes, there have been decades of unprecedented peace and economic growth, as nations have collaborated in the advancement of democracy and freedom around the globe. But this rosy narrative covers up the reality of our recent past. Wealth has not been equally distributed, either among countries or within them, leading to historic inequality and social strife. Nor has there been real peace, as innocent people around the world continue to be injured, killed, displaced, and terrorized in endless military operations, religious conflicts, anti-democratic crackdowns, genocides, and so on.
The so-called peace of the last several decades is paradoxically underpinned by the continued buildup of militaries, bellicose rhetoric, and the specter of nuclear or chemical warfare. At any point, tens of thousands of innocent people could be ruthlessly murdered to achieve a military victory, or for any reason at all. Meanwhile, the wealthiest nations can afford the weapons of war that protect their economic or strategic interests at home and abroad, while the poorest are often left at their mercy, fighting each other for scraps. History reveals that any peace based on a tenuous balance of fear and self-interest will eventually break down, leaving fear and self-interest to spur leaders and peoples toward war and conflict.
Francis has rejected this viewpoint and the promise of peace founded on the calculus of power, advocating instead for the hard work of “reconciliation and forgiveness.” As he explains in Fratelli Tutti, “It is no easy task to overcome the bitter legacy of injustices, hostility, and mistrust left by conflict. It can only be done by overcoming evil with good (cf. Rom 12:21) and by cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace” (243).
Like pontiffs before him, however, he has found himself caught in the line of fire as Catholics attempt to resolve apparent conflicts between patriotism or moral outrage at injustice with the radical teaching of the Church on war and peace. This was especially true in the period following 9/11 when President George W. Bush prosecuted the War on Terror with an invasion of Iraq. Famously, Pope John Paul II failed to approve the American invasion, saying in 2003, “War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity.” This witness was met with criticism; for example, despite his status as a papal biographer and his closeness to the late pontiff, commentator George Weigel actively opposed the Pope’s guidance, defending instead the more mainstream conservative position at the time in favor of “preventative war.”
Francis himself has been consistent in his call for peace, even urging those victimized by war to find non-violent solutions. This has not been an easy teaching for people to accept. In 2013, Francis condemned both the use of chemical weapons in Syria as well as the military interventions designed to end their use. In response, Robert Christian, founding editor of Millennial, wrote in 2014 that Francis’s stance on Syria was a mistake, saying, “The principle of solidarity calls on all nations to act to end the mass atrocities that are being perpetrated in Syria today. This may require the use of force.”
And just this year, Francis invited two colleagues and friends, a Ukrainian woman and a Russian woman, to walk together during the Via Crucis in a show of solidarity, but there was an uproar, including criticisms from Ukraine’s leading Catholic prelates. Specifically, they questioned the language of the prayer that was arguably not aligned with Ukrainian sentiment about the war and that glossed over the evil of Russia’s invasion. The language was ultimately scrapped for the event itself, though it is still available on the Vatican website.
Francis is not alone in his radical position on peacebuilding. For example, Dr. David Cochran has written provocatively and persuasively for America on the topic of the morality of war. Cochran cites Francis’s words in Fratelli Tutti, where Francis calls into question the very concept of a “just war,” a theme that Francis recently returned to with much criticism and patronizing explainers. As Francis wrote,
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! (258)
If there is no such thing as “just war,” then aren’t pacifists just being naive? This is the question Doug Girardot asked in a recent America article. He answers, “It is not a principled excuse for cowardice, as detractors might portray it. Instead, it is a hope for a future that with God’s grace is truly possible.” Separately, Cochran also suggests that the kind of pacifism advanced by Francis may be more pragmatic than theological, noting:
The best argument against just war theory’s continuing place in Catholic teaching may not be that it is necessarily wrong in theory, but that it misunderstands the realities of war and peace today. Given that the nonmilitary alternatives increasingly emphasized in Catholic teaching are more effective in practice, keeping just war theory’s sanction of warfare may do more harm than good.
Practically, then, what is to be done? Does Francis’s position mean that Ukraine must simply allow an invading Russia to take, kill, and annex whoever and whatever they want? Surely there is a right to self-defense, and as Francis writes in Fratelli Tutti, “If a criminal has harmed me or a loved one, no one can forbid me from demanding justice and ensuring that this person – or anyone else – will not harm me, or others, again. This is entirely just; forgiveness does not forbid it but actually demands it” (241).
But the question must be asked in response: how and to what end? Are the continued build-up and strengthening of NATO’s military capabilities based more on the principle of peacebuilding or the principle of realpolitik? Is the nuanced and sober moral analysis regarding self-defense congruent with the build-up of devastating military weapons and deployment of dehumanizing rhetoric? Readers may find it helpful to know that, as Cochran writes, “Researchers have found that nonviolent methods of noncooperation and disruption are two to three times more effective than military methods for defeating oppressive regimes or foreign occupiers, regardless of how brutal the opponent.”
Of course, these questions are ultimately not for us to solve unilaterally or on behalf of those living and fighting in a war zone. They simply point to a hard reality. Cochran summarizes it this way,
The circumstances that make war or abortion seem necessary, no matter how grave, still do not change the wrongness of the killing. While this analysis may commit Catholic ethics to a position on war that most people might consider extreme and dangerous, moral consistency may well require it.
We know that peace will reign not when military superiority has been achieved, but only when the hearts of many are converted, when they see their enemy instead as a brother, and when they refuse to participate in the manipulative schemes of the greedy and power-hungry. Francis writes in Fratelli Tutti, “What is important is to create processes of encounter, processes that build a people that can accept differences. Let us arm our children with the weapons of dialogue! Let us teach them to fight the good fight of the culture of encounter!” (217). Anything that opposes this conversion of heart must be rejected as both counterproductive and antithetical to the Gospel.
Image: Francis prays with wives of Ukrainian soldiers, Vatican News.
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Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.