The Catholic Church’s teachings regarding war and peace are challenging. While we happily affirm the general superiority of peace over war, violence has become so commonplace–abroad, on our streets, and in our entertainment–that it seems inevitable. We have accepted it as a problem to be managed and not an evil to abhor. But the Church calls us to a sharper moral awareness, one which actively strives for the good of peace, while permitting, in very limited circumstances, defensive warfare. Leaders and everyday citizens alike need to rediscover the mind of the Church in this matter.
The Good of Peace and the Evil of War
The Bible lavishly praises peace, which produces prosperity (Is 48:19, 54:13), takes away fear (Lev 26:6), and brings about joy (Pr. 12:20). The prophet Isaiah described Jesus as the Prince of Peace (9:5), a vision echoed by St. Paul (Eph 2:14-16). St. John Paul II explained that Christianity ushers in “a new model of the unity of the human race,… [a] supreme model of unity, which is a reflection of the intimate life of God, one God in three Persons.” Inspired by the peace of Christ and the unity of the Trinity, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church teaches that “working for peace can never be separated from announcing the Gospel.”
Vatican II reminded us that “peace is not merely the absence of war,” as contemporary society often understands it, frequently maintained by nothing more than a balance of power. Rather, peace is the order of tranquility. Recent popes have made clear that peace is predicated on respect for human rights, pursuit of justice, and the fostering of “a true culture of peace.” But even justice is not sufficient. In our fallen world of sin and injury, “true and lasting peace is more a matter of love than of justice,” as Pope Pius XI reminded us in 1922.
Just as the Bible praises peace, it clearly teaches that violence is the fruit of sin, a rupturing of the harmony that God created (cf. Gen 1:4-31, 4:1-16). The Church forcefully teaches that “violence is evil…, that violence is unworthy of man. Violence is a lie,” as John Paul II put it. “Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings.” Thus, any recourse to violence–and the Church does permit such recourse, in limited circumstances–must be understood as part of a larger failure of morality and of statecraft.
Waging Just War
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that states which have been attacked by foreign aggressors have the right–indeed the duty–to defend their people, even to the point of waging war. Likewise, the Compendium, following the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, explains that “it is legitimate [for those being oppressed] to resist authority should it violate in a serious or repeated manner the essential principles of natural law.” Nevertheless, it goes on to explain, “There can be many different concrete ways this right [of resistance] may be exercised; there are also many different ends that may be pursued,” ranging from legal changes to revolution or revolt.
In order for war to be legitimate, the Catechism identifies several conditions which must be met:
The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain. Paul VI noted that recourse should only be made to arms when there is a “manifest, longstanding tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good.” Thus the Compendium specifically notes that “engaging in a preventive war without clear proof that an attack is imminent cannot fail to raise serious moral and juridical questions.”
All other means of putting an end to [the damage] must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective. The Church encourages “general, balanced and controlled disarmament.” While this may, in the long term, reduce conflict, arms control negotiations are apt to prove fruitless in the face of imminent hostilities. But merely because this tool cannot solve all problems does not mean that it is useless or that Catholics can simply lay it aside. In the short term, states have other tools to be tried or considered before war; among these the Compendium makes particular mention of sanctions. States can also employ both traditional and public diplomacy, while individuals and groups can engage in passive resistance in the economic, cultural, and political realms.
There must be serious prospects of success. The Church frequently warns of the propensity for violence to beget additional violence. The Compendium describes war as “an adventure without return” that “creates new and still more complicated conflicts.” Thus, any recourse to arms must be supported by robust diplomacy and intelligence, to adequately understand the situation, coupled with vigorous efforts to contain the conflict and ultimately bring about peace.
The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The Church has long taught that a just cause (jus ad bellum) is insufficient to make a war just; it must be accompanied by just conduct (jus in bello). As the Second Vatican Council put it, “the mere fact that war has unhappily begun” does not “mean that all is fair between the warring parties.” The Catechism teaches that “non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely” and that soldiers are obligated to disobey orders to commit genocide or other crimes against humanity. “The violation of human dignity can never be justified by military necessity or political strategy,” John Paul warned.
In addition to just wars waged by states, the Compendium also teaches that “the international community as a whole has the moral obligation to intervene on behalf of those groups whose very survival is threatened or whose basic human rights are seriously violated. As members of an international community, States cannot remain indifferent.” Should all other methods prove fruitless, John Paul noted that it is “legitimate and even obligatory” in such circumstances, “to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor.” While such actions should be taken in accordance with international law, the Compendium clarifies that claims of national sovereignty alone do not suffice to prevent such international intervention.
Working for Peace
Jesus tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (Mt 5:9). As the Compendium reminds us, “peace is built up day after day” and is the duty of everyone. In the spirit of subsidiarity, peace should be “a value rooted deep within the heart of every person. In this way it can spread to families and to the different associations within society until the whole of the political community is involved.” Authentic development–which includes not only economic concerns but also political, cultural, and spiritual–is one of the primary means by which peace is promoted, removing many of the underlying causes of war.
While admitting the occasional permissibility of war, the Compendium teaches that “the contemporary world too needs the witness of unarmed prophets, who are often the objects of ridicule.” Such individuals might be clergy or laity, missionaries or diplomats, journalists or aid workers. When thinking about both our everyday engagement with the international community and our prosecution of war, we must not only allow a place for such voices, but even encourage them and incorporate them into broader policies, lest we risk forgetting that just war is an exception and not the Christian norm.
Ultimately, the Christian search for peace is not simply a diplomatic or humanitarian effort, though it includes these. Jesus tell us, “My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give” (Jn 14:27). We are reminded that “true peace is made possible only through forgiveness and reconciliation.” This is something that requires supernatural grace. For man, it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible (cf. Mt 19:26). This is our hope and our calling amidst a broken world.