The Pope, Violence, and Just War

Note: Those of us with friends and family members in the Slavic nations hear that many of those opposing the monstrous aggression currently going on are fleeing not only Ukraine but Russia as well. Please, pray for them all. And support them. Click here, here, and here to find several reliable ways to do that.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the very next day Pope Francis quoted his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti in a Tweet, “every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil.” This papacy is not very careful in its public statements, but you can share the sentiment while seeing that this formulation is both right and wrong. Yes, every war is, in a sense, a failure. But no, not every resort to arms leaves the world worse off. If it did, the Church would have to preach absolute pacifism, which it does not and never has.

The pope clearly wants to condemn the conflict in Ukraine in general terms about “war” without having to name Russia as the aggressor. In this, anyway, Francis may be acting in a way more faithful to his office as Pontifex, the bridge builder. Instead of acting like a political operator, he’s remaining open to facilitating dialogue between the two sides – however unlikely that it will happen, or make much of a difference.

Still, you want him to just say the obvious truth. It’s not “war” in the abstract that’s evil. It’s Putin.

Francis came a bit closer to the truth yesterday in his Angelus address, tacitly contradicting Russian propaganda, “It is not merely a military operation [Putin’s lie – RR] but a war. . .” Francis clearly meant to reject unjust wars of aggression, and he called for stopping hostilities, permitting civilians to flee, etc. He even made a heartfelt plea along with the announcement that he’s sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine via two Cardinals: “The presence of the two Cardinals there is the presence not only of the Pope, but of all the Christian people who want to get closer and say: ‘War is madness! Stop, please! Look at this cruelty!’”


All this is helpful, but every decision about taking up arms, as the Ukrainians are now forced to do, is, always, how much good and evil – and of what kinds – may follow. It’s painful to have to think about such things, and better to work in advance to avoid the need for such decisions. But think about them we must, if we don’t want to fall into either blind violence or immoral passivity. What even greater evils would follow, for example, if Ukraine and the rest of the world did not stop Russian expansionism?

Francis sent out subsequent Tweets after his first one denouncing the “diabolical senselessness of violence” and affirming that, “God is with peacemakers, not with those who use violence.” This is perfectly correct, so far as it goes. But it does not go as far as needed to understand the situation in Ukraine.

“Violence” is a violation – of human dignity and good social order. But violence is not the same thing as “force.” Violence is always wrong. Just uses of force – by police, armies, even ordinary people – which means physically stopping harm to innocents, is not wrong, indeed may be profoundly, heroically right.

The Ukrainians have been demonstrating that truth by their bravery and conduct. And they know in their hearts and minds and very bones that defensive warfare is not “violence.”

The Church has been the primary teacher of just war theory in the West. And these are among the simplest distinctions separating just from unjust wars. Far from conflating violence and force, Pope Benedict stated the classical Christian position: “defending oneself and others is a duty.” The Catechism says, “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge.” [¶2665]

[AP Photo/Seth Wenig]

Even secular progressives, usually the most vocal in opposing all wars, have developed the concept “R2P” – “the responsibility to protect.”

So when the Church garbles all this by suggesting that war as such is immoral “violence” – that to be Christian is essentially to be a pacifist – it creates confusion rather than enlightenment. Again, you may feel the outrage at the death and destruction, but still need to be clearsighted about the whole truth.

Nuclear weapons and even immensely destructive conventional weapons like thermobaric bombs (these have been moved into Ukraine) have complicated the moral calculations somewhat. But pacifism won’t do to contain human evils today. Winston Churchill, a prudent leader with vast political experience, observed in his very last speech to the House of Commons that nukes had brought about a “sublime irony”: the world had “reached a stage in this story where safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.” Deterrence had become one of the necessary instruments of peace.

A small number of  Western voices – but not so small as to be negligible – have argued that we and the Ukrainians are not innocent of provoking the Russians. That we need to recognize our threats to their security both in terms of weaponry and our cultural decadence. That’s worth noting, of course, but it’s of no real significance in the current conflict.

Protecting innocents by the just use of force does not mean that they or we must be morally perfect, or even without some degree of blame for the situation. If that were the standard for human action, we could never act morally at all, in any context, because – as the doctrine of Original Sin indicates – none of us are entirely innocent.


In the current conflict in Ukraine, the basic moral question is clear (not always the case in armed conflicts). Russia invaded a country that posed no immediate danger. In Just War Theory, this means the invasion fails to meet the basic criteria of “just cause” and “last resort.” (For Aquinas on such matters, click here.) As to Russia’s conduct in the war, thanks to ubiquitous cell phones and social media – even through the fog of war – we see attacks in real time on civilians, cluster bombs, and the dangerous assault on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility, which could have been, for Russia as much as for the rest of the world, utter catastrophe. This is the stuff of war crimes.

Where the moral calculus gets complicated for the West is in the response. It’s reckless and wrong – both in moral terms and in terms of American interests – to push a direct military conflict with Russia. Their nuclear threats are very likely a bluff. But as frustrating as it feels for anyone with an ounce of spunk, no-fly zones and Western ground forces are simply not in the cards. We have to do everything possible for the Ukrainians short of war with Russia. And much can still be done both in military hardware, strategic advice, and further sanctions – if there’s the will here and abroad. About that, time  – and President Biden – will tell.

It’s beyond reckless for a figure like Senator Lindsay Graham to say that the world needs the Brutus solution. (Brutus assassinated Caesar to save the Roman Republic; someone needs to kill Putin to save Russia.) “Just tyrannicide” is a moral category – under very strict conditions. But government officials in particular should be careful about the unintended consequences of saying such things in public, especially when it makes it easy for a practiced manipulator like Putin to use them in the propaganda war.

Recklessness in response to unjust aggression may itself be a way that evil further propagates itself. The world always abounds in evils of many kinds. Those who intend to limit evil in the current aggression against Ukraine need to be sharply focused in using such truths as they possess with the greatest care. And that means taking pains that their words do not add to the already spreading darkness.



*An anti-war protest, St. Petersburg, Russia, February 24, 2022 [Anton Vaganov, Reuters]

** President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine visiting soldiers at the frontline last month. [European Pressphoto Agency]

You may also enjoy:

Brad Miner’s Remembrance and Foreboding

Howard Kainz’ Updating Just War Theory

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.