We Need to Discuss Just War Theory

Just war theory is under attack.  There have always been people in the Vatican espousing practical pacifism, but in recent years Pope Francis also regularly takes snipes at just war theory.  Given his “style,” it’s difficult to determine if they are just ad hoc remarks or part of a more intentional program.  In any case, they are wrongheaded.

Let’s situate Catholic just war theory in its proper context.  It’s not intended to be merely a “five-step checklist on how to go to war” as much as the principled answer to how one may engage in self-defense, by force if necessary.  Just war theory starts with the assumption that war should be avoided.  But it also recognizes that, in the real world, bullies are found on national as well as personal levels, and Christians are not obliged to submit to bullying.

It’s critical to emphasize the self-defense aspect of just war theory because the right to self-defense is inalienable. No one has the right to demand a victim submit to enslavement or even extermination to “keep the peace.”  Nobody can take away that right.  I stress that because – pace some Catholics who embrace a bizarre version of contemporary ultramontanism – even the pope cannot do away with just war principles by changing the Catechism. 

If the Church is to be relevant to the modern world (and not just to certain ecclesiastical idealists with visions of ploughshares dancing in their heads), the Church must neither abandon just war theory nor neglect considering its applications to modern warfare.

Catholic statesmen, diplomats, and politicians cannot be deprived of principles by which to defend their countries against unjust aggression. If the Church fails to provide them with a framework by which they can at least aspire to keep conflict within ethical bounds, those leaders will have to seek guidance elsewhere.  The most cursory survey of today’s world makes clear war is not going away.

So, the basic principles of just war theory need to stay.  Modern warfare has changed, as has the international scene.  Post-1989, some secular writers believed we were at the “end of history.”  The past 35 years demonstrated that history is alive and not well: we are once more in an era of major-power geopolitical competition.

The Church desperately needs a sober discussion of how just war theory applies to these changed circumstances.  Too much time has already been wasted neglecting that work by imagining some pacifist future whose advent eludes everybody but the dreamers.

Where does just war theory need adaptation?  Three areas:

First: When does aggression start?  Once upon a time, in the era when just war theory was developing, Christian king X sent Christian king Y a note and they were at war.  Opposing forces marched out in gentlemanly fashion on a field, stared at each other, sounded a trumpet, and charged.  War began.

Neat as that may be, it failed to capture a key element in warfighting: surprise.  Braddock marched out his Redcoats in proper fashion through the woods of Western Pennsylvania to Fort Duquesne, while the French and Indians – hiding camouflaged in the woods – picked them off.  Welcome to guerilla warfare.

In the broader context of geopolitical competition, conflict often occurs below the threshold of explicit hostilities.  I say “explicit” because the actions undertaken are hostile, they may just not be attributable (at least according to the most demanding evidentiary conventions).

If an opponent uses modern computer systems to wreak havoc on your military preparedness, is that aggression?  What if he does the same to disrupt critical infrastructure that serves both civilian and military purposes, e.g., pipelines?  Or primarily civilian infrastructure, e.g., tampering with power grids or falsifying logistics information in a port?

Are those actions a prelude to aggression or are they aggressions themselves?  Are such ambiguous actions preparatory of the battlefield or the battlefield itself?

Second: The combatant/non-combatant distinction.  Just war theory recognizes that war is prosecuted by warfighters, i.e., soldiers and militaries.  But already in World War II, the distinction had become blurred, if not ignored.  Utilitarian arguments (“they did it first,” “it is the lesser evil,” “the fight would otherwise be longer and bloodier”) were marshaled as justification.

In the low-grade (though certainly not non-lethal) conflicts fought in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, greater efforts were made to discriminate between combatant targets and noncombatants.  At the same time, the other side deliberately placed noncombatants adjacent to combatants to provide “human shields,” insulating attackers from attack.

Putin’s war against Ukraine shows indifference to the combatant/noncombatant distinction: if it takes “shock and awe” to win, do it.  When one combatant does that in practice (even if it doesn’t admit it in principle), how should just war theory address its use?  Third: Realism in assigning blame.  Just war theory inherently involves a moral judgment: X unjustly committed aggression against Y.  It is, in fact, the making of that moral judgment that triggers the legitimate recourse to arms.

Who makes that moral judgment?  Obviously, the party resorting to arms.  To some degree, that makes it a subjective judgment. But is there, and should there be, any further, objective affirmation of that judgment?  Both parties may claim (even if they really don’t believe it) that they suffered, rather than perpetrated, aggression. Even Hitler staged a fake attack on a German radio station to assert that Poland attacked Germany in 1939.

When war breaks out, the Vatican has historically defaulted to politics and diplomacy instead of overt moral judgment (even if moral judgment was to be found somewhere in that mix).  Other than appeals for peace, did the Holy See explicitly condemn German aggression?  How often does that moral appeal get transmuted into bipartisan calls for “peace and dialogue,” even in the face of naked aggression?  Doesn’t that make just war theory a DIY exercise?

I do not pretend to offer answers to these dilemmas.  I raise them because, with war not going away, moral people – believers and nonbelievers – need an ethical framework adapted to today’s realities. 


You may also enjoy:

Robert W. Shaffern’s Byzantine Catholicism and the Fight for Ukraine

Brad Miner’s Love and Famine: a Review of “Bitter Harvest”

John Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.