Why is the Catholic church moving away from just war theory?

Young people wear peace flags in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in May 2014. (Newscom/CPP/Polaris/Massimiliano Migliorato)
Young people wear peace flags in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in May 2014. (Newscom/CPP/Polaris/Massimiliano Migliorato)

by Terrence Rynne

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The Catholic church's ongoing move away from the just war theory as "settled teaching" to a more expansive call to proactive peacemaking has been made clear in a global conference scheduled for April 11-13 in Rome.

Sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International, the conference, "Nonviolence and Just Peace: Contributing to the Catholic Understanding of and Commitment to Nonviolence," is gathering educators and activists from all over the world, particularly from the global South. The precise purpose of the conference is to more fully develop a vision of nonviolence and just peace for the Catholic church.

Five reasons underlie this pivot to a positive vision of peace and a point of view that goes well beyond the just war theory:

  • Modern wars have made the just war theory obsolete;
  • The rise of a Christology "from below";
  • A clearer understanding of how the New Testament relates to contemporary problems;
  • A renewed appreciation of the way the early church practiced Jesus' teachings on peace;
  • The compelling, thrilling saga of nonviolent action over the 60 years since Gandhi.

Modern wars

For centuries, the Catholic church made the just war theory its standard teaching on war. In recent decades, however, church leadership has realized that the just war theory is truncated and minimalist. It does not go far enough. Its focus is war, not peace. Even what it sets out to do -- discriminate justified from unjustified wars -- has been rendered null and void by the massive, indiscriminate violence of modern wars.

Key criteria of the theory, namely, proportionality and protection of noncombatants, are never met by modern wars. Civilian deaths in World War I were 10 percent of the deaths. In modern wars, such as the internal conflict in Syria or the U.S. invasion of Iraq, civilian deaths now range from 80 percent to 90 percent of all war casualties. By the very criteria of the just war theory, in our era there is no such thing as a justified war.

Once peace is not defined negatively, namely, as the absence of war, but positively, the door opens to a new expansive vision for Christians. Peace has to be built. Pope John XXIII said it is like a cathedral -- positive peace has many layers and facets.

Related: Vatican to host first-ever conference to reevaluate just war theory, justifications for violence

A society is peaceful only when it has all of the following:

  • The rule of law;
  • Its people enjoy the full gamut of human rights;
  • The economy is just;
  • They are able to grow to their full potential;
  • They are at harmony with one another;
  • They have the skills of solving conflict without violence.

The agenda for peacemakers is clearly expansive and challenging and a vision is needed that matches the scope of the agenda.

It turns out that the clarion call in the New Testament to positive peacemaking, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, gives us that vision. That is what the Catholic church has begun to adopt as its central teaching on war and peace.

Christology from below

In his 1975 article "The Two Basic Types of Christology" in Theological Investigations, Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner explains the meaning of a "Christology from below." This Christology is intent on presenting an accurate historical understanding of Jesus in his own context by attempting to understand as clearly as possible the cultural, economic, political and religious milieus of Jesus' time.

The focus is not on Jesus the Christ first, but on Jesus of Nazareth, the flesh-and-blood human being, and on his life -- the way he lived and confronted the evils of his time, the way he struggled to renew Jewish faith, the way he resisted the temptation to the violence of his time, and the way he insisted on an inclusive community.

In beginning with Jesus of Nazareth, it finds in his humanity, on through his resurrection, the revelation of his divinity. This is in contrast to traditional Christology, which unfolded from above, beginning with an understanding of an exalted Christ as presented in the Johannine tradition, and then accounted for his humanity.

A Christology from below makes Jesus' life normative for Christians. He lived a heroic life of resistance to the "powers that be." He struggled to relieve the suffering of his people, both their physical suffering as a healer but also the grinding suffering from an unjust political system that bled the people dry.

Trying to relieve the structural evil of the system, he engaged the "powers that be" of his time -- the Pharisees, the priests, the Herodians. He wept over the city of Jerusalem because he understood the great anger and seething violence in the people that was gathering momentum.

He could foresee that, unless they took a different tack, that anger would explode into a cataclysm of violence in a revolt against Rome and that violence would lead to their destruction.

He taught, therefore, an alternative way to respond to the "enemy," the way of nonviolence. "Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you." His teaching reflected his life. The call to be his disciples is a call to live as he lived -- and died.

A Christology from below opens for Christian disciples the full meaning of peacemaking and our call to be peacemakers. It is a positive vision of peace, not just the absence of war. It is a call to do as Jesus did -- work to relieve peoples' suffering, change the economic and political structures that bring so much pain, and remove underlying causes of violence and war. And, most importantly, introduce the power of nonviolent action to the world.

Church leadership has benefited from this Christology that focuses squarely on the arc of Jesus' life and his historical struggles. It prompts them to turn to the New Testament when they are thinking about issues of war and peace.

The just war theory, on the other hand, ignores the New Testament. It is an ethical discipline that came to us from the "pagan" Cicero by way of St. Augustine. It approaches the problem of war and violence using natural law thinking and does not measure up to the call to positive peacemaking that we find in the New Testament.

A new understanding

For many years, Catholic moral theologians were rather leery of applying the New Testament to contemporary problems because they were afraid of accusations of fundamentalism. The discipline shied away from anything that smacked of mindless Biblicism.

They preferred to reason their way to conclusions -- using various forms of philosophical guidance, including natural law theory. That is one of the reasons that the just war theory has survived for so many years. There wasn't anything better.

However, in recent years, a new hermeneutic has come to the fore, an understanding that classic texts go beyond the meaning that the author originally intended. When classic texts, including biblical texts, are put into dialogue with contemporary problems, new meanings can arise.

As Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders, an eminent New Testament scholar, wrote in her prescient 1983 article, "New Testament Reflections on Peace and Nuclear Arms" in Catholics and Nuclear War:

The scholar interprets the text as always speaking in the present because of the transcendent and ever-active power which can be found in all classical texts and a fortiori in the scriptures which are our primary witness to divine revelation. ... There seems to be a move away from moral reasoning based on a somewhat static theology that uses ... an unchanging natural law from which we can deduce what is acceptable behavior. The transition is toward a more dynamic theology of salvation in which Jesus ... is seen as the primary expression of a new humanity.

That new understanding of how to read the Scriptures is reflected in the heartfelt appeal of the Second Vatican Council for the church to come up with "an entirely new attitude to war and violence," one that recognizes the "signs of the times." This enriched way of reading the New Testament in dialogue with contemporary problems explains why recent popes unabashedly embrace the example of Jesus' life, not the natural law, as the primary guide for Christian peacemaking.

The early church

At first glance, most people, even Christians, doubt that the Sermon on the Mount can be effective in the "real" world. As G.K. Chesterton said, "Christianity is a wonderful religion, too bad it has never been tried."

Well, Chesterton is wrong. It has been tried and it has been politically effective. For the first three-plus centuries of the early church, Christians followed the nonviolent, positive way taught by Jesus. They demonstrated that it was not dreamy idealism, but politically effective.

The very first political challenge the early Christians had to face was whether to join their fellow Jews in the revolt against Rome in the year 66. Reflecting on the example and teaching of Jesus, they refused to enter into the violence and withdrew across the Jordan to the city of Pella.

They were the only group, besides the small group of Jews that left to found a Torah-based community in Jamnia, to refuse. The rest of the Jews, including the Pharisees and the Essenes, joined the revolt. What Jesus feared would happen came to pass -- the destruction of the Temple and the slaughter of the Jewish people.

The second great political challenge the early church faced was how to respond to Roman persecution. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, knew the apostle John personally. The five letters he wrote as he was dragged to Rome in the year 110 by Roman soldiers for execution are filled with counsel to continue to greet violence with love. One of the letters asked the people in Rome not to interfere with the martyrdom. He was happy to follow in his savior's footsteps.

All the early fathers wrote as if the prophecy of Isaiah and Micah had come true in their midst. "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid" (Micah 4:4-5).

They took great pride that their way of loving their enemies was making converts to Christianity in great numbers. Tertullian, the crusty lawyer from North Africa, converted to Christianity after he witnessed their bravery under persecution. He later wrote in On Idolatry, "When Peter cut off Malchus' ear, Jesus 'cursed the works of the sword for ever after.' "

As Thomas Merton wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: "The early church converted the Roman Empire through nonviolence." Their example emboldens us to re-embrace Jesus' way.

Nonviolent action

The sparkling, fascinating sign of the times that supports and illuminates the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is the recent track record of nonviolent action campaigns. Given the last 60 years of experimentation with nonviolence -- as Gandhi predicted -- Christians are beginning to see that as violence continues its wasteful, ineffective way, there is indeed an alternative worth embracing.

We have witnessed the achievements, against all odds, of nonviolent campaigns across the globe -- in Poland, East Germany, South Africa, the Philippines, Serbia, Tunisia and our own civil rights struggle. And we are now beginning to hear the witness of Christians from all over the world, especially from the global South, who are harnessing the power of coordinated nonviolent action in multiple small settings to achieve marvelous results.

Increasingly, research is validating the superiority of nonviolence over violence in terms of effectiveness. Erica Chenoweth, a professor at the University of Colorado, demonstrates that nonviolent resistance campaigns over the last 50 years have been twice as effective as violent campaigns in achieving their intended results.

In addition, the regimes that have been established through nonviolent means are much more likely to remain at peace after their struggles.

Leaders of the Catholic church, due to the church's global presence, are able to hear the many stories of nonviolent successes from the grassroots. It is no surprise that Catholic church leadership is emboldened to proclaim the Sermon on the Mount and the message of positive peacemaking all the more loudly and confidently.

Now is the time to embrace and practice that message church-wide and parish-deep.

[Terrence J. Rynne teaches peace studies at Marquette University. He and his wife, Sally, are founders of the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking. He is the author of Gandhi and Jesus: The Saving Power of Nonviolence and Jesus Christ, Peacemaker: A New Theology of Peace.]

A version of this story appeared in the April 8-21, 2016 print issue under the headline: A vision of peace.

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