Peacemaking and the Use of Force:
Behind the Pope's Stringent Just-War Teaching

By Drew Christiansen, S.J.
AMERICA for May 15, 1999.
Copyright 1999 by America Press All rights reserved

Drew Christiansen, S.J., a former director of the United States Catholic Conference Office of International Justice and Peace, is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C.

THE HOLY SEE'S repeated denunciations over many months of American and British air attacks on Iraqi military installations and its multi-faceted commentary on the bombing of Kosovo have begun to force some American Catholics to scrutinize contemporary Catholic teaching on the "just war" and to question Vatican policy. In a recent column in Crisis magazine, for example, Robert Royal of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., commenting on Vatican criticism of U.S. bombing of Iraq, wondered whether we are witnessing the emergence of an official "Catholic pacifism." In a column on Jan. 23, the New York Times religion columnist Peter Steinfels noted "a profound ambivalence" on the part of the Pope about the use of military force. "John Paul II," Steinfels commented, "swings between just-war teaching and something approaching pacifism, between declaring 'the aggressor must be disarmed' in regard to Bosnia and that war 'will never be an appropriate way to solve problems' in regard to the Middle East," that is, Iraq.

The same "swings" between advocacy of dialogue and diplomacy and the need for intervention to prevent ethnic cleansing have marked the Holy See's response to the NATO bombing in Yugoslavia. The Pope has both condemned Serbian ethnic cleansing and decried NATO bombing.

This is not the first time during this pontificate that questions have been raised about the Holy See's pronouncements on the use of force in international affairs. Many will recall that during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when asked by a journalist about his deep reservations over the resort to arms in that conflict, Pope John Paul II is reported to have responded, "I am not a pacifist." More recently, James Turner Johnson, a respected historian of the theory of the just war, has taken exception to "the presumption against the use of force" as it appears in contemporary Catholic social teaching.

The closest thing we have to an extended updating of just-war theory from Vatican circles, however, is a 1991 editorial in what used to be called "the semi-official," Jesuit journal, Civiltˆ Cattolica. That editorial, which proved quite controversial, asserted that the "theory of 'just war' is untenable and needs to be abandoned." Interestingly, the editors contended that the just war had never reached the level of official Catholic teaching.

In retrospect, the Civiltˆ editorial corresponds on many points to themes voiced by the Pope and other Vatican officials in the following years. For example, when the Pope commented last Dec. 20 on the U.S. and British bombing campaign against Iraq, which was intended to produce compliance with U.N. Security Council disarmament resolutions, he said, "War has never been and never will be an appropriate way to solve problems between nations!"

At the same time, the Catechism of the Catholic Church continues to expound the conditions for a just war, and Vatican officials have also referred to the catechism to justify the legitimate use of force in Kosovo "once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted." Angelo Cardinal Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, moreover, twice in the last year invoked "the duty and the right of intervention in order to disarm one who intends to kill," contending that such intervention was "not to encourage war, but to prevent [it]."

What I would like to do here, with the admittedly fragmentary evidence available, is to sketch the Holy See's emerging position on the use of force. I sometimes call this a stringent just-war teaching, because in affirming the value of nonviolence and strictly interpreting some just-war canons, it makes for a far less permissive use of the just-war tradition.

Altered Politics, Changing Norms.

First, a cautionary note. Clarity and certainty are far less easy to attain today on the ethics of using force than at times when the international system was more stable. In the rapidly changing political, military, technological and moral context in which we live, moral ambiguity may be unavoidable. Let me note three factors contributing to this moral complexity: (1) The application of military force for limited political ends; (2) the increasing salience of moral norms in international affairs, and (3) the consequences of protracted conflict with limited means.

First, there is the question of using force for limited ends. Armies used to confront armies on the field of combat. The combatants fought for victory, and the victors determined the terms of peace, even if the specific goals of war were discrete. In the last decade, armies and militias have made war on civilians. Consequently outsiders have found themselves under an obligation to intervene. The goals of intervention are limited, and the results of intervention have fallen short of victory and hence are ambiguous. For example, in stopping short of occupying Iraq and in pressing its aims through economic sanctions, the international community has reduced a whole country to ghastly penury. There were good reasons for coalition forces not to press on to Baghdad in 1991, and the malfeasance of Saddam Hussein's Government is primarily responsible for the continued suffering of Iraq's people. The result, all the same, has been disastrous.

Again, as the United States and Britain attempt to protect Kurds and Marsh Arabs from repression by enforcing the no-fly zones, low-level intensity conflict in the air continues with no foreseeable end. A modest measure of good is attained. Yet peace is not in view; and a generation of Iraqis, not to mention Arabs and Muslims throughout the region, grow up resentful of American hegemony.

Second, the ambiguity of ethical judgments on the use of force are also affected by the changing place of morality in international affairs. The rise of human rights concerns and heightened awareness of the evils of genocide and related acts, like ethnic cleansing, have led to military interventions that rarely would have been considered in the days when Henry Kissinger's political realism reigned. Furthermore, following a dilatory response in Bosnia and the appalling inaction in Rwanda, governments now show increased readiness to respond to such horrors. After watching ethnic cleansing first in Eastern Slavonia and Croatia proper, then in Bosnia, both politicians and popular majorities in the major NATO nations now seem ready to discharge the "duty to intervene" in Kosovo. On the other hand, respect for human life affects not only the willingness to use force, but the style of warfare, with sometimes disagreeable results. The otherwise commendable aversion to civilian casualties in warfare, along with a greatly heightened wish to protect military personnel, has contributed to a restricted use of military power that tends to increase the length of armed conflict.

As the case of Iraq demonstrates, these restraints may lead to protracted suffering on the part of civilians, especially when conflict is prolonged with economic sanctions; or, as we have seen in Serbia, when military targets are exhausted or inaccessible to air power, then targeting is expanded first to "dual-use" facilities and then to civilian governmental sites. In short, limited means applied over an extended period will often produce disastrous consequences at the same time that they yield limited results and promise conflict with no foreseeable end. From the point of view of the just-war canons, such mixed results are problematic.

What Defines Success?

These trends create an extraordinarily difficult context in which to apply the canons of the just-war tradition, particularly regarding the expectation of success. A use of force that can be morally and politically defensible on the grounds of just cause may only questionably satisfy the canon of success--because of the elusiveness of the goals or the uncertain duration of the conflict. "Success" comes to be defined in fine shades of grey that are difficult for a keen conscience to accept over the long term. The upshot is that a wedge is driven between at least some moralists and religious leaders and the policymakers whom they hope to guide.

All this is not to say that moral clarity is not attainable on some points. Rather, when so many factors are changing simultaneously, one can understand why even experts will be of many minds. Tolerance of ambiguity may be a defensible counsel for the interim. Over the long term, however, it is a dubious and risky moral posture.

It is at this point that moral theology turns to examine the deeper themes underlying thinking on the use of force. When rational moral analysis of armed conflict is stalemated, one must look at deeply held, underlying beliefs to understand how the drift of thought has changed. In the case of Pope John Paul II, it means taking a second look at his writings on war, nonviolence and international affairs.

Faith, Suffering and Nonviolence.

The key international developments of Pope John Paul's pontificate came with the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe. It is therefore useful to reconsider his observations on nonviolence and the use of force in that context. Reflecting on those events in Centesimus Annus, the Pope proclaimed his belief that non-violence led to the fall of Communist governments in eastern Europe. "It seemed," he wrote in the 1991 encyclical, "that the European order resulting from the Second World War and sanctioned by the Yalta Agreement could only be overturned by another war." He continued, "Instead, it has been overcome by the nonviolent commitment of people who, while always refusing to yield to the force of power, succeeded time after time in finding effective ways of bearing witness to the truth."

In Evangelium Vitae (1995), the Pope claimed, "Among the signs of hope we should also count the spread, at many levels of public opinion, of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples, and increasingly oriented to finding effective but 'nonviolent' means to counter the armed aggressor" (emphasis in original). Beneath the Pope's expressed trust in nonviolence, one finds an esteem for those who show a willingness to suffer for the sake of justice rooted in the Christian faith. "It is by uniting his own sufferings for the sake of truth and freedom to the sufferings of Christ on the Cross," Pope John Paul wrote, "that man is able to accomplish the miracle of peace and is in a position to discern the often narrow path between the cowardice which gives in to evil and the violence, which under the illusion of fighting evil, only makes it worse."

This last point, namely, that there are forms of fighting evil that only worsen the evils suffered, is one that Pope John Paul II makes often. In his view, however, the avoidance of greater harm is more than a simple question of proportionality. Rather, the Pope affirms that those who are themselves willing to accept suffering acquire a heightened ability to discern properly how to fight against evil, whether with nonviolence or by the legitimate use of force. There is an implicit rejection of the notion that just-war thinking is simply an abstract "calculus" that can be applied independent of certain restrained, not to say pacific, moral dispositions. The Pope's antipathy to the use of force and his constant call for negotiation disclose a religious leader who is as much concerned about the means employed to overcome evil as he is committed to struggle against it.

Finally, Centesimus Annus, with echoes of earlier 20th-century popes, presents John Paul II's negative judgment about war as an instrument of policy:

No, never again war, which destroys lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems which provoked the war.

This passage has become almost a leitmotiv in the Vatican's response to the use of force, repeated again and again in papal statements and other Vatican declarations.

As a rule of thumb, I would suggest that here as elsewhere the Pope should be taken at his word. While the form is rhetorical, the substance is serious. The point is that the consequences of war are beyond calculation. We should consider soberly whether the use of force does, in fact, do what the Pope says. Above all, does it take the life of innocent people? Does it leave behind a trail of resentment and hatred? Does it make finding a just solution more difficult? These objections do not rule out resorting to force, especially in case of humanitarian intervention. They do imply that every effort must be taken to avoid the vastly unpredictable consequences of taking up arms.

The Culture of Death.

I have already cited Evangelium Vitae's endorsement of alternatives to war. That encyclical also paints war as part of "the structure of sin" evident in the emergence of "a culture of death." In this culture, because of the dissolution of solidarity and an excessive concern for efficiency, persons "who [compromise] the well-being or the lifestyle of those who are more favored [tend] to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated." Such is the case with innocent non-combatants in time of war. This conspiracy against life, as the Pope calls it, "involves not only individuals in their personal, family or group relationships, but goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and states."

In John Paul's thinking, the traditional Thomist view of the political order as a created good, which has guided Catholic political thought in the 20th century, is supplanted by a quasi-Augustinian sense of disordered relations. In this view, international relations and the world order are so distorted that they too are an expression of the culture of death. On this reading, war is prone to become an especially grievous manifestation of the culture of death. No doubt, Evangelium Vitae (No. 55), which cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church, affirms the legitimate right to self-defense along with the duty of political authorities to defend the common good against attack. But, in the context of an analysis of the culture of death and its impact on international relations, the right of self-defense and the duty to defend the common good must be understood as limited. In light of the dynamic of sin, moreover, their assertion in practice must be subject to question.

Diplomatic Reasons.

Finally, very briefly, there are diplomatic reasons for thinking that papal policy toward Iraq and Kosovo represents a shift in the Holy See's traditional approach to the use of force.

For one, the style of Vatican diplomacy under John Paul II has changed. It is far more open than in the past and more conscious of taking the initiative as "a moral power" and "a voice of conscience" in international affairs. This public diplomacy, according to the Catholic News Service's Vatican reporter, John Thavis, "is in keeping with the highly visible profile of the modern papacy." Pope John Paul II has used every opportunity to speak out, seeking first to avoid and then resolve the conflict over Kosovo.

Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican foreign minister, in a recent address at The Catholic University of America reviewing the role of Pope John Paul II in the Persian Gulf war, listed the elements that have also characterized Vatican action in subsequent crises over Iraq and Kosovo:

In urging negotiation and regarding the use of force as a failure for humanity, Pope John Paul sees himself in the tradition of his 20th-century predecessors, notably Benedict XIV.

Where do these developments lead us? What Pope John Paul II has given us is a doctrine of peacemaking that involves both nonviolence and, by way of a rare exception, the justified use of force. Let me attempt to summarize that teaching and then offer some suggestions on how to resolve the moral perplexity that seems to surround the use of force for Catholics today.

Current State of the Question.

Diminishing role. The tradition of just-war thinking is playing a decreased role in official Catholic teaching. There is a growing presumption against the use of force and an increased appeal to strategies of nonviolence and negotiation. At the same time, the just war has not been abandoned, and a promised Vatican working paper on nonviolence has never been published.

Theological suppositions. Part of the theological background of this shift may be found in Pope John Paul's insight that the person willing to suffer nonviolently is better able to discern the means with which to defend justice, along with the suspicion that war represents an egregious manifestation of the culture of death.

Just-war canons. Just-war norms continue to be cited, though in cautionary or critical, rather than permissive, fashion. Particularly important are the constraints of civilian immunity, proportionality and reasonable hope of success.

Just cause. The canon of just cause seems to have been greatly narrowed. It appears to admit only defense against aggression, and in some readings only aggression already in progress, and humanitarian intervention when whole populations are at risk.

Proportionality and success. In the kind of high-tech, low-risk warfare employed in humanitarian interventions and contemporary police actions, judgments of proportionality and success are increasingly difficult to make. Constraints on goals and methods make it difficult to "succeed" without protracted conflict, which may lead to potentially disproportionate harm.

Voice of conscience. This apparently narrowed just-war framework comports with the professed role of the Holy See as "a moral power" and "a voice of conscience" in international affairs. Such a role inevitably will put the Holy See from time to time in a "Christ against culture" posture, distancing the church from the classic posture of Constantinian accommodation with the state.


If this sketch of the current state of Vatican thinking on the use of force is a fair one, then we have moved quite far toward attenuating the old teaching on the use of force--in the direction of a stringent application of just-war principles and a more integrated approach to peacemaking. At the same time, clear guidance is lacking for political and military leaders, especially in cases of complex humanitarian disasters. Moral assessments of Iraq or Kosovo depend on complex and detailed analyses of proportionality and success. In such cases, only very careful arguments will be persuasive. It does not help when Dr. Joaquin Navarro Vals of the Vatican press office characterizes the bombings of Iraqi military installations as "aggression." As Peter Steinfels observed, "The episode adds to the impression that the extent of contemporary Catholics' adherence to papal positions [on the use of force] will never be separated from the strength of the arguments backing them."

The late Protestant ethicist Paul Ramsey used to recommend the Catholic practice of espousing broad, moral principles in contrast to the Protestant habit of assigning moral weight to specific policy directives. Recent Catholic practice has stopped just short of such policy directives. But moral guidance on the use of force is made more difficult when the judgments depend on unexplained and disputable estimates of consequences.

Moral counsel to public authorities would seem to require either greater explicitness about cases, along with the modesty that the church has traditionally recommended for judgments about specific cases, or consolidation and clarification of the teaching on the place of nonviolence and the just war in defense of the common good. One is tempted to suggest that the Vatican might release the apparently rejected study on nonviolence, or better yet, incorporate it in an extended document on nonviolence and the use of force. But perhaps thinking has not sufficiently matured over a wide enough segment of the church to make such a document helpful at this time.

A first step toward dispelling the present confusion would require acknowledgement by church leaders, moral theologians, legal, political and military officials that we live in a time when the expectations of international law and the instruments for enforcing it are poorly matched.

A second step would involve a conversation defining the just-war canons, particularly those regarding proportionality and success, in ways that can avoid the double-binds in which the world community currently finds itself in responding to large scale humanitarian emergencies and the enforcement of Security Council resolutions. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has held such conversations on topics like international debt relief and human rights. It could conceivably be the sponsor for a series of conversations on nonviolence and the use of force in international affairs.

A third step would be to rework international law to create mechanisms for dealing with problems like Kosovo. For one, we might provide a limit on the Security Council veto in cases of large scale humanitarian emergencies, but require perhaps a two-thirds majority of the council to take action. This might be a way to make the council an effective enforcer of international peace rather than an institution that is incapable of opposing crimes against humanity.

In conjunction with this international legal reform, moreover, new institutions for conflict resolution need to be funded, developed and utilized. It is no wonder the United States, at least, resorts to force when faced with hard problems, when the military is so well funded and diplomacy is chronically underfunded, with many State Department positions staffed by men and women recruited from the intelligence agencies.

Pope John Paul II has been the pre-eminent moral leader of the last third of the 20th century. The events of the last year have revealed him to be a reformer in ways most people did not expect. Luigi Accattoli of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera has said that until recently the Pope's teaching on forgiveness was the great unnoted theme of his papacy. Perhaps before long we will be able to add his teaching on peacemaking and the use of force as yet another innovation.

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