Global Currents article

“Modern War” in Catholic Peacebuilding Discourse


In her post on the April 2016 Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference sponsored by Pax Christi International and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Lisa Cahill argues that this event may be a useful starting point for interreligious cooperation between Catholics, Muslims, and other religious communities in the development of a shared orientation toward and practice of peacebuilding. In this response, I want to consider the ways in which this event and the responses it engendered also reveal the existence and effects of contending understandings and experiences of modernity within the Catholic community—and even within those parts of that community who support the conclusions drawn by the conference’s participants.

As Cahill points out, Catholic interpretations of the just war tradition have been moving in the direction of greater restrictions on the use of armed force and greater emphasis on peacebuilding for decades now. Among the details of just war teaching that have reflected this move are stronger emphases on criteria (such as last resort, possibility of success, and overall proportionality) that might lead to a judgment that war is unjustified even in some cases where a just cause exists (see, for example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2309). More broadly, the Vatican has either declined to endorse or openly rejected most recent proposals to use force. These moves have led James Turner Johnson to describe the contemporary Catholic position as one of “functional pacifism” that inaccurately labels itself just war reasoning (see, e.g., The War to Oust Saddam Hussein [2005]). The statement issued at the conclusion of this most recent conference goes a step further by calling for the rejection of even the label: “we call on the Church we love to . . . no longer use or teach ‘just war theory.’”

An understanding of the modern world, and modern war, as uniquely violent and harmful has had a significant impact in motivating these developments in recent Church teaching. This trend goes back at least to Vatican II, following which Paul VI described relevant characteristics of “the modern world” in Gaudiem et spes. In that document, he argued that there is a “unique hazard of modern warfare,” namely, the development of weapons powerful enough to result in the indiscriminate destruction of cities and their populations; as a result, he argued that war ought to be avoided and eventually outlawed. This same characterization of modern warfare was cited in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statements The Challenge of Peace (1983) and The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace (1993); as the bishops put it in the latter document, “serious questions still remain about whether modern war in all its savagery can meet the hard tests set by the just-war tradition.” In other words, these statements suggest that characteristics of modern warfare may possibly have rendered just war reasoning, the predominant Catholic approach to these questions for hundreds of years, obsolete.

This characterization of modernity as unique enough to require significant change in humans’ moral response to war is also evident in the letter Pope Francis wrote to the 2016 gathering, which referenced “the unique and terrible ‘world war in instalments’ which, directly or indirectly, a large part of humankind is presently undergoing.” The conference statement similarly describes a contemporary “context of normalized and systemic violence” marked by “tremendous suffering, widespread trauma and fear linked to militarization, economic injustice, climate change, and a myriad of other specific forms of violence.” Importantly, this portrayal of modernity is informed by people’s lived experiences. The conference featured many testimonies from persons around the world who had successfully responded to modern violence with nonviolent resistance or other peacebuilding practices. As Cahill points out, it also prominently included the voices of persons who had lived through war, which likely contributed to a more complete awareness of what modern war is like for those most vulnerable to the harms it causes.

There is, however, in this document and in Church teaching more generally, simultaneously a line of argument emphasizing the sameness of the modern world with what has come before. In the conference statement, this alternative description of modern war as no different from premodern war is also used to support a turn away from just war reasoning. The document refers to Jesus’s “own times, rife with structural violence,” to make the case that contemporary Christians ought to employ “active nonviolence” to challenge injustice in the same way Jesus did. This part of the document suggests not merely that just war reasoning is outdated, but instead that it was never consistent with Jesus’s teaching: “Clearly, the Word of God, the witness of Jesus, should never be used to justify violence, injustice or war.” On this understanding of modernity as morally unchanged from the rest of history, just war reasoning always represents a betrayal of the timeless doctrine of “Gospel nonviolence.”

This apparent paradox in the reasoning provided to support the document’s conclusion is not unusual in contemporary Catholic approaches to morality and war. Cahill notes the similar tension between recent popes’ disinclination to endorse particular wars and their continued commitment to at least a theoretical possibility of just wars of defense or humanitarian intervention. These pro-intervention positions also reflect contending conceptions of modernity. In a U.N. address in support of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, Benedict XVI argued that R2P is merely a new name for an ancient idea based on universal principles. On the other hand, a statement coauthored by Vatican U.N. representative Archbishop Silvano Tomasi suggested that his potential support for military action to protect religious minorities from ISIS resulted from a worsening crisis utterly unique in the long history of the Middle East.

It is unlikely that these deep tensions will be fully resolved, even if the conference’s call for an encyclical on peace is answered. However, as Cahill’s closing suggestion that Catholics focus on peacebuilding as a shared goal of both sides of this debate implies, tension can be productive. Certainly, there are resources even within the just war tradition itself on which those interested in promoting the development of peacebuilding practices might draw. In addition to the practice of including more participants from areas and groups historically excluded from Church conferences and conversations, the maintenance of these competing views of the moral status of modernity may thus be a means of facilitating dialogue and new development within the Catholic community itself.

Photo by Los Angeles Catholic Worker


Rosemary Kellison
Rosemary Kellison is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at University of West Georgia. Her recent book Expanding Responsibility for the Just War: A Feminist Critique (Cambridge University Press, 2019) presents a feminist immanent critique of just war reasoning focused on the issue of responsibility for harm to noncombatants.

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