Pope Francis—Overturning the Concept of “Just War”

by Graham E. Fuller

Pope Francis is on a roll. He has already roiled the waters of western thinking on economics and society by touching on the dangers of western capitalism drifting into socially destructive greed. He has now turned his focus to an even grander theme— the place of warfare in human life and the hallowed concept of a “just war.”

The conclave that the Pope is hosting in Rome this week is of exceptional importance to the international order. He is in the process of revising long-standing Catholic doctrine on war, and in particular, on the Christian concept of “just war.” The Vatican now suggests that “just war” has become an obsolete concept; that the massive predominance of civilian casualties in modern warfare undercuts the moral ground for conceiving of almost any war as just. He also perceives  the need to eliminate the underlying causes of violence and war and to reintroduce the power of nonviolent action to the world—values that emerge out of the human community itself rather than from the preferences of ruling elites.

Now, nobody expects that war as human phenomenon is going to come to end any time soon. Sadly, war may reside in the deeper recesses of the human condition; in many ways we humans glory in war. But the fact that Pope Francis speaks of the obsolescence of the idea of “just war” suggests that times are shifting at the elite level. When a major bulwark of moral philosophy like the Catholic Church begins to shift, the signal cannot be ignored.

The Pope is hardly the first to raise the issue of war and peace in human life.  Philosophers, ethicists and theologians have long wrestled with the problem. “Just war theory” was essentially an attempt to set certain moral limits or restraints on the scope of war— a human evil that could not be entirely eliminated. So, along with the “glory,” there has also been a human repugnance for war.

Tellingly, the US, like some other democracies, has sought to shield its population from knowledge of the ugly face of its own distant wars; censorship (and self-censorship) has made it easier to maintain public acquiescence to the virtually non-stop American wars since the fall of the Soviet Union. One exceptionally qualified commentator, former US Army colonel and West Point professor Andrew Bacevich, has written extensively on how US society itself has grown more militarized over past several decades, particularly with the emergence of a new professional military class, manned by a volunteer force who now lead almost cordoned-off social lives. The US military is increasingly glorified in public spectacles such as the Super Bowl and block-buster Hollywood films, especially as the US public itself is now safe from being drafted into war-fighting.

As US public media shields the US public from graphic battlefield images of the victims and devastation wrought by American military assaults (“shock and awe”), war at home takes on the quality of a vast new on-line combat game, quite devoid of reality. Democracies also require total demonization of the enemy to successfully market the launch of wars.

Historically, “just war” theory particularly stipulated measured and proportional response to aggression. But today massive (and disproportionate) response —or the launching of a new war—has now almost entered the realm of doctrine —the shock and awe at work in our preemptive wars of choice.

But Pope Francis is carrying the argument of moral conduct even further in proposing to develop a clearer understanding of all the teachings of the New Testament, but under contemporary realities. In colloquial language it means, “What would Jesus do?”  This phrase is not as superficial as it seems. It poses a serious challenge to Christians (and not just Christians) to consider how the moral teachings of Jesus might be made relevant to today’s world. Not as airy-fairy sentimental idealism, but as practical and meaningful muscular morality.

And of course such an issue is today particularly relevant to Muslims as well who are struggling to translate the moral precepts of the Quran into meaningful moral action today— on the personal level, but also the social, political and economic level. “What would Muhammad do,” might be a quite relevant question—requiring just as searching an answer as “what would Jesus do.” Does the so-called “Islamic State” really represent the moral precepts of  Islam? Any more than the Crusaders represent Christianity? If not, how might Islam be best interpreted in a contemporary new ethical context? Indeed, what is the contemporary relevance of religious doctrine in all religions? Because, like it or not, religions will continue to have major impact on the ethical thinking of global citizenry. And religious understanding invariably evolves over time.

Of course, thinking about the morality of war need not derive solely from religious tradition. But when the powerful religious institution of global Catholicism speaks out in radical new ways, it can and will exert influence on non-religious thinking. We might remember the words of President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address on the aspirations of both sides in the American Civll War:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.

How can we not welcome the rise of any new thinking that complicates reversion to war as a solution to global problems? This is especially meaningful in the US where military solutions have tended to become now almost the primary response to international crisis, rather than diplomacy—perceived by some as “wimpish.” And the European Union too has already proclaimed—after centuries of hideous European wars sometimes exported beyond Europe—that for EU member states war is now “unthinkable.” That principle has so far held among the founding EU member states—a significant accomplishment. Here too we have the foundations of a new moral posture towards the use of war, at least within Europe.

The world desperately needs to distance itself from any further invocation of the power of religion as a justification in favor of war—in any religion. The world will indeed watch to see what the longer-range impact of this massive change in Catholic doctrine might bring—not just to Catholicism, but to all religions. The Pope has launched an important moral shift out of the camp of war and into the camp of peace— or at least, in contemporary terms, into “conflict management.”  May he continue the pace.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). Reprinted, with permission, from grahamefuller.com

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  1. Just because a state can come up with a justification for going to war does not make it a “just war.” The American notion that WWII was the “good war” should be revisited. Sixty million people lost their lives as a result of that war, which was fought as a “total war,” meaning that the participants suspended the international rules of war. While it might have been a good idea to destroy Nazism, that does not make the war “good.” Over fifty German and Japanese cities were bombed by the Allies, several of them reduced to rubble, their populations of largely women, children, and the elderly decimated; and millions lost their lives as a result of genocide. How does that qualify as “good”? Moreover, WWII was fought because the “winners” of WWI made sure that none of the issues that caused the war were addressed at Paris in 1919. How many of the dozens of wars the US has waged (and lost) in the last 6 decades were each justified by America’s record of fighting “good” wars?

  2. While our conference on nonviolence and just peace was an extraordinary event and was cosponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, it was not a conclave and did not speak for Pope Francis. Rather, we urged Pope Francis to study, teach and promote nonviolence through all church institutions and to prepare an encyclical on nonviolence, which we hope will include rejection of the concept of “just war.”

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