For more than 1,500 years, the Catholic Church has promoted just war theory as a way to determine in what cases a war can be considered morally justifiable. But all of that may change.
In a recent interview, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana said it is “plausible” that Pope Francis may write a new encyclical updating Catholic teaching on war and peace, an update that could include a retreat from just war. Francis’ last encyclical, "Laudato Si'," made waves for its condemnation of capitalism and call to address climate change.
The impact of such an encyclical would extend well beyond the Catholic Church, just as "Laudato Si'" did. Just war theory may have originated among thinkers in the Catholic tradition, but its reach is not limited to Catholics. In the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, many evangelical and mainline Protestant Christians appealed to just war theory, both to support and to oppose the invasion.
Cardinal Turkson, whose name was floated as a potential candidate for pope before Francis’ election, made his comments on the possibility of a new encyclical just after a groundbreaking conference at the Vatican called for such an encyclical. The conference was co-hosted by Pax Christi and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which Turkson heads. The meeting brought together 80 experts in nonviolence, and concluded with an appeal from Pax Christi that read, in part:
“We believe that there is no “just war.” Too often the “just war theory” has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war. Suggesting that a “just war” is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict.”
Armchair critics of the conference might contend that the conference’s proposal would endanger people living in conflict zones. But Rose Marie Berger, who wrote one of the background papers for the conference (and serves as an editor for Sojourners) remarked that the push to move past just war theory originated among people experiencing violence themselves.
“At our meeting in Rome in April we heard a clear call from Catholics in the majority world and in situations of extreme conflict that the Church’s teaching on war and peace was not only insufficient to the level of violence they are facing but it was, in some cases, contributing to that violence.”
She said she would welcome an encyclical on peace and nonviolence from Pope Francis.
“The church is thirsting for fresh teaching here and hungering for this conversation,” she said. An encyclical would not only “add to the church’s wisdom,” but also prompt a “world-wide conversation.”
“Pope Francis has made it clear that ‘peace’ is the third pillar of his legacy,” Berger said. So will he spark another global debate with a peace encyclical, just like his climate encyclical?
Before Pope Francis would issue such an encyclical addressing just war theory, there would have to be a period of dialogue and debate within the Church. Some proponents of just war theory have criticized the conference, but voices have also emerged applauding the conference’s conclusions, including former senior CIA official Graham E. Fuller.
While Damon Linker at The Week didn’t support the full breadth of the conference’s conclusion, he still granted that just war theory can “act as an accelerant when a country is contemplating military action.”
Berger pointed out that the meeting cannot be summed up as an effort to replace just war theory with pacifism, as some critics have tried.
“We were not talking about ‘just war’ versus ‘pacifism.’ We were talking about marrying the vast amounts of peacemaking research, civil resistance statistics, Just Peace principles that are rising out of people’s lived experience — and that have proven effective in converting injustice to justice — with the deep, pervasive, peace theology of the Church.”
While just war theory does arise out of Catholic tradition, it can hardly be said that it represents the only stream of thinking within Catholicism.
“Every pope since Vatican II has advocated for a theology and practice of peace that meets the needs of people today,” Berger said.
“Pope Francis says we are now undergoing a Third World War in installments — and he’s right.”