Vatican Conference (But Not Necessarily Vatican) Wants to Do Away With 'Just War' Theory

Participants say no wars are just.


St. Peter's Square, The Vatican
Anna & Michal / Flickr

As 80 Catholics from a number of organizations were convening for a Vatican-sponsored conference on the Church's "just war" theory this week, Pope Francis prepared a letter urging them to offer "thoughts on revitalizing the tools of non-violence." Instead, participants released a document forcefully rejecting the idea that there is such a thing as a just war at all in the modern world.

From a story in the National Catholic Reporter:

Members of a three-day event co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi have also strongly called on Pope Francis to consider writing an encyclical letter, or some other "major teaching document," reorienting the church's teachings on violence.

"There is no 'just war,'" the some 80 participants of the conference state in an appeal they released Thursday morning.

If the pontiff did proffer a new teaching along those lines, it would be a major rethinking of the Church's stance. "Just war" holds that armed conflict is justified only under narrow circumstances: if the damage that would be inflicted by the enemy would be lasting and grave; the war is very likely to be successful; all other alternative are shown to be impractical or unlikely to succeed; and the use of weapons will not produce "worse evils" than those being combatted.

The teaching was developed by such theological heavyweights as Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Saint John Paul II, the pope who preceded now–Pope Emeritus Benedict. It is codified in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a book that outlines the beliefs of the Catholic faithful.

The document produced by this conference, titled "An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence," is just that—an appeal. Participants don't have the authority to change Church teachings on their own, but were tasked with making recommendations for Pope Francis to review and consider.

It's far from certain he'll go as far as the conference would like. During the Second Vatican Council, when a commission convened to study the impact of birth control on society put out a document suggesting that, contrary to previous teaching, contraception was not intrinsically sinful, the pope at the time, Paul VI, formally repudiated it.

One could argue that the change proposed by the just war conference is different in kind from the change the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control wanted. If, for example, the pope concluded that the fourth criterion named above is impossible to fulfill in today's world given modern weaponry, he might be able to deem the theory obsolete without suggesting it's incorrect per se.