To do so would unravel the Catholic commitment to social justice and the common good by forcing the Church to support inaction or half-baked schemes in the face of terrorism, genocide, and invasion.
Perhaps that’s why on social media, libertarians — who have little regard for the Church’s positions on social and economic matters — were cheering the pacifists’ quest to erase just war theory.
Just war theory is rooted in the belief that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. St. Ambrose states that one who can keep harm off a friend, but does not, “is as much at fault as he who causes it.”
The responsibilities of states are equally serious. One of the foundational responsibilities of the state is to ensure security from external and internal threats so that each person can reach their potential and flourish as a person. This cannot be done through force alone, but there are times when the morally responsible action is to use force.
To wipe away the just use of force from Church teaching would be an extraordinarily divisive decision that would inevitably shrink the Church and diminish its relevance in the modern world, particularly to politicians who are charged with working toward the common good.
How many Catholics would agree with the teaching that they could not use force under any circumstances to protect their spouse or child from violent assault and even attempted murder? How many would be comfortable with a church that teaches that the police cannot use force to stop an active school shooter from killing more children?
The question is not: “Would Christ use a sniper rifle on a school shooter?” I don’t believe that he would. The question is: “Can the police justly use one as a last resort to stop the killing?”
Following Christ is not the same as being Christ, or attempting to replicate his exact lifestyle; otherwise, having children would be out of the question. The state, in particular, has unique responsibilities to protect the innocent, safeguard order, and ensure justice.
Christians have known this for over a millennium, and the vast majority continues to recognize this today. An extreme departure from this tradition will strike many as foolish, reckless, and irresponsible.
If nonviolence is not uniformly required, but only demanded of nation-states on the matter of war, Church teaching would become a completely incoherent mess, in stark contrast to the coherence of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas on the ethical use of force.
We live in a world where the use of force is unfortunately still necessary. Hopefully, one day we will have a world of legitimate governments who operate under a world authority that can resolve all potential conflicts peacefully.
But today’s world is one where dictators gas, starve, incinerate, and bomb hundreds of thousands of their own citizens. It is one where a terrorist state imposes its totalitarian terror. It is a world where dictators still invade other states and annex their land.
Technology has changed — some weapons are more destructive than ever, others are more precise than any in a century — but sin remains, and the existing international order lacks the capacity to guarantee and maintain a just peace.
Farcical plans for unarmed civilian protection are not enough, which would not have stopped the Holocaust or genocide in Rwanda. One wonders, if such techniques could possibly work in the face of mass slaughter, then why did the pacifists who push these remedies not put their bodies on the line to protect the 300,000 civilians that have been killed in the Syrian civil war thus far?
There are still just causes for using force: Halting genocide and mass atrocities; resisting invasions; combatting terrorism; and more. Right authorities can still use force with right intention as a last resort in ways that have a strong probability of success while being proportionate.
To argue otherwise is to argue that the post-Cold War interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Kuwait were all patently unjust. If one goes further and argues that Christ always demanded nonviolence, this necessitates denouncing the Allied war against Hitler and the Nazis, despite Nazi aggression and the diabolical plot to exterminate every Jew in Europe.
It not only means that no Christian can justly serve in the armed forces today, it means that the young men who invaded on D-Day and were gunned down before they even reached the beach were not acting justly.
It would a cruel irony if right as the international community began to recognize its responsibility to protect the innocent, the Church abandoned its principles on this matter — principles that are the foundation of international law and the protection of universal human rights.
It was less than a decade ago that Pope Benedict XVI praised the responsibility to protect and cautioned that it is “indifference or failure to intervene” that “do the real damage.”
No matter what Church teaching says, war will still occur. Aggression will not evaporate if the catechism is tossed aside, and statesmen and stateswomen will be responsible and fulfill their duties, even if the Church proposes a utopian alternative.
The catechism states that decisions to use force are left to the “prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” Good leaders will continue to act and they will try to use force justly, using criteria like proportionality and discrimination, which remain essential to taming the savagery of war.
Now is not the time to discard just war theory but to build on its solid foundation. We need to incorporate new moral criteria for post-war requirements.
More attention must be given to peacekeeping, reconciliation, participation, and building a just, sustainable peace. We need to explore new possibilities for nonviolent resistance and change, where these are feasible.
The Church must press states and the international community to address the underlying causes of conflict before they metastasize. The just use of force and creative nonviolence belong together as essential tools in building a just peace.
Now, should there be a place for pacifists in the Church? Absolutely. There are great saints who were Christian pacifists. Catholic pacifists belong in the Church. But should the Church repudiate just war theory in favor of obligatory pacifism? Certainly not.
Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial, a PhD candidate in politics at The Catholic University of America, and a graduate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.