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Challenging the Just War Theory

HONG KONG (SE): Can war ever be justified is an age-old question that has been debated many times, but increasingly so in the modern era as the nature of war has changed rapidly and dramatically.

A conference on peace and Catholic teaching held at the Vatican from April 11 to 13 set out to change the conversation from justifying war to pro-actively working for peace, and to develop a coherent articulation of making peace the primary teaching of the Church.

The ambition of the conference was to achieve a paradigm shift in Church teaching away from considering war as a valid response to any situation, and to see the development of and concentration on the development of nonviolent resistance, which many argue is more effective anyway.

The National Catholic Reporter reported on April 5 that the pre-conference notes circulated among the delegates say that the Just War Theory “can no longer claim centre stage as the Christian approach to war and peace.”

The notes go onto say, “After more than 1,500 years and repeated use of the just war criteria to sanction war rather than prevent it, the Catholic Church, like many other Christian communities, is rereading the text of Jesus’ life and re-appropriating the Christian vocation of proactive peacemaking.”

Traditionally, the Church has fallen back on its four criteria as spelled out in its Just War Theory, but the April conference at the Vatican set out specifically to disprove its continued validity as a moral measure of action.

The conference was hosted by the international Catholic peace movement, Pax Christi, and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The itinerary was heavily weighted towards discussion and interaction among the 80 delegates and the only listed speaker was Peter Cardinal Turkson, from the Council for Justice and Peace.

The Just War Theory dates back to St. Augustine, the bishop of Hippo. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas developed its articulation considerably and today, four criteria are laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The most contentious one listed by the Catechism says, “The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” However, it does begin to question the possibility of its own condition ever being applicable when it says, “The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.”

The organisers say, “Emphasising the need to work for a just peace, the Church is moving away from the acceptability of calling war just. While clear ethical criteria are necessary for addressing egregious attacks or threats in a violent world, moral theologians and ethicists should no longer refer to such criteria as the Just War Theory, because that language undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacity for nonviolent conflict.”

The conference set out to find a new articulation of the Catholic teaching on war and peace and specifically to replace the just war language with a just peace.

The conference was divided into four sessions; Experiences of Nonviolence, Jesus’ Way of Nonviolence, Nonviolence and Just Peace, and Moving Beyond Unending War.

Its ambition was to come up with an action plan to promote Catholic teaching on war and peace, violence and nonviolence.

The National Catholic Reporter quoted one of the founders of the Centre for Peacemaking at Marquette University in the United States of America (US), Terrence Rynne, as saying, “It is a dream that I’ve had for a long time that the Church would embrace peace-making as its central manta and not have the Just War Theory be settled teaching the way it has been for so many centuries.”

He predicted, “If people understood they had this powerful method of nonviolent action that has been demonstrably proven again and again, we would begin to move away from it.”

While discussing this topic may be a first for the Vatican, it is not a new issue in Churches.

At a conference held in Jamaica to mark the conclusion of the International Decade to Overcome Violence in 2010, an initiative of the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation, more and more voices were saying that there are no military solutions to political problems.

It was noted that the 30-year-long civil war in Sri Lanka did nothing to bring a solution to the original political problems, and after decades of violence in Nepal the lines of division remain drawn in exactly the same places.

In its reflection on the convocation, Pax Christi quoted the US general, David Petraeus, as saying, “There is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq.”

Although he admitted that the military may have a role in quelling an initial disturbance, he added that without realistic political negotiations, lasting peace will always remain out of reach.

A comment on the buildup of the international force in Afghanistan from S. M. Krishna, the minister for external affairs in India, showed his disbelief that a bigger force would have solved the problems of the nation.

But he had told the Wall Street Journal on 10 November 2009, “I think there could be a political settlement.”

A former British diplomat in Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles, was cited as saying that the problem with military offensives is that they do not know when to stop. 

He explained that there comes a point when further military action is counter-productive, but governments are slow to recognise it and this can negate political possibilities.

Even the role of the military in counter-acting piracy around the Gulf of Aden was questioned.

The operations commander from the European Union Naval Force, Peter Hudson, said at the time that unless a lot of work is done in addressing political issues in Somalia, the source of the problem would not be touched and, consequently, piracy would continue to expand.

The Vatican conference is the realisation of one dream of the 2010 Convocation, as it specifically expressed the intention to pressure Churches to look again at their Just War Theories.

The call for peace is certainly out there, as a Filipino colonel, Santiago Baluyot, put it at a candlelight prayer rally for the success of the peace talks in Mindanao in 2010, “In war there is no such thing as an unwounded soldier. And in war there is no victor, only victims.”