Lex Cordis Caritas - The law of the heart is Love

March 14, 2022

The just war theory

by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

It is heart-wrenching to read the news reports and see the images of the damage being inflicted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, such as the Russian bombing of a maternity hospital in the Ukrainian city of Mariopol and the indiscriminate attacks on other non-military targets that have resulted in many civilian casualties. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zalensky has not only denounced Russia for these attacks, but has also expressed his frustration with the lack of support from the West, asking, “How much longer will the world be an accomplice to terror? You have power but seem to be losing humanity.”

Of course, everyone is concerned that the war in Ukraine not escalate into a catastrophic nuclear confrontation between Russia and the United States and other nuclear powers. At the same time, our basic sense of justice cries out for some way to help the victims of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression and apparent violation of international law by invading a sovereign country and committing war crimes by targeting civilians.

Some political commentators seem to be saying that Ukraine has to be forfeited to the Russians because we do not want to provoke Putin into a reckless response that would start World War III and a possible nuclear holocaust. Such views seem reminiscent of the appeasement approach towards Adolph Hitler’s expansion of Nazi power prior to World War II.

Neville Chamberlain, who served as British Prime Minister from May 1937 to May 1940, was one of the chief proponents of appeasement towards Hitler. The Munich Conference of 1938, organized by Chamberlain and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, was an international meeting to settle the dispute between Germany and Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland. The Conference was attended by Hitler from Germany, Chamberlain from Britain, Daladier from France and Mussolini from Italy. Czechoslovakia was not invited, despite the Sudetenland being part of its territory. At the Munich Conference, it was decided the Sudetenland was to be transferred from Czechoslovakia to Germany. After the Munich Agreement, Chamberlain and Hitler signed a document promising that Britain and Germany would promote peace in Europe. Chamberlain returned to London and announced that he had secured “peace in our time.”

Winston Churchill, who succeeded Neville Chamberlain as British prime minister in 1940, was a fierce opponent of appeasement. He said, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” Churchill was convinced that Hitler would not stop, and of course, we know now that he was right. Hitler did not stop until he was defeated. Many people fear the same with Putin.

What does our Christian faith have to say about defending people who are being attacked? In his sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Matthew 5:38-39). The New Jerome Biblical Commentary says that Jesus offers this teaching as “a strategy for winning, not for passive resignation or indifference to evil. The goal is to shame the opponent into a change of heart. This presupposes the requisite dispositions in the opponent, which are not always present.”

Indeed, Catholic theology developed the “just war theory” to deal with unjust opponents. St. Augustine (d. 430) was the original proponent of the just war theory, which St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) later adapted and explained in his Summa Theologiae. The traditional elements of the just war theory are described in paragraph 2309 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time: the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; there must be serious prospects of success; and the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.”

The Catholic Bishops of the United States in 1983 addressed these modern means of destruction in their pastoral letter on war and peace entitled, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. Specifically with regard to the use of nuclear weapons, the bishops said: “Under no circumstances may nuclear weapons or other instruments of mass slaughter be used for the purpose of destroying population centers or other predominantly civilian targets. Retaliatory action which would indiscriminately and disproportionately take many wholly innocent lives, lives of people who are in no way responsible for reckless actions of their government, must also be condemned. . . . We do not perceive any situation in which the deliberate initiation of nuclear war, on however restricted a scale, can be morally justified. Non-nuclear attacks by another state must be resisted by other than nuclear means. . . . One of the criteria of the just-war teaching is that there must be a reasonable hope of success in bringing about justice and peace. We must ask whether such a reasonable hope can exist once nuclear weapons have been exchanged. The burden of proof remains on those who assert that meaningful limitation is possible. In our view the first imperative is to prevent any use of nuclear weapons and we hope that leaders will resist the notion that nuclear conflict can be limited, contained or won in any traditional sense.”

As we pray for a just and peaceful resolution of the war in Ukraine, let us pray that these important principles for just war in a nuclear age be kept in mind and strictly adhered to by those responsible for making these critical life and death decisions.

May God give us this grace. Amen.