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The end of Just War Theory? No – but the tradition is changing

Looking through the scope of a rebel fighter’s gun in Aleppo, Syria (AP)

“Neither passive nor weak, Jesus’s nonviolence was the power of love in action.” Who could disagree? “The people of God have betrayed this central message of the Gospel many times”. Again, sadly, true. It was what came next – in the closing statement of a Vatican-hosted conference on peace – which caused controversy.

“We believe that there is no ‘just war’”, the conference attendees declared. “Too often the ‘just war theory’ has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war.”

The conference was led by Pax Christi, an international Catholic peace organisation founded in 1945.

Though they might be dismissed as a marginal group, the conference was co-convened by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and Pope Francis gave a welcome address at its opening.

The statement touched a nerve partly because it relates to a difficult question: how this long tradition, formed by the likes of Augustine and Aquinas, should be seen in the age of drone strikes, trans-national terrorism and the UN Security Council.

Pat Gaffney, who was at the conference as General Secretary of Pax Christi, says that just war theory makes it harder to find genuine solutions to conflict: “While we hold on to this theory we are blinded and limited in looking at other responses.”

But what other responses could be made to, say, ISIS? “It is possible to engage with them,” says Gaffney, pointing out that some of those affected by ISIS’s violence have called for non-military solutions.

Of course, diplomacy and peace-building are not ruled out by just war theory, which simply provides criteria for calling a war permissible. You need a just cause; a proportionate cause (the War of Jenkins’ Ear, declared after a Spanish captain severed the ear of a British mariner, probably falls below the threshold); the right intention; the authority to do it (something which today often involves the UN); the possibility of success; and it must be the last resort. The means must also be just – that is, nothing disproportionate or targeting the innocent.

Defenders of just war theory would say that it connects with moral and political realities in a way which pacifism cannot. “The just-war tradition has proven very adaptable over time,” says Matthew Shadle, an associate professor at Marymount University and author of The Origins of War.

“In some ways our current age of non-state actors and international authorities has more in common with the time of St Augustine or St Thomas Aquinas than it does with the early 20th century, when states had a pretty tight monopoly on the use of military force.”

That does not mean just war theory is frozen. In an interview shortly after 9/11, Cardinal Ratzinger, then the Vatican’s doctrinal chief, said that the death penalty and just war were the two questions which caused most debate in assembling the Catechism.

The Catechism says that everyone should work “for the avoidance of war”, but that governments may have the “right of lawful self-defence”. By putting this in terms of defence, it makes it difficult to justify wars fought idealistically to install democracy; and the opposition of popes to the war in Iraq was clear and insistent. Having said that, Pope St John Paul II did offer some support for military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, and Pope Francis has indicated that a military response should be on the table in confronting ISIS.

Moreover, the Holy See is committed to the UN’s “Responsibility to Protect” policy, under which all the UN’s member states must protect populations from mass atrocity crimes. As a last resort – and with the approval of the Security Council – that would include the use of force.

What has changed, according to Shadle, is the emphasis. The Catechism puts “just war” in scare quotes: “I think the idea here is that we shouldn’t really be thinking in terms of ‘just wars’ but rather seeing the use of military force as part of the state’s overall responsibility to promote peace, and its last resort in doing so.

“The Vatican has been highly critical of the major military interventions of the last few years in part because the international community, including the United States and United Kingdom, have not put sufficient effort into building peace.”

The peaceful elements in the just war tradition are coming to the fore – but that is as much of a victory as Pax Christi can expect.