As noted earlier, 0n April 11-13 a conference, “Nonviolence and Peace: Contributing to the Catholic Understanding of and Commitment to Nonviolence,” was held in Rome with the sponsorship of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace. Anticipating the conference, the National Catholic Reporter in an article published April 5 described the conference as “first of its kind,” hosted by “the Vatican,” and aiming to “reexamine the Catholic church’s long-held teachings on just war theory … with the aim of developing a new moral framework that rejects ethical justifications for war.” The NCR’s post-conference article, published April 14, was headlined “Landmark Vatican conference rejects just war theory, asks for encyclical on nonviolence.” Anyone reading these two articles might reasonably believe that a major change in doctrine was about to be made, with the Catholic Church formally rejecting the just war idea in its teachings.

As it happens, though, the NCR reporting was far from a good guide to the reality of this conference and what it might accomplish.

First, to say this conference was sponsored by “the Vatican” is to say far too much. The sponsoring body, one of twelve pontifical councils within the Vatican Curia, is charged specifically to support studies aimed at the international promotion of justice, peace, and human rights from the Catholic Church’s perspective. This entails cooperation with organizations dedicated to the same ends. This conference, then, was an example of cooperation with one such organization, its cohost Pax Christi International, and the various other nonviolence-oriented bodies represented among those who attended the conference. In other words, the conference was simply an example of the Pontifical Council carrying out its charge.

This charge, moreover, does not extend to changing Catholic teaching or forging new teaching: that is the responsibility of a much more important office within the Curia, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Nor does the Council’s charge extend to international relations: that is the responsibility of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, which in the organization of the Vatican offices is outside and above the Curia itself.

This helps to put in perspective the Conference’s concluding document, “An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence.” Taking note of what it describes as “normalized and systemic violence” including “tremendous suffering, widespread trauma and fear linked to militarization, economic injustice, climate change, and a myriad of other specific forms of violence,” it proposes that “the Catholic Church develop and consider shifting to a Just Peace approach based on Gospel nonviolence” and calls for commitment “to furthering Catholic understanding and practice of active nonviolence on the road to just peace.”

The document makes only two brief references to just war. The first is in a three-sentence paragraph that begins this way: “We believe that there is no ‘just war.’ Too often the ‘just war theory’ has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war.” The second is one of six elements in a call to the Church: “no longer use or teach ‘just war theory’; continue advocating for the abolition of war and nuclear weapons.”

Leaving aside the question of Catholic use of just war teaching to endorse war—are there really any examples?—in all, for anyone who knows the contours of Catholic anti-war advocacy, and in particular that offered on behalf of Pax Christi, there is nothing particularly new in the concluding document from this conference. The document itself was likely drafted before the conference, as such statements typically are; this one could almost have been written in 1981 or 1982, during the debate that eventually led to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace. The present conference’s concluding document is old wine, and the wineskin is not so new either.

This is not to say that Christians everywhere, not just Catholics, should not take seriously the need to oppose injustices of all sorts, not only those related to military force, and remember Jesus’s example in forming a moral response to them. But the reason just war has historically been a Christian moral teaching is that it may contribute to a solution to injustice in the world, not be the problem to overcome. Indeed, there are some injustices that only the use of military force can counter, and this realization has always been the core of the just war idea.

Perhaps this is why, in the only two formal presentations made to the conference just concluded—those of Pope Francis and Cardinal PeterTurkson, the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace—nothing is said about the Catholic Church turning away from its teaching on just war. The papal statement, while calling the abolition of war “the ultimate and most deeply worthy goal of human beings and the human community,” went on to quote the Second Vatican Council that “governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted.” The specific actions he called for were to abolish the death penalty and deal with the debt of the poorer nations, not the abolition of war or the rejection of just war teaching. Cardinal Turkson, for his part, noted the connection between peace and justice, a connection integral to the classic conception of just war, and, speaking of the historical development of just war, commented that what the Church sought to do in it was “to enlarge the scope of peace.” Like the Pope, he did not call for the Church to back away from its just war teaching; nor, for that matter, did he offer any specific endorsement of the path taken in the conference’s concluding document.

For Protestants, of course, whatever the Catholic Church does is not authoritative. Many in the leadership of mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. have already moved away from the idea of just war, and it would be good to reengage Protestants as a whole with the perspective offered on good political order, justice, and peace offered in just war tradition and with the political realism of Reinhold Niebuhr as a basis for thinking seriously about the dimensions of moral action in a complex world.

James Turner Johnson (PhD, Princeton), was the Distinguished Professor of Religion and Associate of the Graduate Program in Political Science at Rutgers – The State University of New Jersey, where he was on faculty for more than forty years. His research and teaching have focused principally on the historical development and application of the Western and Islamic moral tradition related to war, peace, and the practice of statecraft. He is a contributing editor to Providence. 

Image: May 18, 1945: A Marine of the 1st Marine Division draws a bead on a Japanese sniper with his tommy-gun as his companion ducks for cover. The division was working to take Wana Ridge before the town of Shuri on Okinawa. National Archives