Editor’s Note: Beginning yesterday in Rome, Pax Christi International, the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace launched a co-sponsored conference billed as a reexamination of the Catholic church’s long-held view of the just war tradition as established teaching. “Nonviolence and Just Peace: Contributing to the Catholic Understanding of and Commitment to Nonviolence,” brings together some 80 activists and educators on nonviolence to promote a more proactive commitment to peacemaking. The National Catholic Reporter, interviewing the Pax Christi faithful, describes the three-day conference this way:

Participants say the conference — to be cohosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the global Catholic peace network Pax Christi International April 11-13 — may recommend displacing the centuries-old just war theory as the main Catholic response to violence.

They also express hope that Pope Francis might take up their conversations by deciding to focus his next encyclical letter, the highest form of teaching for a pontiff, on issues of Catholic peacemaking.

Early indications suggest such aspirations are overreaching. Early addresses to the conference by Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Council for Justice and Peace, and by Pope Francis himself, cohere to familiar just war sentiments. All of this is, of course, of immense interest to Providence, and we’ll keep on top of it and respond appropriately. 

To make a start, James Turner Johnson, widely considered the premier authority on the just war tradition, particularly regarding its historical development, offered some preliminary reflections in a series of email exchanges. Jim provides the backstory to the current conference, showing once again that there’s really nothing new under the sun; and he points to ways forward. To our benefit, he was agreeable to it being reprinted below:

JTJ: Though the National Catholic Reporter puts the best possible spin on the conference, my initial response is that this is just the latest event in an effort that has been going on for quite some time.  The deep history goes back to the Postulata presented to Vatican I representing modern war as “hideous massacres spreading far and wide,” followed after WWI by writing and conferences influenced by the development of positive international law, including specifically the League of Nations and the Pact of Paris (the Kellogg-Briand Pact).  The result has been an ongoing struggle between the advocates of the traditional conception of just war (look back at the old Catechism and The Catholic Encyclopedia for how it is described there) and a loud and persistent minority faction who want to dump JW as the official doctrine and replace it with something else that is essentially anti-war.  (Of course, for the really deep history on this, one would have to go back to the early Church!).

Greg Reichberg has a very nice article now in review for publication that examines two sides on this from the period between the world wars: the work of the Dutch Jesuit Robert Regout, La Doctrine de la guerre juste au moyen age, revisiting and in some ways updating the classic traditional doctrine, and the work of the Conventus of Freiburg seeking a reformulation of Church teaching around opposition to war and embrace of international institutional order aimed at alternatives to war.  This, as Reichberg says, provides the intellectual background for the Church’s dealing with this matter since.

The most recent major development was, of course, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ The Challenge of Peace, in 1983.  The move that resulted in this pastoral letter was an effort by a relatively small group of bishops associated with Pax Christi to get the Conference of Bishops to adopt a pastoral statement condemning war.  That didn’t happen, of course: instead a committee was formed to examine the matter and draft a pastoral letter for the full Conference to act on.  That committee was divided between proponents of JW and Pax Christi-based opposition to war, with Cardinal Bernardin, known as a skillful formulator of compromise, as chair.  There was also scholarly work from this same period arguing for a “Catholic peace tradition” (Ronald Musto’s books, The Catholic Peace Tradition and The Peace Tradition in the Catholic Church: An Annotated Bibliography).  This was in the context of the anti-nuclear movement of that period, and the people who testified before the committee included a number of anti-nuclear activists as well as people representing other types of opposition to war.  Pro-just war people were also heard, of course (including Paul Ramsey).  The committee moved through three drafts, with the second one embracing the anti-just war, “peace tradition” position.  This was the draft that made the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post.  But the Conference rejected it, and Fr. Brian Hehir, who had drafted the second version, now produced a third, in which there was a conscious effort for balance, and this was reflected in the characterization of the Catholic position as one of a “presumption against war,” with the just war tradition cast as a doctrine that spelled out conditions for an exception to this.

That conception of the tradition has had a lot of influence and in some ways can be read in what the new Catechism says.  I have, of course, argued against it, and there was a conference at the Gregorian University in 2004 in which both sides of the ongoing debate in Catholic thinking were represented.  I gave a paper there that was subsequently printed, with some cuts and without any of the supporting notes, in First Things 149 (January 2005).  George Weigel was also involved in that conference, and he has also written in First Things and elsewhere in support of just war as Catholic teaching.  Among American academics Richard Miller has defended The Challenge of Peace‘s conception of just war and Catholic doctrine, and Lisa Cahill, in her book on discipleship, effectively takes over Miller’s argument.

So here we are now with the Catholic pacifists having another go.  I am not overly concerned at having this conference hosted under the auspices of the Pontifical Council on Peace and Justice.  That this is an element in the Vatican bureaucracy (which is very large and complex) in no way signals a shift in overall doctrine.  But it certainly gives the conference a higher profile than it would otherwise have had.  The Council on Peace and Justice does not, though, have directly to do with doctrine.  (The Gregorian University conference I attended, at which Greg was also included, hosted, besides the public conference, a private roundtable with several Vatican officials present, including the then Number 2 under Cardinal Ratzinger, whose office actually had directly to do with doctrine. It is this office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that is the one to watch on this whole debate.)

Of course the aim is clearly to seek an endorsement of the anti-just war position by Pope Francis, and the NCR article says as much.  But all I would expect, at most, is a pastoral statement condemning war, something that other popes have already issued (One thinks of Paul VI’s “Never again war” speech at the UN, for example.)  A pastoral statement would carry weight, but it would not represent a change in doctrine.

I would like to see Providence take up the issues raised by this conference, but the time to do that would be after the conference, when what was actually said there is known.  There are various different motivations and lines of argument in the Catholic anti-just war movement, and it’s not clear in advance which of them will be argued at this conference.  Indeed, some of them are in tension with others. The Catholic anti-just war movement, whichever of the approaches it takes, has not attempted to come to grips with the realities of what is truly “modern war,” including wars rooted in tribalism and radical Islam: wars that (so far, at least) have involved no WMD but nonetheless have produced enormous losses of life, with civilians being major targets.  These types of wars have proven especially hard to affect by peacemaking efforts (indeed, would-be peacemakers and civilian aid providers have regularly been targets in such wars), leaving one to wonder at the vacuum that would be left if just war thinking were no more.  In this I suspect the Rome conference will be seriously off-topic.

I think then a Providence symposium on the various themes would be the way to stake out a position [editor: Indeed! More anon!]. I look forward to seeing how this develops and to taking part in whatever you may do on the topic. (There is also, of course, the problem that, as John Kelsay has wryly observed, this Rome conference is following the line already taken in mainstream Protestantism.  Getting both just war and Niebuhrian realism back on the table for American Protestantism would be an important aim for any discussion that might take place in Providence.)

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 – St. Peter’s Basillica (cupola), the Vatican; Jean-Christophe Benoist, wikipedia commons