Earlier this month, the Vatican released its latest document from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Infinita, on human dignity. The document was highly anticipated for its statements and clarifications about the Catholic Church’s position on an array of controversial social issues, like transgender ideology, abortion, and IVF. Yet perhaps the most consequential part of Dignitas Infinita was its section dedicated to Just War Theory, which at first glance may not seem substantially new, but upon careful review appears to take aim at the doctrine of Just War in concerning ways.  

Though the document rightly reaffirms “the inalienable right to self-defense and the responsibility to protect those whose lives are threatened,” which are core parts of Catholic Just War Doctrine, it immediately contradicts this statement by making several assertions – primarily citing statements by Pope Francis himself – that are directly at odds with Church teaching. The document suggests, “all wars…are conflicts that will not solve problems but only increase them,” and claims, “no war is worth the loss of the life of even one human being.” If the target of these statements wasn’t obvious enough, the Vatican makes its intended target clear by advising, “it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a just war.”  

The logic of these statements is not only dramatically untrue but also morally repulsive. If interpreting these words by their plain meaning, it suggests the Vatican holds that any war, fought for any reason is incapable of solving problems, that no war, however just, is worth dying for, and that the enduring principles of the Just War Doctrine were but a temporary doctrinal placeholder. 

History proves that the opposite is true. Furthermore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church would fully contradict these erroneous assertions as it prescribes clear guidelines to determine when armed conflict is legitimate, worthwhile, and just. St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine did not err in their judgement of the permanent nature of war, nor did they err in constructing the moral guide we call the Just War Theory, which has stood the test of time and continues to do so.  

Similarly, Dignitas Infinita appears to ignore that every war involves at least two combatants and diminishes sometimes rightful claims of self-defense or protection of vulnerable populations. Nations have a sacred right and a duty to defend their homeland from unprovoked attacks, just as we’re seeing happen in Ukraine today. They also have a sacred responsibility to protect other innocent people from atrocities and crimes against humanity, as the Allies did in World War II. If the meaning of Dignitas Infinita is to be taken at face value, one would reasonably conclude that waging war to stop a genocide or repel an unprovoked invasion is a crime against human dignity. It would appear the Vatican does not consider the “inalienable right to self-defense and the responsibility to protect those whose lives are threatened” so inalienable after all. 

On the contrary, Catholics believe that humanity’s greatest calling is to emulate, as best we can, the life of Christ. To make great personal sacrifices to advance the virtues of truth and justice. It is precisely because human life and dignity is so precious that it is to be defended and fought for at great cost. As Pope Francis himself stated, “Life is not given to us to be jealously guarded for ourselves, but is given to us so that we may give it in turn.” 

The pacifist idealism promoted by Dignitas Infinita would surrender life, freedom, and flourishing to tyrants and brutes for the sake of perpetual false peace; with peace entailing not only the absence of war, but also the presence of justice. And utopian visions of a warless society are ill conceived. War is a feature of our fallen human nature; so long as there is sin in this world, there will also be war. Misguided attempts to replace war with appeasement and capitulation are doomed to fail and only lead to more violence.  

Pope Francis has in recent years made several ‘off-the-cuff’ statements that appear to call into question the legitimacy of the Just War Theory. But importantly, Just War Theory is not merely an addendum to Catholic doctrine – it is Catholic doctrine. Regrettably, the Holy Father’s remarks are now being cited by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith in a way that could at best sow confusion about the Church’s position and at worst be interpreted as a radical doctrinal change. 

Just War Doctrine is not an outdated construct in need of revision. It is a timeless moral law which is as important now as ever. The Vatican should swiftly clarify that the doctrine of Just War, as outlined in the Catechism, has not changed, and that wars fought under those prescribed conditions are legitimate, moral, and noble expressions of our Catholic determination to fight in defense of right against wrong.