Since the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative (CNI) began in 2016, there has been a renewed conversation about the understanding and commitment to nonviolence, as well as related themes of just peace, just war, and peacebuilding. Pope Francis offered a notable contribution with his “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace” 2017 message. His encyclical Fratelli Tutti also enhanced this conversation in many ways, including particular sections on war (255-262). Perhaps more importantly, Francis’ many concrete expressions of active nonviolence have been transformative for the mission of the Church. Recently, Anna Zaros urged Francis to work towards a “just peace” ethic in the church.
Several recent pieces in Catholic media have misrepresented my and CNI’s positions on military action and claims about just war. At this stage, as a member of the CNI steering committee, I want to clarify points that remain misrepresented or contested, so we can work toward a more fruitful dialogue and seek the truth together. My position is not “all military action is a moral failure” as this May 2023 Commonweal article by Tobias Winright stated; nor is it my position that the story of American imperialism is “all-determining” for the war in Ukraine as this May 2023 article stated; nor is it CNI’s position that just war theory “is only misused to endorse war” as this 2020 academic journal essay by Winright claimed (p. 438); nor is it CNI’s position that those who utilize just war discourse lack imagination in general; nor is it CNI’s position that such persons are “trying to prepare for or seek a just war” as other scholars claimed.
There are different perspectives within CNI regarding difficult situations of violent conflict. Yet, our collective focus is deepening the understanding and commitment to active nonviolence. Nonviolence is a positive reverence for dignity and life; as well as the consistent effort to avoid dehumanization along with participation in other types of violence (structural, cultural).
Regarding the first misrepresentation about military action above, I wrote an essay in 2019 as part of the discussion in the journal Expositions. The essay, “Catholic Nonviolence: Transforming Military Institutions,” goes into detail how military action might be impacted or transformed from a just peace orientation. People in the military can do a variety of constructive actions, such as delivering humanitarian assistance, providing intelligence, evacuating civilians, or in some circumstances shooting down a missile/unmanned drone coming towards a city.
Further, I have argued that accompaniment is about affirming and admiring those who are willing to take a high-risk stand against aggression rather than to be passive, as well as acknowledging the pressure-packed decisions often made about how to resist. In addition, I say that it is also not about “condemning or judging people in very difficult situations” who lean into violent resistance. This means not calling such action a “moral failure.” For example, when Jewish groups strategized to violently resist the ruthless Roman military, Jesus modeled accompaniment by leaning away from justifying methods of war and enabling any dynamics of violence to perpetuate and spread. This is not because Jesus was being ‘condescending’ to his Jewish community, but because he recognized that such an approach would significantly harm those he intimately loved as well as other parties to the conflict.
Regarding the just war argument, what CNI said was that just war moral reasoning has “too often” been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war. The argument was not that we need to move it aside because “it has always been used to endorse.” The argument is about how it has primarily functioned socially and politically, regardless of any good intentions behind its’ development. And many just war theorists acknowledge it has primarily functioned in this way.
So, if it is not adequately leading to the prevention and limitation of war, then we wonder, why not look for a better way of moral reasoning around hostile conflict situations? This search is what we have been trying to promote, which included the invitation of those who utilize just war moral reasoning to many discussions. Many of the concerns raised about just war moral reasoning remain unaddressed, and we welcome dialogue on these specific points.
Further, CNI’s claim about just war reasoning is not whether it has ever been argued correctly or well, as if one finds such a case then it makes this reasoning conclusively worthwhile to maintain in the Church, as some have argued. Some have at times used some just war categories to argue against certain wars that were extremely unjust. Of course, such categories aren’t necessary to argue that such wars are unjust. Yet, even if one does find a case that seems to in principle meet the just war criteria, it still in practice routinely leads to habits and cycles of violence as well as generational trauma, as Lisa Sowle Cahill and Gerald Schlabach have argued. Further, finding that case doesn’t appear to make the theory or way of reasoning conclusively valuable to maintain in the church if its primary function has been used to justify, and thus, perpetuate war rather than prevent or limit. This destructive pattern of usage is what Pope Francis points toward in Fratelli Tutti (par. 258).
For the sake of argument, even if violent resistance and engagement in war seems to meet the present form of just war criteria for some analysts, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is just. There may be other norms and considerations that are relevant, such as human dignity or root causes of the conflict. And, even if it does seem ‘just,’ this doesn’t necessarily mean that we should do such violent action, again because there may be other considerations or approaches. And, even if it does seem ‘just’ and leaders do engage in violent resistance and war, we still will generate dynamics and cycles of violence through more generational trauma, bitterness, hostility, distrust, moral injury, domination, and militarization, which make another war in this region or elsewhere more probable. Hasn’t such a dynamic already been at least to some degree demonstrated in Ukraine with the government’s declared ‘just’ armed counter-terrorism approach toward eastern Ukraine from 2014-2022? Rather than preventing or limiting war, we now have more escalation and aggression/war in the region, with estimates of 500,000 killed since 2022.
So, if we acknowledge these positions more precisely, how might we move forward?
Pope Francis has deepened our understanding of human dignity by centering active nonviolence as the way to live in accord with dignity. This is oriented by a pastoral approach and integral ecology. For instance, in his 2017 message, he prays “that the image and likeness of God in each person will enable us to acknowledge one another as sacred gifts endowed with immense dignity. Especially in situations of conflict, let us respect our deepest dignity, and make active nonviolence our way of life.” In Fratelli Tutti, he clearly names war itself as an “affront to human dignity” (par. 25) and previously called war “the suicide of humanity.” War, therefore, is not consistent with a humanitarian initiative or with human dignity. Hence, he calls for “gestures of humanity” to break the dynamics of violence in war.
The inconsistency with human dignity is also demonstrated by the advancing scientific recognition of trauma, perpetrator induced traumatic syndrome, moral injury, and even at times brain damage of the one who kills another. It also dehumanizes by obstructing empathy, failing to be a gift to others, devaluing the sacred gift of others, and creating ongoing trauma in other community members. War is a radical violation of the truth of our human dignity, so how do we recover our sense of human dignity during war?
In contrast, active nonviolence is a positive reverence for dignity and life. William Cavanaugh argues that nonviolent resistance is not merely a plausible strategy to defend against large-scale aggression, but more significantly is a “path to conversion” for all. Isn’t this path or process of conversion central to the role or mission of Christians and the Church in the world? Isn’t this where our focus or gaze is invited by Jesus as we “put on the mind of Christ?” Regarding the war in Ukraine, Cavanaugh invites us to “allow our imaginations to be captivated by those Ukrainians who know firsthand that there is no good war and who seek to try something else.” Marie Dennis argues that “in a world of highly destructive, extremely expensive weapons, the human and environmental consequences of [large-scale] armed defense cry out for an effective alternative.” Focusing on the right to life and the need for safety of all people can assist us in this movement, in living in accord with human dignity, and in ensuring the common good for all people.
Winright implies that Ukrainians didn’t have much of a choice once “bullets start flying.” Certainly, a much more difficult situation and we have no guarantees either way. Yet, there was a robust Oct. 2022 report about how nonviolent resistance has been used (over 235 times the first five months) during the actual war, blocking tanks, standing in protests while bullets flew overhead, etc., and had considerable impact on impeding Russian institutionalization, protecting civilians, challenging the Russian narrative, building social cohesion and supporting local government, etc. So, an incredibly hard and pressure-packed choice. And as Cavanaugh argues, a set of practices worth emphasizing and focusing on as Christians seek to illuminate human dignity, the common good, and the love of Christ.
Winright also argues that post bellum norms address the concern regarding breaking cycles of violence. Yes, post bellum norms can be helpful if implemented, but they aren’t adequate to defuse or end the war itself, and hence, the violent dynamic. They generally function after the war has ended to try and stop further wars, rather than as a way to stop or defuse the present war. This is in part what Cardinal McElroy was pointing out in his March 2023 argument to center nonviolence while underlining the deficiency and the inadequacy of just war reasoning. He was arguing that with just war reasoning there is a lack of moral guidance and clear responsibilities regarding how to defuse and stop an ongoing war, and thus, save lives and interrupt the cycle of violence. This focus on breaking cycles of violence is precisely what just peace moral reasoning offers.
A just peace framework also draws from and transforms some aspects of the just war tradition. For example, this includes deepening the traditional criterion of right intention within a new framework by requiring deliberate formation of intentions and the skill sets needed to carry out right intention effectively. Just peace also calls us to determine appropriate strategies and campaigns that are more consistent with dignity, and thus, protecting life, which includes a priority for civilians, i.e., traditional criteria of discrimination, and those most vulnerable. Just peace also calls us to determine strategies and campaigns that have a higher probability of a more sustainable peace, i.e., including, reframing, and going beyond the traditional criteria of probability of success.
Unfortunately, the current war in Ukraine is another example in a long historical pattern of how the language and reasoning of a just war ethical framework can be used, distorted, and function politically to help facilitate the Russian invasion and the ongoing dynamics of the war. Notably, Pope Francis proclaims: “There was a time, even in our churches, when people spoke of a holy war or a just war. Today we cannot speak in this manner.” Yet, we can and have been invited by Francis and others to speak in the manner of centering nonviolence.