In October 2020, with the publication of Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis seemingly broke with a longstanding position within Catholic social teaching by rejecting just-war reasoning: “We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war.’ Never again war!” (§258). When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, marking a steep escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War that began in 2014, the Catholic pontiff faced a precarious decision. Would he condemn Russia’s unjustified aggression? Would he support Ukraine’s right to armed self-defense?
Since the invasion, Pope Francis has called for an end to the war but he has not condemned Russia’s actions, has urged Ukraine to embrace nonviolence even in defending themselves, and has intimated that Western encroachment on Russia’s borders through the expansion of NATO provoked the invasion. Catholic theologians and ethicists continue to debate the morality of just-war versus nonviolent peacemaking and politicians profess support for Ukraine but fear further angering Putin. Meanwhile, the invasion has triggered the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, with more than 6.8 million Ukrainians fleeing the country and a third of the population displaced.
As many Ukrainian scholars and intellectuals have opined, the Western media has allowed Russia and Putin to set the narrative for the invasion. Some have aimed their criticisms at Noam Chomsky, who in several interviews has suggested “that Ukrainians are fighting with Russians because the U.S. instigated them to do so” in an effort by the U.S. “to detach Ukraine from the Russian sphere of influence.” Chomsky, in agreement with most military experts, recommends appeasing Putin as a means of averting nuclear war, to which the Ukrainians respond: “Since the Russian invasion, Ukraine lives in a constant nuclear threat, not just due to being a prime target for Russian nuclear missiles but also due to the Russian occupation of Ukrainian nuclear power plants….Arguably, any concessions to Russia will not reduce the probability of a nuclear war but lead to escalation. If Ukraine falls, Russia may attack other countries (Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Finland or Sweden) and can also use its nuclear blackmail to push the rest of Europe into submission.“
Catholic moral theologians and other theological ethicists uniformly condemn Russia’s military aggression yet continue to debate the proper Christian response. This symposium presents the ongoing and evolving thought on the matter by several theologians and ethicists: David E. DeCosse, Director of Religious and Catholic Ethics, Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University, Jackie Turvey Tait, tutor at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and a research associate at Liverpool John Moores University, John Gonzalez, Director of Parish and Community Relations for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Brooklyn, Ramon Luzarraga, Chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Martin’s University, Rubén Rosario Rodríguez, Clarence Louis and Helen Steber Professor of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University, and Gerald J. Beyer, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Villanova University.
Recognizing that much changes on the ground daily in Ukraine, and that despite an overwhelming technological and numerical advantage, Russian troops have been stymied by the much smaller and ill-equipped Ukrainian forces, these reflections provide moral reasoning about viable options for Ukraine and the West in the face of continued Russian aggression guided and informed by Christian teaching.