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The Challenge of Peace and the Presumption Against War

This is the fourth, and final, post in a series that was kick-started last September with a short discussion of how the growing field of just intelligence theory might be overly influenced by jus contra bellum thinking, or what Tobias Winright has coined “the presumption against harm version of just war theory.” This particular variant of just war theory is defined at its core by a presumption against war or a presumption against the use of force.

This is the fourth, and final, post in a series that was kick-started last September with a short discussion of how the growing field of just intelligence theory might be overly influenced by jus contra bellum thinking, or what Tobias Winright has coined “the presumption against harm version of just war theory.”  This particular variant of just war theory is defined at its core by a presumption against war or a presumption against the use of force, in addition to a privileging of the in bello and prudential ad bellum categories over and above the historical tradition’s deontological triumvirate of just cause, sovereign authority and right intention.   In order to provide additional background on jus contra bellum, my second and third posts highlighted, respectively, (1) a debate between Paul Ramsey and Robert Tucker over discrimination, proportionality, intention and double-effect in the thermonuclear environment, and (2) a major article by James Childress on the concept of prima facie obligations in which Childress first presupposes a “presumption against war” and then derives just war theory from the need to justify the overriding of the prima facie obligation of nonmaleficence.

This final post addresses jus contra bellum thinking in light of The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, the pastoral letter on nuclear war and deterrence published by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in May 1983. To be sure, there is no possible way to encapsulate or summarize the whole of The Challenge of Peace in a single blog post.  Its publication, George Weigel asserts in his 1987 book, Tranquillitas Ordinis, “is widely and correctly regarded as a watershed event in the history of American Catholicism.” (257).  The letter provides an overview of the Catholic Church’s tradition regarding war and peace, and reflects intra-Catholic dialogues and debates in the wake of Vatican II and the Vietnam War over the legitimacy of conscientious objection and Christian pacifism.  It addresses the character and limits of the Church’s conscience-binding authority for individual believers (not to mention government officials) as they seek to apply moral principles to specific stances on nuclear systems, doctrines and policies.


The bishops’ moral prescription for US nuclear policy has been summarized by a host of writers and scholars over the years; a recent example is David Lonsdale’s 2012 article in the Journal of Military Ethics, “Nuclear Strategy and Catholicism: A Reappraisal.”  In it, Lonsdale explains the bishops’ stance:  the only licit use for nuclear weapons was to deter another country’s nuclear (versus conventional) attacks; nuclear arsenals were to be sized according to what was necessary to achieve said deterrence; and, lastly, deterrence could only be accepted as an “interim ethic,” keeping in mind that the overall goal was the withering-away of the deterrence framework through disarmament.  (192)

Reading through the pastoral letter, the bishops were crystal-clear about their role as public educators and influencers with an aim to “[help] form public opinion with a clear determination to resist resort to nuclear war as an instrument of national policy” and also to “build a barrier” against specific policies regarding nuclear force modernization and nuclear war planning that had been initiated in the Ford and Carter administrations and were being solidified in the initial Reagan years (Challenge of Peace, paragraphs 139-140).  As Lonsdale describes (193-196), and as I’ve detailed elsewhere, such

“warfighting” and counterforce-centric policies included increased efforts on the part of the United States to improve its pre- and post-exchange counter-silo capability, NATO theater nuclear force improvements, in addition to the ability to strike at Warsaw Pact conventional forces with strategic nuclear weapons launched directly from the United States.  The pastoral letter roundly condemned such policies, arguing that they eroded stability between the superpowers, were cost-prohibitive, and, because of co-location with civilian populations, could also prove indiscriminate and disproportionate.  Moreover, the bishops questioned whether, given the assumption of inevitable escalation, any nuclear exchanges could ever remain limited in scope.

Rather than attempt a point-by-point analysis of the pastoral letter, a deeper summary of its various themes, or an examination of the history of how Childress’ thoughts about prima facie obligations and nonmaleficence were transmitted and integrated into the consultations and drafting of the pastoral letter – indeed, one can turn to Winright, Weigel, and, most recently, Kristopher Norris for the latter – the reader should consider the remainder of this post as a quick primer on how the “presumption against war” idea is woven into The Challenge of Peace.


After providing a (quick) overview of how war and peace have been defined and characterized in both the Old and New Testament, the pastoral letter centers itself theologically on what it calls the “two profoundly religious meanings of peace [which] inform and influence all other meanings for Christians;” (paragraph 55) —  the present gift of peace purchased through the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the future peace to be inaugurated at His parousia – and the concomitant “tensions” of living and operating between these two moments in a sinful world (that is, “[the] tension of kingdom and history”) (paragraph 61).  The thermonuclear revolution, however, makes this particular moment different from all others, and many of the paragraphs in the run-up to the bishops’ discussion of just war criteria paint, as Weigel puts it, an apocalyptic or perhaps a 1970s-early 1980s American survivalist picture (281), emphasizing existential threat, whole-scale devastation, civilizational extinction, general ferocity, and savagery (e.g. paragraphs 61, 63, 71).   Given this picture, the letter reiterates Gaudium et Spes’ clarion call for a “completely fresh reappraisal of war” (paragraphs 66-67) and its conclusion that the Church’s primary take on war is that it is to be avoided (paragraphs 63, 79).

Just war theory, then, in the bishops’ eyes, is framed by a ‘war avoidance’ stance, in addition to a ‘do no harm to one’s neighbor’ and ‘love one’s enemy’ ethic, but is nonetheless necessary in this moment between “kingdom and history” because a government still has a right of legitimate defense (which the pastoral letter defines as protecting one’s people against armed, unjust aggression after all means of peaceful settlement have been exhausted) (paragraphs 72, 75, 79).  However, the bishops also insist on a high threshold for broaching what they see as the Church’s teaching on war-avoidance and a presumption against war.  For example, they characterize just war theory as “a set of rigorous conditions” which have to be met for war-initiation to be considered morally licit (versus a tradition to inform a statesman’s reflections).   Moreover, the “overriding” of the presumption against war can only be done for “extraordinarily strong” or “the most powerful” of reasons.  “Even the most justifiable defensive war [should only be accepted] as a sad necessity,” the bishops argue, adding that it is their presumption that “all sane people prefer peace [and] never want to initiate war” (paragraph 83).

The Challenge of Peace also integrates the presumption against war into its discussion of just war theory with its introduction of the concept of “comparative justice.”  Unlike most outlines of the just war criteria, the pastoral letter lists “comparative justice” as one of the primary ad bellum categories, along with just cause, competent authority and right intention.  Comparative justice, the bishops argue, was added because it is “destined to emphasize [just war theory’s] presumption against war.”  No side in a conflict should consider that it has a lock on the “justness” of its position, so, as a category, it is meant to put a brake on war-initiation.  Each party should understand the limits of its own just cause, which therefore should push each party to limit the means used to achieve one’s objectives, including armed force (paragraph 93).

Finally, one sees the “presumption against war” idea in the pastoral letter’s discussion of the in bello categories of proportionality and discrimination.  Strikingly, the writers insist out of the gate that, in light of escalation and the possibility of city-for-city nuclear exchanges between the superpowers, proportionality and discrimination should not just be considered in bello criteria, but ad bellum as well.  In this sense, the “presumption against war” is found in the tandem argument that any use of force runs the risk of becoming “total war,” which “by definition [takes] huge numbers of innocent lives” and is thereby fundamentally indiscriminate and disproportionate to whatever just objective might have been in view (paragraphs 101, 104). And while hearkening back to Gaudium et Spes’ formulation on discrimination (“Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself”) (paragraph 104), Lonsdale is correct in his article to note that there appears to be in the pastoral letter, at least indirectly, a dismissal of double effect (192).  Where Paul Ramsey and others had noted that Gaudium et Spes’ declaration, at least in theory, allowed for the foreseeable-but-unintended death of large numbers of non-combatants if the act of war had not been “indiscriminately aimed,” The Challenge of Peace casts strong doubts on that possibility, questioning, among other things, how many non-combatant deaths should be considered “tolerable” even in situations where they were caused indirectly or incidentally to acceptable military objectives (paragraph 109).


Weigel’s conclusions about the “functional pacifism” of The Challenge of Peace are stark.  He argues that the document was more of a “weapons pastoral” than a “peace pastoral” and that the letter’s policy prescriptions (e.g. anti-counterforce, anti-nuclear warfighting) “reflected the primary agenda of the renascent antinuclear movement of the 1980s” (284).  Whether one wholeheartedly agrees with Weigel’s assessment about what influenced the letter and its precise impact on nuclear weapons policy decision-making in the 1980s, what is incontrovertible is that the pastoral letter continues to be a key document for those who insist that just war theory has, at its core, a presumption against war itself.  Hence, for those looking at other areas for which just war theory could prove, at the very least, a useful analogue — intelligence collection and national security investigations, for instance – The Challenge for Peace is an important read to understand, as Winright has said, the theory’s rival variants.

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