The war in Ukraine is generating mixed messaging from the West. NATO allies urgently need to coordinate clear signalling on our unity, resolve and commitment to Ukraine’s right to self-determination. Attention to the guidance found in the Catholic Just War tradition, and the Christian cultural narrative that underpins it, can help us formulate a prudent response, rather than vacillating between appeasement and intemperance.
Russia’s aggressive war of choice in Ukraine is based on a sense of entitlement to a sphere of influence in the region, that does not acknowledge Ukraine’s status as an independent nation. Internationally recognised just causes for war do not include imperialist ambitions for territorial conquest or the subjugation of other states, and the plausibility of any Russian claim to honourable intentions has been completely eroded, as the carnage they have unleashed unfolds and evidence mounts of appalling war crimes perpetrated by the Russian military.
The invasion provoked moral outrage in the West, not only because it clearly violates norms of just cause and right intention, but also because denying Ukraine’s right to sovereignty and territorial integrity threatens European security architecture that depends on the inviolability of such rights. International unity is needed to coordinate a robust response and deter further aggression. Instead, we are seeing incoherent signalling from NATO allies: European appeasement rhetoric competes with intemperate calls from British and American leaders for military intervention, regime change or the pursuit of wider proxy war aims beyond enabling Ukraine’s legitimate self-defence.
Any appeasement strategy offering unauthorised territorial concessions is clearly incoherent in light of Ukraine’s right to self-determination and the wider imperative to defend cherished concepts of sovereignty and territorial integrity. It also signals weakness, which realist military strategists warn tends to whet not shrink an aggressor state’s appetite for conquest. In recent history, the international community has failed to respond robustly to escalating Russian norms violations. If the intention was to appease Putin, this has clearly not been an effective strategy.
It should be uncontroversial that the Ukrainians have a right to defend their people and their land. However, some have argued that Pope Francis is spearheading a rejection of the just war tradition, replacing it with a thoroughgoing pacifism that would in principle deny this right to the Ukrainian defenders. As an analysis of the Pope’s position, I think this is mistaken. The change in tone during Francis’s papacy seems to me more an issue of pastoral style than of substance.
In a recent video conference call with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, in which Pope Francis described the concept of a just war as “obsolete”, this was in the context of a critique of Kirill’s construction of Russian aggression as a “holy war” or a “just defence” against the allegedly corrupting influence of Western values in Ukraine. It is clear that his primary aim was to reassert the principle that pastors must preach peace not politics.
In a speech made shortly afterwards, Pope Francis expressed anguished solidarity with the people of Ukraine: “The blood and tears of the children, the suffering of women and men who are defending their land or fleeing from the bombs, shake our conscience. Once again humanity is threatened by a perverse abuse of power and partisan interests, which condemns defenceless people to suffer all forms of brutal violence.”
The Catholic Church has long held that nations have not merely a right but a positive duty to defend their people from invasion. Pius XII said “A people threatened with an unjust aggression, or already its victim, may not remain passively indifferent, if it would think to act as befits Christians”. In his view, even atomic, biological and chemical weapons, deployed for strictly limited defensive purposes, could be justified.
This is not a position I would wish to defend, nor does it represent current Catholic teaching on weapons of mass destruction. However it does illustrate how far Pius XII was from questioning the long-standing Just War position on self-defence. More recent developments in Vatican teaching are in my view best explained as an attempt to constrain the use of inherently disproportionate and indiscriminate weapons. It is—I think—quite wrong to infer any intention to impose a duty of submission on victims of aggression.
Subsequent Popes have continued to uphold the natural right to self-defence, despite agonising over the increasingly destructive power of modern weapons. John Paul II taught that “peoples have a right and even a duty to protect their existence and freedom by proportionate means against an unjust aggressor.” Arguably, where an invader poses an existential threat to state survival, defensive action that would otherwise be disproportionate could clear this bar. But even in an extreme emergency a “just defence” in Catholic teaching is limited to proportionate force against legitimate military targets, and precludes the use of tactics that are evil in themselves as a means to otherwise good ends.
Some have suggested that having no ‘reasonable hope of success’ would render a defensive war immoral. Natural law analysis construes self-defence as an inviolable natural right. The extent to which hope of success is reasonable, and what would qualify as success under the circumstances, are matters of prudential judgement for the nation under attack. Faced with the reality of invasion by a more powerful foe, leaders are forced to make anguished decisions on how best to defend the common good of their people. Where the invader clearly intends the destruction of the victim state and the subjugation of its people—especially where tactics used include indiscriminate destruction, rape and other war crimes—the smallest glimmer of hope might reasonably seem preferable to capitulation. Outcomes are also notoriously difficult to foresee with any certainty: war is inherently chaotic and unpredictable. Simplistic comparison of military capacity overlooks factors such as morale, social cohesion and knowledge of the terrain, all of which confer a “defender’s advantage.” Ukraine’s prospects against the Russian Goliath were almost universally underestimated.
Catholic teaching clearly condemns wars of aggression and—as I read it—upholds the rights of defenders. However, historically the tradition did not fully equate the just war with national self-defence. Both Augustine and Aquinas believed that wars could justly be waged in order to punish a rogue nation and achieve retributive justice, for example where a third party has been the victim of an invasion. It is here that Catholic teaching has seen significant evolution in light of prevailing geopolitical realities. Germain Grisez (11 E 3b) argues that this development is solidly grounded in traditional principles, and necessitated both by the fragility of international legal institutions and by the indiscriminate destructiveness of modern weapons.
In the absence of a functioning system of impartial accountability in the international arena, intervention to punish the invader or to protect victims is likely to escalate quickly to wider conflict between major nuclear powers. The resulting losses on both sides—and to the entire world—would be completely disproportionate to any expected gains. The victims in whose defence such action was undertaken would be worse off as a result, and the primary duty of care to one’s own civilian population would be violated.
Pope Francis has expressed unequivocal opposition to the use and possession of nuclear weapons, which he regards as intrinsically indiscriminate and immoral. Vatican thinking has shifted towards strong support for global cooperation to promote nuclear disarmament and to construct robust international institutions to contain future threats. It is not inevitable that a Hobbesian state of nature must pertain in international relations. Indeed—as Grisez points out—this was not the case at the time when Augustine and Aquinas were writing their foundational texts on Just War.
Russia’s illegal tactics of targeting and terrorising civilian populations have provoked calls for military intervention under the auspices of the United Nations’ resolution on the responsibility to protect (R2P). However, since the Security Council has not authorised military intervention in Ukraine—and clearly will not do so in light of Russia’s veto as a permanent member—the R2P principle as defined by the General Assembly does not provide a legal basis for military intervention.
The report that originally defined the R2P principle anticipated the possibility that security council authorisation in a “conscience-shocking situation” might not be secured, commenting that it is “unrealistic to expect that concerned states will rule out other means and forms of action”. However the report spelled out further criteria for any military intervention including four “precautionary principles”. The fourth of these, based on analysis that parallels the evolution of Catholic Just War teaching, states that “a military action for limited human protection purposes cannot be justified if in the process it triggers a larger conflict.”
Persistent calls for military intervention are understandable in light of ongoing atrocities, they will likely get ever louder. Resisting such calls will require us to listen to the better angels of our cultural heritage. At a deep level, our responses to crises are conditioned by the stories that form us. The pervasive idea that recourse to “redemptive violence” is a necessary means to restoring order is a monster of our collective subconscious that too frequently rears its head and shapes our actions.
As Walter Wink observes, this story dates back to Babylonian creation myths. Yet it functions as the dominant religious narrative in American popular culture and is exported around the world. In England we have our own hubristic, home-grown variant of this myth as a legacy of our shameful imperial history. According to this narrative, the subjugation of others by the British Empire was necessary to impose order on less evolved, less civilised nations. The parallels with Putin’s quasi-mystical narrative of Russian imperial resurgence are disturbing.
Christians long for the eschatological reign of the Prince of Peace: this vision gives us a shared sense of purpose as builders of Christ’s Kingdom. In our religious communities, we enact this vision and purpose through concrete and spiritual just peacemaking practices. We keep alive paradigmatic shared stories of slavery and exile, the terrible realities of war and conquest, trauma and suffering. Stories of the unquenchable flame of hope for a peaceful, compassionate society, kept alive in the hearts of oppressed people. Stories that affirm the possibility of kindness amongst strangers and reconciliation between former foes.
Just War theory articulates a conceptual framework that requires consciences formed by these foundational narratives, and moral character formed through their practical expression in our communities. Attention to these formative stories in our response to the war in Ukraine will be essential, to guard against the rhetorical power of a misguided but cross-culturally pervasive myth that is driving humanity to the brink of reckless, counterproductive and unconscionable violence.
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