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A Christian Response to Violence, Part 2:

About this article

This article with accompanying discussion questions, adapted from Living Justice and Peace, examines pacifism, just-war theory, and conscientious objection in light of the East Coast terrorist attacks.

Pacifism: "We No Longer Learn War"

How can we apply Jesus’ command to love our enemies when our whole nation has been attacked? Over the centuries, how Christians have attempted to apply Jesus’ teachings on violence to their lives has depended on how they understood those teachings.

For about the first three centuries of the church, most Christians opposed the use of violence under any circumstances. Despite the fact that they faced sporadic persecution by the Romans, the early Christians refused to fight back. Nor would they serve in the Roman military, which led to charges that they were disloyal citizens.

The early Christians had various reasons for refusing to serve in the military, but most important was their belief that military service was inconsistent with the teaching and example of Jesus: "For we no longer take up ‘sword against nation,’ nor do we ‘learn war any more,’ having become children of peace, for the sake of Jesus," wrote Origen, a second-century Christian leader (Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, page 210). Another second-century Christian apologist, Justin, explained, "We who once killed each other not only do not make war on each other, but . . . gladly die for the confession of Christ" (Engaging the Powers, pages 209-210). Soldiers who converted to Christianity were encouraged to leave the military. "I am a soldier of Christ," declared Martin of Tours, a fourth-century Roman soldier, after his conversion. "It is not lawful for me to fight" (quoted in The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response, 114).

Today, such opposition to the use of violence to resolve conflict is called pacifism. The church strongly defends pacifism as a legitimate moral choice for individuals, as long as it does not harm the rights or duties of others. On the other hand, the church also affirms the right of individuals and the duty of governments to self-defense and the defense of the innocent--even by the use of armed force.

But the church has always taught that violence should be avoided whenever possible, and used only as a last resort. Even in the case of self-defense, the church teaches that there are strict moral limits on the use of violence. Beginning in the fourth century, the church began developing criteria for determining when the use of violence could be justified, and how it should be limited in those cases.

The Just-War Theory

The nonviolent practice of the early church changed after Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire in the year 380. Before, it had been illegal for a Roman soldier to be a Christian; not long after, however, all Roman soldiers were required to be Christians. As members of the new majority religion, many Christians felt a responsibility to protect the community.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a bishop who became one of the most influential theologians in church history, argued that war could be morally justified in certain cases. Although he viewed war and other forms of violence as tragic and to be avoided if possible, he believed it could be necessary to protect the innocent. Borrowing from Roman ethics, Augustine developed principles for determining the conditions under which war could be justified. Those principles, known as just-war theory, were later refined by others, particularly Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

Just-war theory rests on two assumptions. It begins by presuming that war and violence are always to be avoided, and that we should not harm anyone, even our enemy. On the other hand, it also presumes that love calls Christians to restrain an enemy who would harm innocent people. Just-war theory attempts to balance these presumptions by suggesting that when it is necessary, limited violence may be used to protect the innocent--but it can only be justified after other peaceful options have been exhausted, and then only the minimum amount of violence necessary may be used. The purpose of just-war theory is not to encourage war, but first to prevent it and then to limit it as much as possible. In fact, the U.S. bishops have also referred to it as limited-war theory (The Challenge of Peace, 80).

In The Challenge of Peace (92-99), the U.S. bishops restated the criteria for determining why and when going to war is justified. Note that all the following criteria must be met for a war to be considered just.

Just-war criteria
Just cause. War is permissible only to confront "a real and certain danger," to protect innocent life, to preserve conditions necessary for decent human existence, and to secure basic human rights. Wars of vengeance are not permissible.

Competent authority. War must be declared by those with responsibility for public order, not by private groups or individuals.

Comparative justice. The party considering war must ask: Are the rights or values at stake consistent with Christian justice, and are they important enough to justify killing? Even if the answer is yes, no one should assume they have "absolute justice" on their side because no one is free from sin. In choosing war, the nation must be aware that its "just cause" for war is limited, and that its actions should therefore also be limited.

Right intention. War can only be waged for the reasons set forth above as a just cause. The intention must also be to use the least amount of force necessary to achieve the goal of justice; for example, soldiers should prefer capturing the enemy over wounding him, or wounding the enemy over killing him. Once war has begun, sincere efforts at peace must continue to be pursued. The enemy should not be forced to accept unreasonable demands, such as unconditional surrender.

Last resort. War must be the last resort for resolving a conflict. All other reasonable possibilities for a peaceful resolution must have been attempted in the time available.

Probability of success. In order to avoid causing even greater damage than would result otherwise, war should only be attempted if it is likely to succeed in achieving justice. For example, a weak country should not attempt to fight the invasion of a much stronger aggressor if doing so will only result in its greater destruction.

Proportionality. The good to be gained by a war should outweigh the damage and costs, both material and spiritual, to be caused by it. For example, during the Vietnam war, the U.S. bishops concluded that the damage being done to each side could not justify the continuation of the war.

In addition to these criteria for determining whether it is just to go to war, two criteria apply throughout the war itself. The principle of proportionality just mentioned above applies not only to the decision to go to war but also to each decision to use violence during the war. The principle of discrimination also applies throughout the war: lethal force may only be directed at those who are threatening to do violence. Noncombatants such as children, prisoners of war, and other civilians may not be targeted.

Is a just war possible today?
As you can see, the criteria for a just war are very difficult to meet. The criteria were originally designed to limit and reduce violence at a time when wars were fought with swords and arrows, and some have argued that modern weapons make it virtually impossible to meet all the criteria today. As the U.S. bishops put it, the decision to go to war "requires extraordinarily strong reasons for overriding the presumption in favor of peace and against war" (The Challenge of Peace, 83).

In fact, it is impossible for some forms of warfare to meet just-war criteria under any circumstances. The bishops of the Second Vatican Council condemned what they called "total warfare":
Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and [humanity]. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation. (The Church in the Modern World, 80)
The Council’s condemnation of indiscriminate destruction can be understood to have condemned all weapons that kill both the aggressors and innocent bystanders--nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, for example. The church also has condemned land mines, which injure or kill 26,000 people annually--90 percent of whom are civilians.

Still, the church says that for the time being, nations have the duty to defend their citizens in accordance with just-war criteria when no other options are available:
As long as the danger of war persists and there is no competent and sufficiently powerful authority at the international level, governments cannot be denied the right of legitimate defence, once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted. (The Church in the Modern World, 79)

Pacifism or Just War?

Although the church accepts both the just-war and the pacifist response to violence, it reminds those who follow each approach of their obligation to meet the concerns of those who take the other way. Those who refuse to fight for the sake of peace are still obliged to seek justice, and those who wage just wars are obligated to always seek peace.

Conscientious objection
In The Challenge of Peace, the U.S. bishops emphasize the right of individuals to refuse to fight--not for reasons of cowardice, but for reasons of conscience. If an individual, in good conscience, sees all wars as immoral, she or he may object to being forced to serve, or being drafted, in the military. The legal term for such opposition is called conscientious objection, and someone who applies for this status under U.S. law is a conscientious objector.

The bishops also teach that individuals may practice selective conscientious objection, or "objection to participation in a particular war, either because of the ends being pursued or the means being used" (The Challenge of Peace, 233, emphasis added). Current U.S. law does not allow for selective conscientious objection. Nonetheless, the church insists that Christians, even enlisted soldiers, may refuse to participate in a given war or follow certain orders if he or she views them as immoral.

For example, when the United States conducted a prolonged low-intensity bombing campaign against Iraq in the late 1990s, the U.S. Catholic bishops seriously questioned whether the action met just-war criteria. So the U.S. Archdiocese for Military Services reminded enlisted Catholics that they had a responsibility to make conscientious decisions about the morality of their superiors’ orders:
In executing orders that might violate just war requirements, military personnel face a serious moral challenge. . . . Any individual who judges an action on his or her part to be in violation of the moral law is bound to avoid that action.
The decision to seek conscientious objector status under U.S. law is a serious matter, one that may require the guidance of a pastor or spiritual director. The depth of examination of conscience that must go into this decision is implied by Bishop Kenneth Untener of Michigan:
There are many ways to object, many kinds of objection, [but with conscientious objection] we are talking about something that comes from love, not fear; something that comes from courage, not cowardice; from concern for our country and our world, not apathy; from a willingness to take on a difficult issue, not dodge it; from a desire to get involved, not cop out; from dedication to duty, not desertion; from prayer and conscientious belief and not anything else. That, as you can see, is a very special kind of objection. (Quoted in Catholic Trends, 2 February 1991, p. 3)
Those who practice conscientious objection are obliged to promote peace and justice in other ways.

To sum up the church’s teaching, we can say that resorting to strictly limited violence, including war, may be better than doing nothing in the face of extreme injustice. On the other hand, the church also insists that resolving conflict through love is always better than resolving it through violence. The history of modern warfare attests that even limited wars cause injury, death, and destruction. As such, any war is a failure of humanity to live up to its full potential.

Although the U.S. Catholic bishops reaffirmed that just-war theory plays an important role in "limiting the resort to force in human affairs," they also emphasized that "it is not a sufficient response to Vatican II’s challenge ‘to undertake a completely fresh reappraisal of war’" (The Challenge of Peace, 23). Their insight reflects a growing interest in waging peace, rather than waging war, to achieve justice.

Discussion Questions
  • What might a pacifist response to the terrorist attacks look like? For example, are there ways that those responsible for the attacks might be brought to justice without harming them? Are there ways that the possibility of future attacks might be minimized without using violence?
  • Based on the criteria of just-war theory, do you think a military response to the terrorist attacks is possible? If so, how would the military response need to be limited according to just-war theory?
  • Which response do you personally favor, a pacifist response or a just-war response?
  • Suppose the United States institutes a military draft in response to the terrorist attacks. Would you file for conscientious objector status or not? Why or why not?
  • Do you believe in the rights of military personnel to disobey orders that they believe are immoral? Why or why not?

Untener, Bishop Kenneth. Catholic Trends. 2 February 1991. Used with permission of Catholic News Service.

USCC. The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response. USCC, 1983. Copyright © 1984 by the USCC, Washington, DC 20017. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Walter, Wink. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Augsburg Fortress, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Augsburg Fortress. Used with permission.


(This article is adapted from Living Justice and Peace, Second Edition: Catholic Social Teaching in Practice by Jerry Windley-Daoust, et al., published by Saint Mary's Press. Copyright © 2008 by Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this article to be used for classroom or campus ministry purposes. This article may not be republished in any form without written permission from Saint Mary's Press. To order this books, contact Saint Mary's Press at 800-533-8095, or visit our online catalog at www.smp.org/catalog.cfm.)

Published September 11, 2001.