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Will the Catholic Church reject all use of military force?

A Vatican co-sponsored conference on non-violence and peace has urged a “global conversation on nonviolence” while advocating that the Church “no longer use or teach ‘just war theory’” and continue to advocate “for the abolition of war and nuclear weapons.”

Last week’s event in Rome was hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and by a longtime leftist Catholic advocacy group, Pax Christi. A Catholic activist with Washington, DC-based Sojourners, a mostly liberal Protestant political action caucus headed by pacifist Jim Wallis, was a prominent voice among the 80 participants.

“There is no ‘just war,’” claimed the public declaration of this gathering. It also urged Pope Francis towards an encyclical or “major teaching document” shifting the church decisively against all war.

The pope himself sent a letter of greeting to the peace activists, embracing a greater role for the Church in peacemaking, but citing Catholic teaching that declares “governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted.”

Reading the pope’s remarks was Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who also reminded the gathering that Francis, in earlier response to ISIS, had said “it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” while warning: “One nation alone cannot determine how to stop an unjust aggressor.”

This nuanced reference to the Church’s Just War teaching seemed not very much to interest the Catholic peaceniks assembled in Rome, who were adamant for the Church adopting a fully pacifist stance, among other causes. “We live in a time of tremendous suffering, widespread trauma and fear linked to militarization, economic injustice, climate change, and a myriad of other specific forms of violence,” they fretted. As examples of laudatory peacemaking, they cited a campaign to preserve Japan’s pacifist constitution, which the current Japanese government with U.S. support would like to amend in light of growing Chinese power. And they lauded a mostly liberal Protestant pro-Palestinian “accompaniment” campaign on the West Bank to monitor Israeli human rights abuses.

In place of Just War teaching the Catholic peaceniks want their Church to advocate “Just Peace,” to include “nonviolent resistance.” At a press conference Pax Christi co-chief Marie Dennis said she’s against “violent aggressors” but urged “creative energy” and “deep thinking” for non-violent alternatives to military defense.

What would she and other Catholic peaceniks suggest for Iraqi and Syrian villages protected by American air power from ISIS brutality, or Nigerians needing armed protection from Boko Haram as their daughters are kidnapped and young men slaughtered? What forms of creative nonviolence should they instead pursue? Dennis didn’t elaborate.

Another American peacenik, Ken Butigan, a lecturer at DePaul University in Chicago, claimed at the press conference: “We have gotten a green light for months that this is something that Pope Francis is excited about moving forward on.”

Perhaps. But the divinely ordained vocation of governments to defend their people with lethal force from dangerous aggressors is deeply embedded in Catholic and historic ecumenical Christian teaching. The church’s Just War tradition is over 1,500 years old, which dates to St. Augustine, was refined by St. Thomas Aquinas, and which has largely been sustained by nearly every branch of Christianity except some small Protestant pacifist traditions.

Theoretical pacifism suits academics and activists. It’s not very plausible for real life rulers or endangered people.

All branches of Christianity are called to work and pray for peace whenever possible. But since the time of the apostles, Christianity has recognized that justice and love also sometimes require armed force. The Just War tradition will likely survive the Rome peacenik campaign to kill it.

Mark Tooley, editor of “Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy,” is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

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