Pope Francis Takes On ‘Just War’ Theory

The Catholic Church, which over the centuries has blessed many dreadful wars, is shifting to an anti-war position favored by Pope Francis and more in line with Jesus’s teachings, writes ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller.

By Graham E. Fuller

Pope Francis is on a roll. He has already roiled the waters of Western thinking on economics and society by touching on the dangers of Western capitalism drifting into socially destructive greed. He has now turned his focus to an even grander theme — the place of warfare in human life and the hallowed concept of a “just war.”

The conclave that the Pope is hosting in Rome this week is of exceptional importance to the international order. He is in the process of revising longstanding Catholic doctrine on war, and in particular, on the Christian concept of “just war.”

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

The Vatican now suggests that “just war” has become an obsolete concept; that the massive predominance of civilian casualties in modern warfare undercuts the moral ground for conceiving of almost any war as just. He also perceives the need to eliminate the underlying causes of violence and war and to reintroduce the power of nonviolent action to the world — values that emerge out of the human community itself rather than from the preferences of ruling elites.

Now, nobody expects that war as a human phenomenon is going to come to an end anytime soon. Sadly, war may reside in the deeper recesses of the human condition; in many ways we humans glory in war. But the fact that Pope Francis speaks of the obsolescence of the idea of “just war” suggests that times are shifting at the elite level. When a major bulwark of moral philosophy like the Catholic Church begins to shift, the signal cannot be ignored.

The Pope is hardly the first to raise the issue of war and peace in human life. Philosophers, ethicists and theologians have long wrestled with the problem. “Just war theory” was essentially an attempt to set certain moral limits or restraints on the scope of war — a human evil that could not be entirely eliminated. So, along with the “glory,” there has also been a human repugnance for war.

Tellingly, the U.S., like some other democracies, has sought to shield its population from knowledge of the ugly face of its own distant wars; censorship (and self-censorship) has made it easier to maintain public acquiescence to the virtually non-stop American wars since the fall of the Soviet Union.

One exceptionally qualified commentator, former U.S. Army colonel and West Point professor Andrew Bacevich, has written extensively on how U.S. society itself has grown more militarized over the past several decades, particularly with the emergence of a new professional military class, manned by a volunteer force who now lead almost cordoned-off social lives.

Glorifying War

The U.S. military is increasingly glorified in public spectacles such as the Super Bowl and block-buster Hollywood films, especially as the U.S. public itself is now safe from being drafted into war-fighting.

At the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush ordered the U.S. military to conduct a devastating aerial assault on Baghdad, known as "shock and awe."

At the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush ordered the U.S. military to conduct a devastating aerial assault on Baghdad, known as “shock and awe.”

As U.S. public media shields the U.S. public from graphic battlefield images of the victims and devastation wrought by American military assaults (“shock and awe”), war at home takes on the quality of a vast new on-line combat game, quite devoid of reality. Democracies also require total demonization of the enemy to successfully market the launch of wars.

Historically, “just war” theory particularly stipulated measured and proportional response to aggression. But today massive (and disproportionate) response or the launching of a new war has now almost entered the realm of doctrine — the shock and awe at work in our preemptive wars of choice.

But Pope Francis is carrying the argument of moral conduct even further in proposing to develop a clearer understanding of all the teachings of the New Testament, but under contemporary realities. In colloquial language it means, “What would Jesus do?”

This phrase is not as superficial as it seems. It poses a serious challenge to Christians (and not just Christians) to consider how the moral teachings of Jesus might be made relevant to today’s world. Not as airy-fairy sentimental idealism, but as practical and meaningful muscular morality.

And of course such an issue is today particularly relevant to Muslims as well who are struggling to translate the moral precepts of the Quran into meaningful moral action today — on the personal level, but also the social, political and economic level.

“What would Muhammad do” might be a quite relevant question — requiring just as searching an answer as “what would Jesus do.” Does the so-called “Islamic State” really represent the moral precepts of Islam? Any more than the Crusaders represent Christianity? If not, how might Islam be best interpreted in a contemporary new ethical context?

Indeed, what is the contemporary relevance of religious doctrine in all religions? Because, like it or not, religions will continue to have major impact on the ethical thinking of global citizenry. And religious understanding invariably evolves over time.

Of course, thinking about the morality of war need not derive solely from religious tradition. But when the powerful religious institution of global Catholicism speaks out in radical new ways, it can and will exert influence on non-religious thinking. We might remember the words of President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address on the aspirations of both sides in the American Civll War:

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. … The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.”

Boosting Diplomacy

How can we not welcome the rise of any new thinking that complicates reversion to war as a solution to global problems? This is especially meaningful in the U.S. where military solutions have tended to become now almost the primary response to international crisis, rather than diplomacy — perceived by some as “wimpish.”

Coffins of dead U.S. soldiers arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in 2006. (U.S. government photo)

Coffins of dead U.S. soldiers arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in 2006. (U.S. government photo)

And the European Union too has already proclaimed — after centuries of hideous European wars sometimes exported beyond Europe — that for E.U. member states war is now “unthinkable” within the E.U. That principle has so far held among the founding E.U. member states — a significant accomplishment. Here too we have the foundations of a new moral posture towards the use of war, at least within Europe.

The world desperately needs to distance itself from any further invocation of the power of religion as a justification in favor of war — in any religion. The world will indeed watch to see what the longer-range impact of this massive change in Catholic doctrine might bring — not just to Catholicism, but to all religions.

The Pope has launched an important moral shift out of the camp of war and into the camp of peace — or at least, in contemporary terms, into “conflict management.”  May he continue the pace.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com

6 comments for “Pope Francis Takes On ‘Just War’ Theory

  1. alexander
    April 14, 2016 at 20:59

    Dear Mr fuller,

    Lets be crystal clear.

    Our constitution is quite specific, in regards to war.

    War is only permissible in times of ” insurrection”, “invasion” or “rebellion”.

    Only under these conditions, or under a ratified Security Council Resolution, is war truly considered acceptable. .

    (alleged)Preemptive war is “war of aggression”…which is not only unconstitutional, it is a supreme international crime.

    War of aggression is the greatest terrorist act there is, bar none.

    Sadly,our country has been hijacked by individuals who actively advocate for “war of aggression”, which is “murder”.

    They have tried to create phony “pretexts” for coaxing us into war, to make it seem imperative or heroic ,but their “pretexts” have proven to be fraudulent.

    Sadly this fraud was exposed, mostly after the fact.

    We will all have to carry the shame of knowing we were “fooled” into murdering innocent people, for the rest of our lives.

    There should be an accounting for this deception. Hopefully there will be, one day.

    If we were acting like ourselves, and upholding our most common ideals, we could have avoided these wars, and the 19 trillion dollar national debt they have created.

    Had we not been conned into believing there was an “imminent threat”. when there was none, we would all be much better off, today.

    So would the multitudes of families who have lost loved ones, and the tens of millions of families who have lost their homes, as a result of this pernicious “war fraud”..

    Initiating “war of aggression” has brought our entire nation to the brink of insolvency.

    May those who initiated it, pay a very high price, for their deceptions.

    • william beeby
      April 18, 2016 at 14:36

      I agree with you and I am ashamed that my country , which has no constitution , has stood shoulder to shoulder with the US in these war crimes. If you see a video called ” All wars are Bankers wars ” , it is on youtube , it will perhaps open your eyes to the fallacy of the just war concept. At Nuremburg the defence claimed by a lot of the defendants was that they only followed orders and this was ruled out by the prosecutors as a valid defence on the grounds that they could have said no. This means that the soldiers involved in illegal wars of aggression are automatically war criminals as well even though they are following orders from on high . Self defence of a country being attacked from outside is the only justification for war , and resisting occupation of course , that I can make.

  2. historicvs
    April 14, 2016 at 19:16

    Whatever else this Pope may be, or wish to be, he is the CEO of a powerful corporation, which for centuries has implacably opposed all forms of human social and political progress. Its public relations department is the envy, and the model, of the modern corporate state. Its traditional doctrine, that it has the obligation to regulate thoughts as well as behavior, is the ethical justification for the totalitarian state. And it has gotten away with it; for some the church still holds a claim to moral authority, because its victims are so unaccustomed to critical thinking.

    My favorite piece of papal deception is Pius XI’s encyclical Mit brendenner Sorge (“With deep anxiety”) issued in 1937 in response to the arrests in Germany in 1935 – 36 of many Bavarian Catholic leaders. With typical papal cant, he characterized these approximately 1,000 men and women as victims of Nazi persecution, but they were in reality charged by local prosecutors with sexually abusing children entrusted to their care. Slightly more than half of those indicted were convicted at trial. Goebbels accused the Catholic church of fostering a culture within which pedophilia was tolerated and even encouraged, but this of course was denounced as yet another Nazi lie.

    We’ll see how this guy rates against that one.

    • Zachary Smith
      April 14, 2016 at 21:53

      With typical papal cant, he characterized these approximately 1,000 men and women as victims of Nazi persecution, but they were in reality charged by local prosecutors with sexually abusing children entrusted to their care.

      Wow! That one took some investigation, and after a not-too-easy search I found this:

      “The Nazi regime used accusations of foreign currency exchange violations, homosexuality, and pedophilia to get rid of troublesome clerics and defame the Catholic Church. “


      Now the Nazis didn’t much care if accusations were true or not, but in this instance their task was an easy one, for the local Big Wigs would have been at least as perverted as they were in later years.

      One reason I’m really aggravated by learning of this is because I’d heard of Mit brennender Sorge only on account of later Vatican-defender claims that it was a principled protest against Hitler’s mistreatment of the German Jews. Whatever else a person says about Pope Pius XII (Hitler’s Pope), he had a hell of a lot of gall.

  3. Joe L.
    April 14, 2016 at 17:47

    Well I was raised as a Catholic but I see the bible more as stories of morality rather than actual truth. I believe in evolution, which I believe is undeniable, but I also do believe that there is a God. I am actually glad to hear one of our major figures in the world coming out condemning wars, vulture capitalism etc. Much of what our governments do goes against not just the moral impunity of humanity, regardless of religion, but also Christian doctrine. Maybe if people can find a moral responsibility whether due to religion or simple humanity then it would become more difficult to fight these wars and subjugate the people of the world to take their land and their resources. If we want to believe that we are somehow civilized then wars need to come to an end and I more than welcome the words from the Pope on this subject.

  4. Zachary Smith
    April 14, 2016 at 11:22

    “What would Jesus do?”

    This phrase is not as superficial as it seems.

    Sorry, but that is a damned foolish question. Jesus certainly existed, but all we have are several carefully crafted versions of his life and work which are quite at odds with each other. This gives every person making comments on his “thoughts” an amazing amount of leeway, and all of them can point to verses appearing to back up their viewpoint.

    So far as I’m concerned, the current pope is talking nonsense. Perhaps the news reports I’m getting are as garbled as the old New Testament accounts, but consider this exchange:

    Q. You know that recently the U.S. forces have started bombing the terrorists in Iraq, to prevent a genocide, to protect minorities, including Catholics who are under your guidance. My question is this: do you approve the American bombing?

    A. Thanks for such a clear question. In these cases where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say this: it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means. With what means can they be stopped? These have to be evaluated. To stop the unjust aggressor is licit.


    In my opinion that is the essence of nonsense. Here comes an enemy tank army, and you can’t use your air force?

    The big vatican declaration on Global Warming turned out to be as fake as a three dollar bill. I wonder if this issue isn’t going to turn out to be more of the same.

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