Next on the Vatican’s agenda? Rethinking “Just War” …

HEADLINES around the world are reporting on Pope Francis’s call for Catholic leaders to rethink the way they try to explain and enforce the church’s teaching on relationships and families. This week, April 11-13, 2016, the Vatican is hosing a worldwide summit of theologians on “Just War Theory,” the church’s traditional set of rules for morally justifying conflict. The gathering is hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the global Catholic peace network Pax Christi International. Reporting by the National Catholic Reporter in the U.S. characterizes this event as “phenomenally important.”

It seems that way, as well, to the editors of ReadTheSpirit magazine. We invited Daniel Buttry, a veteran peace trainer on several continents and the author of books about famous peacemakers, to write about the significance of this event.



Amid much ground-breaking news from Pope Francis and the Vatican last week there is another vitally important story involving Christian ethics and tradition. This week, the Vatican is hosting a conference to re-examine the Church’s teachings about war, commonly known as “just war theory.” The conference may even come out with recommendations for revising the Catholic teaching related to violence and prompt a papal encyclical to address these concerns.

I wasn’t invited to attend the conference, but I certainly will be in prayer for these discussions.

I grew up in a Protestant military family—my father was a U.S. Air Force Chaplain. While in ROTC in college I was challenged by a female student in a Bible study group about my views about war. She asked, “What did Jesus say?”

As I poured through the gospels in my dorm room I became a conscientious objector. Later I began to understood more about the injustices in the world and realized that pacifism as passivity was not helpful. Instead peacemaking needed to be a positive engagement in the struggles of the world to deal with the problems and issues of injustice at the root of conflicts. Eventually I became a full-time peacemaker, but that story is told in full in Peace Warrior: A Memoir from the Front.

For the first three centuries of Christianity the primary stance of Christians was pacifism, based on teachings of Jesus about loving one’s enemies—that those who live by the sword will die by the sword, and his example of dying on the cross out of love. As Tertullian wrote in the late Second Century, “When Christ disarmed Peter he disarmed every soldier.”

Then the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, changing everything for the once marginalized and persecuted Church. Now the Church was tied to power and the greatest army in the world.

Augustine, a bishop from North Africa, developed just war theory as a way for Christians to bring an ethical reasoning to questions of war by examining issues of limiting the violence and assuring that the authority calling for violence is legitimate. Augustine’s criteria for certifying that participation in war was ethically acceptable were refined by various thinkers over the centuries, including most notably Thomas Aquinas, the 12th Century theologian whose teachings have been pillars in Catholic theology. Basically the just war theory has been usually boiled down to these criteria: Just cause, comparative justice (for what is gained or protected by the cost of the war), legitimate authority, right intention, just means, probability of success, proportionality, and last resort.


Two major problems and one relatively new ethical idea have spurred the call for the teaching of just war theory to be reconsidered. One problem is that with current conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction the criteria about means and proportionality have become antiquated. The staggering human suffering we’ve seen in contemporary wars, in which civilians usually account for about 90% of casualties, makes a mockery of most of the refined ethical discussions.

Furthermore, every war is justified and claimed as “just” by those who engage in it. In practice just war theory has not served to restrict warfare so much as to give shape to the self-justifications employed by political and religious leaders.

Then, toward the end of the 20th Century a number of discussions as well as the development of nonviolent movements began to coalesce into what many thinkers now call “Just Peace.”

“Just War” focuses on the negative, letting war stand as the assumption and looking at how to legitimize the violence or minimize the damage. “Just Peace” focuses on the positive, on how peace can actually be built among the political, economic, and social realities of our world today. “Just Peace” leads us to a positive ethic, one in which both pacifists and just war theorists can find common ground as well as a substantive agenda for action.

Glen Stassen, the late Christian social ethics professor at Fuller Seminary in California, was one of the key shapers of Just Peace thinking. His book Just Peacemaking: Transforming initiatives for Justice and Peace introduced the concept. Then Stassen worked with 23 ethicists and scholars to identify 10 specific practices that are being undertaken in our world today that actually prevent, end, or limit war. He edited another book by the same lead title to examine these practices: Just Peacemaking: A New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War.

10 Practices for Just Peacemaking

Contrasted to the criteria for just war theory, these are the practices of just peacemaking:

  1. Support nonviolent direct action.
  2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat.
  3. Use cooperative conflict resolution.
  4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and justice and seek repentance and forgiveness.
  5. Advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty.
  6. Foster just and sustainable economic development.
  7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system.
  8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights.
  9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade.
  10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations.

After Stassen published the first collaborative effort on Just Peacemaking, he coordinated an interfaith effort with scholars and ethicists of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths. These practices have the proven track record of actual events and projects that have made a positive impact in actual conflict situations, whereas just war theory has remained an academic idealistic exercise.

Now is a propitious time for a re-evaluation of the ethical mainstream view about war, not just within the Catholic Church but in many parts of the human community.

Albert Einstein once said, “With the splitting of the atom everything has changed except our way of thinking.” Maybe now we are seeing our ethical way of thinking catch up to our technological capacity at war-making.

Daniel L. Buttry is the Global Consultant for Peace and Justice for International Ministries of the American Baptist Churches. He is an author of 9 books including Blessed Are the Peacemakers and We Are The Socks by Read The Spirit, which includes discussion of Glen Stassen’s just peacemaking practices.

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  1. Joanna Loucky-Ramsey says

    Dan, which of the 10 Criteria for Just Peacemaking can or should be applied or adapted to micro-violent situations, such as domestic violence? Do those criteria work in every case? If not, when and why might their be exceptions to the rules?