Ukraine and “Just War Theory”


published by The Tablet on March 5, 2022

By William Schmitt

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 prompted many commentators to focus on critiquing strategies and predicting side-effects like higher U.S. gas prices. Catholics were among the global voices providing broader viewpoints — such as Christ’s call for peacemaking, compassion, and justice — to help understand the evolving crisis.

Pope Francis, facing requests to intervene as a moral authority and having rebuked the “diabolical senselessness of violence,” declared Ash Wednesday, March 2, to be an international day of prayer and fasting for peace in the turbulent region.

Service members of the Ukrainian armed forces drive military vehicles past destroyed buildings on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in Shyrokyne April 21, 2021. (Photo: CNS /Oleksandr Klymenko, Reuters)

As Lent approached, prospects for conventional diplomatic solutions seemed to fade, although influencers discussed ideas like establishing an official “neutral” stance for Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden and other leaders from NATO and the United Nations together condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin for his assaults on democracy and international law, already leading to speculation about a quick victory.

A tough new level of sanctions was imposed on Russia, and both sides spoke of potential reprisals. Meanwhile, Ukrainians endured the physical suffering of multi-pronged attacks.

According to news reports last week, innocent civilians took up guns to resist Russian troops, or sought refugee status beyond their borders, or took shelter in their hometowns.

Leaders’ descriptions of their policies made reference to components of the “just-war theory,” a long-standing product of Catholic philosophy that has helped shape geopolitics.

The theory’s application of virtuous principles sharply limits the conditions under which countries may resort to the battlefield.

For example, the U.S. has spoken of avoiding direct military clashes with Russian troops, reflecting a desire to prevent escalation into a “world war” between nuclear powers. NATO’s financial sanctions were targeted toward the business sector, not toward effects on innocent civilian lives.

For his part, Putin on Feb. 24 called the invasion a “special military operation” and defined his dubious idea of a just cause: He aimed “to protect people” who have been “subjected to genocide by the Kyiv regime,” to strive for “de-Nazification of Ukraine,” and to “bring to justice those who committed multiple bloody crimes against citizens, including Russian citizens,” according to an English translation.

Much planning of next moves now can be guided appropriately by the just-war theory’s checklist for prudent policy, which has influenced papal pronouncements as well as international law.

The latter includes the Geneva Conventions — a group of treaties also called the Humanitarian Law of Armed Conflicts.

Although just-war thinking took shape with input from such role models as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, the discernment tool is often unknown, or deemed irrelevant, or downplayed as incomplete for today’s circumstances.

Likewise, its implications can be misunderstood or distorted, especially in an age of intense propaganda, manipulation of words, “psychological operations,” and advanced war technology.

John Davenport, a philosophy professor at Fordham University, told The Tablet last week the just-war theory has an important role to play in addressing Russian aggression against Ukraine.

The theory needs to be more widely known, Davenport said, and “it should be taught as part of understanding global affairs” — equipping leaders to go beyond “realpolitik,” an old term for policies based on pragmatic, not morally-based, factors.

He said the Church-based principles “point toward a rules-based order” in the world — criminalizing nationalist aggression and empowering democracies through a focus on political and human rights.

But the just-war theory is no panacea for peacemaking, he acknowledged. The pursuit of international justice and freedom must be continuous, with risks of rights violations being called out and addressed forcefully by the vast bulk of democracies on every continent.

“There needs to be a new institution,” according to Davenport. NATO is too small, and the United Nations has many non-democratic influencers, so those vehicles cannot provide the necessary stewardship for peace.

Also, while an array of confident democracies will typically discourage aggression over time, the stewards must be willing to take strong action when tyrants do emerge.

Father Joseph Nangle, a Franciscan who speaks widely for the international group Pax Christi (“Peace of Christ”), said advocates for today’s nonviolence movement reflect their philosophy with a grammatical reminder: Do not break up the word with a hyphen because it is an integrated, positive approach — indeed, “an active verb.”

Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in his “Word on Fire” video supporting the just-war theory, acknowledges that there has been “a great tradition of nonviolence within Christianity.”

It started with Christ’s blessing for peacemakers in the Beatitudes and his guidance to “turn the other cheek,” and it proceeds through the social justice movement and the peace movement of the 20th century.

Today, organizations like Pax Christi, extending from their Catholic roots to work on expanded missions of justice, community, and the environment, have local chapters for study, prayer, and discussion, including in the Brooklyn Diocese.

On the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pax Christi USA issued a statement saying it “urges the international community to stand united against the invasion of Ukraine and in support of diplomacy and dialogue to bring this crisis to an end.”

The group continued: “We urge the United States and NATO to refrain from pursuing military responses and to pursue solutions that address the context and complexity of the root causes which gave rise to the crisis in the first place.”

Pax Christi “ambassador” Father Nangle called attention to a campaign the international group is conducting: a Catholic Nonviolence Initiative. The plan entails widespread implementation of lessons from Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” on the theme of “care for our common home.”

Father Nangle also cited Pope Francis’ 2017 message for the World Day of Peace as part of evolving understandings.

There, the pontiff sought to spread a nonviolent ethos among world leaders and all people by discussing the effect of violence on the world, with possible echoes in 2022:

“Violence is not the cure for our broken world. Countering violence with violence leads at best to forced migrations and enormous suffering, because vast amounts of resources are diverted to military ends and away from the everyday needs of young people, families experiencing hardship, the elderly, the infirm and the great majority of people in our world,” Pope Francis wrote.

“At worst, it can lead to the death, physical and spiritual, of many people, if not of all.”

story reprinted with permission from The Tablet … see this and other stories by Bill Schmitt at the Tablet website

About Bill Schmitt is the home for Bill Schmitt's blog and biographical information. This blog, initiated during Bill's nearly 14 years as a communications professional at Notre Dame, expresses Bill's opinions alone. Go to "About Bill Schmitt" and "I Link, Therefore I Am" to see samples of multimedia content I'm producing now and have produced during my journalism career and my marketing communications career. Like me at, follow me on Twitter @wschmitt, and meet "bill schmitt" on LinkedIn.
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