Pope Francis gives every indication of wanting to go down as one of the great reformers in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
With the recent publication of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (or The Joy of Love), he finally pronounced on whether the church would begin allowing divorced and remarried Catholics (whose first marriages haven't been annulled) to receive the sacrament of communion. Answer: Official doctrine says no, but priests can say yes.
So what's next?
If a landmark three-day conference held at the Vatican last week is any indication, it may well be the church's position on matters of war and peace.
Participants in the conference, which was co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the Catholic peace organization Pax Christi, called on the pope to issue an encyclical or other authoritative teaching document in which he would advise Catholics to stop using the church's long tradition of just war theorizing to analyze international relations. The just war tradition has been used too often to justify violence, conference participants maintained. As an alternative, the church should place Jesus Christ's ethic of nonviolence at the core of deliberations about military conflict.
This is a fascinating development and yet another sign of how dramatically things have shifted at the Vatican since Pope Francis ascended to the throne of St. Peter. Though a move away from just war thinking wouldn't necessarily raise dogmatic or doctrinal issues in the church, it would represent a sharp break not only with the prudential outlook that marked the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI but also with a powerful and influential strand of thinking in the church stretching all the way back to St. Augustine in the fifth century.
Long-time readers know that I’m a sharp critic of the just war tradition — at least when it comes to judging when it's acceptable to initiate a military conflict (jus ad bellum). The other side of just war reasoning — the part that establishes criteria for judging conduct within a war that's already underway (jus in bello) — has had an indisputably positive influence on how armies (very much including the U.S. military) conduct themselves in battle. That we now expect combatants to use no more force than is necessary to vindicate their cause and refrain from intentionally killing civilians is unquestionably a good thing, and we have arguments rooted in just war thinking to thank for it.
But on the issue of determining when it's morally legitimate to start a war in the first place, just war theorizing has had a far less salutary influence. Consider the six criteria it uses to make the call. In order to be considered justified, a war must be undertaken with the intention of establishing a just peace. It must be defensive. It must be aimed at protecting the innocent against unjust aggression. It must have a reasonable chance of success. It must be declared and waged by a competent governing authority. And it must be undertaken as a last resort.
Now ask yourself: Is there any realistic scenario in which the 21st-century United States would start and wage a war that didn't meet these criteria? Don't we always have a moral rationale for undertaking military action? Don't we always consider our actions defensive and aimed at protecting the innocent? Don't we always think we have a reasonable chance of success? Don't we always consider ourselves a competent authority? And don't we always claim to have waited as long as possible to act?
The fact is that ad bellum considerations primarily provide moral and theological cover for actions the United States and other Western powers would be inclined to undertake anyway. Maybe such considerations would shame us if we acted like Vladimir Putin's Russia and simply annexed territory from other countries when they became a nuisance. On the other hand, I bet Putin can tell a compelling story about how his actions in Ukraine were justifiable — a story that that could at least muddy the moral waters.
And therein lies the core of the problem: Human beings often judge poorly in their own cases, overstate their own righteousness, and fool themselves (and deceive others) into believing that their motives and intentions are pure when pride is really what's driving them. Which means that ad bellum considerations are more likely to act as an accelerant when a country is contemplating military action than they are to inspire or encourage restraint.
Participants in the Vatican conference are right to highlight this moral defect within the just war tradition, arguing in a statement that too often it "has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war." They're also right to point out that Jesus Christ was a teacher of nonviolence who taught us to love our neighbors, to turn the other cheek, to forgive enemies their transgressions against us, and (with apologies to Donald Trump) to refrain from responding to an attack by taking a perfectly proportional "eye for an eye."
Where the Vatican conference goes off the rails is in its portrayal of Christ's pacifism as a more effective approach than just war thinking for making the world a better place. In the words of conference participant Marie Dennis of Pax Christi International, "As long as we keep saying we can [stop violent aggressors] with military force, we will not invest the creative energy, the deep thinking, the financial and human resources in creating or identifying the alternatives that actually could make a difference." The sentiment echoes the conference's concluding statement, which decries just war thinking for undermining "the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict."
There are at least two problems with this approach to moving beyond just war reasoning.
For one thing, it's untrue: Nonviolence isn't an all-purpose strategy for "making a difference" in the world. It can work in some situations — above all when it's practiced by the weaker party in a conflict against a stronger party that has a conscience. Think of Gandhi’s protests against British rule of India, or Martin Luther King, Jr.'s movement for the civil rights of African Americans. Some have even argued, to cite another example, that the Palestinians would have had much more success combating the Israeli occupation of the West Bank if they’d taken up nonviolent resistance instead of terrorism.
But in the overwhelming majority of conflicts — from the battle between the Allies and Axis powers in World War II, to the various hot spots in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, to the West's ongoing multi-front battle against radical Islam — nonviolence simply isn't an option that will make things better. In many if not most cases, it could well make them worse.
Which brings us to the second problem: Christ wasn't the head of the world's first humanitarian NGO suggesting a sure-fire method for conflict resolution. He was spreading a gospel of unconditional love that cuts against the grain of a fallen and fractured world. A devout Christian follows Christ's example of nonviolence not because it "works" but because he believes that's the way God wants us to live, regardless of (and despite) the real-world consequences.
Nonviolence is the path of the martyr who is willing to face certain death rather than respond to injustice by reverting to the self-interested logic that normally governs human life with inexorable consistency. To call on an individual to walk that path is asking for a lot, and perhaps more than most people will ever be able to give. But to expect whole nations to embrace Christ-like self-abnegation? That's pure folly.
I certainly hope Pope Francis moves to distance the Catholic Church from the worst aspects of just war theorizing. But raising up pacifism in its place would render the church at once politically irresponsible and irrelevant.
Let's hope the reformer stops well short of that.