14 January 2021, The Tablet

When it’s right to take up arms

Just war theory

When it’s right to take up arms

Volunteers queue to join the Army at a west London recruiting centre in 1940
Photo: PA


It’s being claimed that in Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis has abandoned the ‘just war theory’. A moral theologian maintains that the door is left open to the possibility that armed conflict is sometimes justified, but only as a last resort and only as a means toward the end of a just peace

Not long after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which had been defended by the United States and its allies on moral grounds, the political theorist Michael Walzer – author of the modern classic Just and Unjust Wars – announced the “triumph” of just war theory.

In the years since the Vietnam War, he pointed out, political and military leaders increasingly defend going to war in ethical terms, albeit with with varying degrees of plausibility. St John Paul II was one of many Christian leaders to use just war criteria to argue that both Iraq wars had failed to meet the criteria for a just war.

Nearly two decades later, Pope Francis’ two explicit references to “just war” in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti have led some to think the Catholic Church is abandoning the just war theory – refined by medieval theologians – just at the moment it is being adopted by governments and policymakers. First, the Pope writes that “it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war’” (no. 258), adding St Paul VI’s famous refrain from 1965 to the United Nations (and repeated by both St John Paul II and Benedict XVI): “Never again war!” Second, an ambiguous endnote (242) to that sentence says, “Saint Augustine, who forged a concept of ‘just war’ that we no longer uphold in our own day, also said [in Letter 229 to Darius] that ‘it is a higher glory still to stay war itself with a word, than to slay men with the sword, and to procure or maintain peace by peace, not by war’.”

Get Instant Access

Continue Reading

Register for free to read this article in full

Subscribe for unlimited access

From just £30 quarterly

  Complete access to all Tablet website content including all premium content.
  The full weekly edition in print and digital including our 179 years archive.
  PDF version to view on iPad, iPhone or computer.

Already a subscriber? Login