Drew Christiansen on Nonviolence and Just War

By: David Hollenbach

November 30, 2022

Carrying Forward Drew Christiansen’s Legacy

An important contribution by Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., was his effort to rethink the ethics of war and peace. Much of his recent work was devoted to rethinking the Catholic tradition’s understanding of the relation between nonviolence and the just war tradition.

There has been a very lively debate about this issue in recent years in the Catholic community. Some hold that the non-participation of Christians in military activities in the earliest period of church history remains normative. They endorse nonviolence as the only legitimate Christian response to serious injustice. Thus, a recent conference held in Rome under the sponsorship of the Catholic peace group Pax Christi argued that the just war tradition long held by Catholicism should be replaced with a commitment to nonviolence: “We believe that there is no ‘just war’. . . . We need a new framework that is consistent with Gospel nonviolence.”

Some recent papal teachings also suggest that the Catholic church is moving away from the just war tradition and deepening its commitment to nonviolence. Pope Francis advocates nonviolence as the appropriate response to injustice, and he has questioned the adequacy of the way the just war tradition has been employed. In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Francis declared that “We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war.’”

However, the suggestion that Catholicism should abandon the just war tradition has been rejected by a number of recent commentators. Mark Allman and Tobias Winright maintain that the Pax Christi conference in Rome failed to attend to cases where force is needed for legitimate defense and drew a mistaken dichotomy between a commitment to nonviolence and the just war tradition’s recognition that force can regrettably sometimes be morally legitimate. In the same vein, James Turner Johnson argues that it would be a serious mistake for the Catholic tradition to abandon the just war tradition.

Despite Pope Francis’ strong suggestions that war can no longer be justified, he has also indicated that his position is not absolute. In a press conference during the flight returning from his recent trip to Kazakhstan, when Francis was asked whether Ukraine should be given weapons to defend itself, he replied affirmatively: “This is a political decision, which can be moral — morally acceptable.” Thus, in Drew Christiansen’s judgment and also in mine, Francis is not calling for an abandonment of the just war tradition. Rather, he is advocating for a stringent interpretation of the just war norms which implies that most of today’s conflicts cannot be justified and ought not to have been launched. However, the pope is not rejecting the exceptional use of force when it is necessary to defend innocent people, as in the case of Ukraine.

Pope Francis’s approach thus appears close to that of the U.S. Catholic bishops in their 1993 statement The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace, which Drew Christiansen helped draft. This statement insists that moral assessment of conflict should begin from a recognition of “the terrible human and moral costs of violence.” This leads both the U.S. bishops and Pope Francis to suggest that commitment to nonviolence should be where Christians begin when they seek to defend innocent people against grave injustice. As the bishops put it, likely with Drew Christiansen’s help,

  1. In situations of conflict, our constant commitment ought to be, as far as possible, to strive for justice through non-violent means.
  2. But, when sustained attempts at nonviolent action fail to protect the innocent against fundamental injustice, then legitimate political authorities are permitted as a last resort to employ limited force to rescue the innocent and establish justice.

Here, the U.S. bishops are recognizing that the world is marred by a sinfulness that means strictly limited use of force may sometimes be necessary if it is for a just cause, carried out with a right intention, by proportionate means, with probability of success, and used as a last resort. One can read Pope Francis’ treatment of war in a similar way. Only when nonviolent means of achieving justice have been exhausted does Pope Francis permit overriding the “presumption against force” in seeking a peace that protects human dignity and human rights, as he has suggested is the case in Ukraine.

James Turner Johnson has argued that the stress on nonviolence in recent papal and episcopal teaching is an abandonment of the just war tradition. Johnson holds that the Catholic tradition makes a presumption in favor of the protection of justice, even by the use of force, rather than a presumption in favor of nonviolence. I think, however, that Johnson’s argument is incorrect. St. Thomas Aquinas develops his treatment of the ethics of peace and war in response to the question of “whether it is always a sin to fight in war?” To ask if war is always sinful is surely to presuppose that war is to be avoided if at all possible. Indeed, Johnson himself recognized this in an article he wrote in 1979. There, Johnson said that Aquinas’ original just war question suggests “the somewhat startling discovery that pacifist and non-pacifist just war Christians have something profoundly in common: a searching distrust of violence.” Regrettably, Johnson seems to have forgotten this earlier view in his more recent writings.

Drew Christiansen certainly held that nonviolence and the just war ethic have a complementary relationship. He argued that a commitment to nonviolence strengthens the impact of the just war norms in several ways. First, the presupposition for a nonviolent response to injustice strengthens the rigor with which the just war norm of “last resort” should be applied. Second, a presupposition in support of nonviolence echoes the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s insistence that the “precautionary principles” it set forth for the “responsibility to protect” mean that force should be used to resist crimes against humanity and genocide only after diplomacy and other non-military means have been exhausted. Finally, Christiansen stressed that commitment to nonviolence should strengthen postbellum peacebuilding in the aftermath of conflict, including efforts to bring about reconciliation. Thus, Christiansen’s reflections show that the commitment to nonviolence has much to contribute to the actual political situation and should not be seen as “unrealistic.”

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