The challenge of peace


By Dan Ebener
Guest Column


Forty years ago, the U.S. Catholic bishops issued their peace pastoral, The Challenge of Peace. It was a landmark document with scriptural reflection, a comprehensive review of Church teaching on war, and application of that teaching to forming Catholic consciences and informing the public debate about the morality of modern warfare.               

Quoting from Gaudium et Spes (aka The Pastoral Constitution, 1965), the U.S. bishops called for a “fresh reappraisal of war” (#120), citing the advances in nuclear, chemical and conventional weapons’ technology, which have created a “new moment” (#140) fraught with danger for all humankind.  

Citing the pacifism of the early Church, the bishops affirmed the right of U.S. Catholics to choose “conscientious objection to all war” (#118). Voicing “support for a pacifist position among Catholics” (#119), they quoted St. Martin of Tours of the fourth century as stating, “I am a soldier of Christ. It is not lawful for me to fight” (#114).


They point out that based on the “the example of Jesus’ life and his teaching” (#111), the earliest Christians were committed to a nonviolent lifestyle and the commands to “love your enemies.”  The bishops cite two of our Pacem in Terris recipients in support of Christian nonviolence: Eileen Egan in “The Beatitudes: Works of Mercy and Pacifism” and Jim Douglass for “The Nonviolent Cross.” 

For those Catholics unable to commit to pacifism, the bishops offer a second option: the just war theory, which prescribes principles for “why and when recourse to war is permissible” (#85).  These conventions of war state that:

(1) A nation going to war must establish “just cause,” i.e. to restore justice or protect innocent life (#86).

(2) War must be declared by “competent authority” (#87).

(3) The “values at stake” must justify killing (“comparative justice”) (#92-93).

(4) The “intentions” for going to war must be just (“right intention”) (#95).

(5) “All peaceful alternatives have been exhausted” (“last resort”) (#96).

(6) “Probability of success” (to “prevent irrational resort to force”) (#98).

(7) “Proportionality”, i.e. “the damage to be inflicted and the costs incurred by going to war must be proportionate to the good expected by taking up arms” (#99).

Once all seven of these criteria are met (and the theory requires all seven), the following precepts must be met during the war: 

(1) “The response to aggression must not exceed the nature of aggression,” i.e. the good that can be accomplished by continuing the war must be proportionate to the damage that is being inflicted upon the enemy and the costs of the war itself (#103).

(2) “Just response to aggression must be discriminate,” i.e. protecting the innocent (#104).

It is interesting to note that the development of the just war theory came as the life of the early Church was being transformed by the establishment of Christendom, with the baptism of the emperor Constantine. As we witness the end of Christendom today, perhaps we could reflect further upon the ways of the early Church. 

(Dan R Ebener teaches leadership at St. Ambrose University.)

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