Tuesday, September 09, 2008


This is Part 7 of a series entitled Christ our Hope in the Face of Violence and our Witness to Nonviolent Love. Part 1 served as an introduction and Part 2 considered God as a God of Peace in the Old Testament. Part 3 and Part 4 began to consider what Christ has to say on the issue of violence and war and . Part 5 looked at the witness of early Christianity and the changes which took place after Constantine along with the thought of Augustine and Aquinas on the issue. In part 6 we studied the witness of the contemporary Church. The present installment will examine the thoughts of some recent American Catholic theologians on the topic.

While we must admit the occasional acknowledgement by the popes that all men have a duty to defend others, peace, mercy, and nonviolence have begun to occupy more of their thought and teaching. However, in contrast with the popes, we can see the thought of American Catholic theologians[1] continuing to focus on the just war theory and even attempting to interpret it less restrictively than was apparently intended by Augustine and Aquinas. First, they have exacerbated the misuse of the just war theory for politics rather than pastoral purposes. Michael Baxter explains,

The teaching on just war was, first and foremost, a form of pastoral reflection and discernment. And it was in this respect an ecclesial discourse. But a shift occurred in modern times…such that "just war theory" came to be seen primarily as a set of norms for managing the affairs of modern states in the arena of international politics. At length, it came to be seen almost exclusively in this way[2]

This has resulted in an eradication of the concept of penance from war. It has transferred the perceived moral culpability from the soldier in tandem with the state, to the head of the state alone. And it has led to the just war theory being used as a rationalizing tool to justify military actions of nation states rather than as a criterion meant to limit war and to discern penances.

A few examples will suffice to shed light on their thought. In 1963 Blessed John XXIII wrote Pacem in Terris in which he outlined a vision of peace based on truth, justice, love, and freedom – a vision which he considered to be attainable if the world would embrace the awareness of human dignity and rights and if the world would justly agree on an international public authority to help resolve conflicts. However, Weigel considers this a utopian vision. He writes, “Human nature being what it is, someone would undoubtedly breach the peace, and in some instances that breach of the peace would have to be met by the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force.”[3] Because the pillars set forth by Pope John XXIII –truth, justice, love, and freedom—cannot and will not succeed, according to Weigel’s implication, we must have a backup plan. That backup plan must include violent armed forces.

Let us conclude this portion of our discussion by considering a disagreement Weigel, Pope John Paul II’s biographer, has with John Paul’s year of 2000 message on the World Day of Peace, in which the Pope writes, “war is a defeat for humanity.”[4] The Pope continues to speak of the need for humanitarian intervention for those innocent victims in war torn countries.[5]Weigel assumes this intervention necessarily must be violent and armed intervention. He writes of “John Paul II’s insistence on a duty of humanitarian intervention, which would presumably include the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force.”[6] Cardinal James Stafford of Apostolic Penitentiary responded to Weigel in an interview, explaining that Weigel’s interpretation is “abbreviated” and “omits” important qualifiers which specify and limit the Pope’s statement. Specifically, says Stafford, Weigel ignored John Paul II’s insistence that the United Nations, an international authority like the one mentioned in Pacem in Terris, is the authority to make the call on potentially armed interventions, not any specific nation-state.[7]

Cardinal Stafford’s implication is that Weigel, intentionally or not, is ignoring the importance of an international authority because of his allegiance to the United States. In doing so, Weigel is departing from an authentic Catholic understanding of the just war theory as taught by our recent popes. Thus, he and those like him have failed to perceive the continual shift toward a renewed emphasis on nonviolence. Cardinal Stafford refers to this implied disobedience of American theologians and identifies a key to this new way of thinking about war to which the Council Fathers, following Jesus’ exhortation, have called us. Stafford explicates:

"Pope John XXIII spoke of this in 1963 when he said that a program for peace is based 'on the Gospel of obedience to God, mercy and forgiveness.' Major portions of the World Day of Peace messages…have been devoted to forgiveness and reconciliation. No one is talking about the Christian understanding and practice of forgiveness which are unique.”[8]

Thus we can finally begin to come to a conclusion, a resolution of this apparent contradiction between nonviolence and war, between mercy and justice. In order to do this we shall analogically adopt Augustine’s approach[9] to Sacred Scripture and assume that apparent contradictions between Scripture and Tradition are only apparent: if there appears to be a discrepancy, the error is in our interpretation, thus we much approach humbly, ridding ourselves of preconceptions and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us. Let us begin.

[1] We speak here primarily of Richard Neuhaus, Geroge Weigel, and Michael Novak, among others.

[2] Baxter.

[3] George Weigel, “World Order: What Catholics Forgot,” First Things, May 2004.

[4] Pope John Paul II, “Peace on Earth to Those Whom God Loves,” World Day for Peace Message, 2004, 3.

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Weigel.

[7] Delia Gallagher, “Cardinal Stafford on War and the Church’s Teaching,” Zenit, May 2004, http://zenit.org/article-17478?l=english.

[8] Ibid.

[9] St. Augustine, Letters, 116.3.


Justin D. said...

"Turn the other cheek"

To me, the message is simple and doesn't require much interpretation.

JB said...


Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. Simply put, I agree, but you'd be surprised how often people dismiss that passage and being somehow irrelevant or hyperbole.

Theologians will argue that Jesus is speaking merely interpersonally, adding that this saying is not relevant to discussion of war. Others will simply assert the need to protect the defenseless over Jesus' words.

If every Christian took Jesus at his word, you are correct, it wouldn't require much interpretation. However, as we can clearly see from the glut of Catholics who support the war in Iraq and other unjust and violent interventions, some of us need to attempt break through their rationalizations and re-present the words of Christ to a world which has largely dismissed them.


Justin D. said...

Is there any point in Jesus' life where he injures someone to protect an innocent or defenseless person? I honestly don't know. This to me seems like the most reasonable justification of violence against another human being.

Assuming Jesus was the son of God and for the most part all powerful, he never chose to engage in any kind of war with the masses of people that persecuted him and his followers. If Jesus wanted to, he could have created an empire for christianity and left a message to protect that empire at all costs, but he didn't. He chose a passive path to spread his belief system. To me, these actions demonstrate that Jesus meant 'turn the other cheek' beyond the context of interpersonal relationships.

best wishes

JB said...


I think we are incomplete agreement on this. I was merely trying to explain to you why I feel it necessary to explain this stuff to others, who do feel it was merely an interpersonal or hyperbolic statement.

You are exactly right. Jesus, as the all-powerful Son of God certainly could have chosen to come in military might, destroy the Romans and set up a military and worldly Kingdom of Israel. In fact, many Jews were expecting this, which only adds to the scandal of the Crucifixion.

Throughout his life, death, and resurrection Jesus reveals that He is not the God of death and destruction, but the God of mercy and forgiveness and that these things bring peace, justice, and life everlasting.

Unfortunately, many American Christians place their hope in military force instead of in the love, mercy, and forgiveness of Christ.

My intention in this series is to expose those opnions as false.

Henry Karlson said...


The response many Christians give is that in his life, he might not have (except 'he used violence at the temple' -- which is questionable); but when he returns, he is going to be the warlike Christ that the Jews expected, and he is going to show the world his wrath. So they use that to say, "violence is therefore fine,and Jesus is clearly not against violence."

I'm not convinced by that line of thought, either.

Henry Karlson said...


I think you are right in how the "just war theory" has been understood in recent times by war-mongers. Instead of the pacifist tool trying to stop wars between the nations, they think "if it is justified, it means all is now ok" and they use it to make wars. Sadly, they just don't get it.

I really, really, really do not understand the popularity of Weigel

JB said...


I agree completely.

Regarding Weigel, I have read his Letters to a Young CAtholic, which I enjoyed and thought was pretty decent, and, to be honest, I have not read much of his more theologically oriented work, but I what I have read has not impressed me always comes across as more American than Catholic, which frustrates me to no end.