Celebrating Holy Week

Submitted by: Jim Bacik

In Catholic Social Teaching there are two general approaches to the morality of war: “Pacifism” that opposes all war; and the “Just War Tradition” that provides criteria for determining if a specific war can be morally justified or not. In recent years under the leadership of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church has emphasized pacifism so strongly that the possibility of a just war is now practically impossible to imagine. In the May 2020 issue of Commonweal, the moral theologian Tobias Winright published “The Possibility of a Just War” arguing that the war in Ukraine has moved some Catholic scholars to recognize we have acted prematurely in “relegating the just war tradition to the margins or even supplanting it with pacifism.” To make his point, Winright invites us to reflect on a young Ukrainian soldier bravely defending his country from an unjust attack. With the just war criteria in mind, we can see his service not as failed pacifism but as participation in a just war defending his country against an unjust attack.

Winright cites theologian Massimo Faggioli and Cardinal Robert McElroy for suggesting that the Ukraine war might be a “turning point” in Catholic Teaching on war and peace with renewed emphasis on the contemporary relevance of the just war criteria. Both Faggioli and McElroy lauded the U.S. bishops 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace” which made good use of the traditional just war criteria, including last resort, just cause and proportionality (more good accomplished than harm done).

Along this same line, Winright notes that journalist Michael Sean Winters writing in the National Catholic Reporter claimed that the “most significant intellectual development” in the Church in 2022 was the “emphatic reinstatement of just war theory as the principle Catholic moral approach to violence.”

In support of this view, Tobias Winright cites neo-conservative scholar George Weigel who maintains that the just war tradition is the “normative” way of thinking about war and peace in the classic Catholic approach to international relations. Applying this approach, Weigel holds that Russia’s war on Ukraine is clearly unjustified and unjustly conducted while Ukraine is engaged in a war of legitimate self-defense “conducted proportionately and discriminately.”

Dr. Winright also finds support in Villanova professor George Beyer, who abhors war and opposed U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but supports Ukraine’s military action because the Russian invasion is about “annihilating” a country and its citizens, which opens the door to further Russian expansionism. While Beyer supports active non-violence and peacemaking priorities, he is convinced these alone will not stop the “Russian juggernaut.” In this situation, the evil is so great that a defensive war is justified to prevent “grave atrocities on a massive scale.”

In summary, Tobias Winright has assembled an impressive group of scholars to support his claim that the Ukraine war has highlighted the relevance of the traditional just war criteria for judging the morality of some wars today.


What is my opinion of the just war tradition?

About the Author

Fr. James J. Bacik has served as a priest of the Diocese of Toledo since his ordination in 1962. He is a widely regarded theologian, writer, lecturer and pastor who served as campus minister and adjunct professor of humanities at the University of Toledo for more than 30 years. Fr. Bacik is an AUSCP member. Visit his website at frjimbacik.org.

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