Pope Francis and the Scrapping of the Just War Doctrine

Pope Francis, in just a few words, tossed Catholic Just War Teaching into the doctrinal trash bin where it may be keeping company with Francis’ 2018 revision of the Catholic teaching on capital punishment. 

  • In August 1914, Germany occupied Belgium and quickly invaded France—all parties are guilty of unjust war.
  • In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland—prompting Great Britain and France to declare war on Germany—all parties are responsible for unjust war.
  • On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, provoking the United States’ entry into World War II—both countries are responsible for unjust war.
  • On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian invasion of the sovereign nation of Ukraine. Ukraine responded with defensive military action. Both countries are guilty of unjust war.  

Undoubtedly, readers of this article will find the above statements provocative, offensive, even repulsive. However, if one were to interpret, at face value, recent comments by Pope Francis in response to the Russia/Ukraine conflict, then, according to the Holy Father, all the statements above are true. I deliberately emphasize the term “face value” because, despite the pope’s disturbing remarks, perhaps his view of war is ultimately more nuanced and complex. 

On March 16th, in response to Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill’s initial support for Putin’s initiatives, Pope Francis “met” with the Russian religious leader by video conference. According to the Holy See Press Office, the meeting was motivated “by the desire to show, as shepherds of their people, a road to peace, to pray for peace so that there may be a cease-fire.” Regarding the ethics of war, Pope Francis stated the following: 

There was a time, even in our Churches, when people spoke of a holy war or a just war. Today we cannot speak in this manner. A Christian awareness of the importance of peace has developed. Wars are always unjust since it is the people of God who pay. Our hearts cannot but weep before the children and women killed, along with all the victims of war. War is never the way.

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The comment has the character of one of those “off-the-cuff”—even reckless—remarks the Holy Father is known to make—remarks that often provoke bewilderment and confusion. Here it certainly appears that Pope Francis, in just a few words, tossed Catholic Just War Teaching into the doctrinal trash bin where it may be keeping company with Francis’ 2018 revision of the Catholic teaching on capital punishment. 

If Francis is correct that “There was a time, even in our Churches, when people spoke of a holy war or a just war. Today we cannot speak in this manner,” then one may reasonably conclude that even defensive wars are “unjust.” After all, the Catholic just war doctrine is all about explaining the ethics of what indeed makes a war “just”! Let me also point out that the Catholic Just War Doctrine is not simply something “people spoke of.” It is the formal doctrine of the Catholic Church. 

It is important to notice how Francis dismissed this doctrine. It is similar to the way he justified altering Catholic teaching that the death penalty was no longer morally “admissible,” an issue on which I wrote in 2018. According to the Holy Father, this teaching, like Just War Doctrine, is a thing of the past, morally justified by past generations, but the Catholic Church has evolved. As he stated: “A Christian awareness of the importance of peace has developed.” 

In an October 2017 speech, regarding the death penalty Francis argued that employment of the death penalty and Church defense of the practice was historically conditioned: In past centuries, when faced with a poverty of instruments of defense and social maturity had not yet reached a positive development, recourse to the death penalty appeared as the logical consequence of the application of justice which had to be adhered to” and was “dictated more by a legalistic than a Christian mentality.” Now Francis claims that a similar development has occurred in reference to the Just War Doctrine. 

It is true that the Catholic Church has pastorally come to disfavor the application of capital punishment—reflected especially in the writings of John Paul II. Even prior to Francis’ change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, declaring that the practice of the death penalty is “inadmissible,” the Catechism urged:

If, however, blood-less means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. (Art. 2267)

What development can Francis point to that justifies scrapping the Catholic Just War Doctrine? It is true that modern popes have spoken out very clearly that wars must be avoided. “Never again war” was famously declared by Pope Paul VI in his October 4, 1965, address to the United Nations. The first pope to ever speak to this body, he stated: 

Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind…. It is enough to recall that the blood of millions, countless unheard-of sufferings, useless massacres and frightening ruins have sanctioned the agreement that unites you with an oath that ought to change the future history of the world: never again war, never again war! It is peace, peace that has to guide the destiny of the nations of all mankind!  

Nonetheless, unlike Francis, neither Paul VI, nor John Paul II, nor Benedict XVI ever specifically repudiated the Catholic Just War Doctrine as something of which the Church today “cannot speak.” 

Indeed, as to the so-called development of “a Christian awareness of the importance of peace” this is an awareness dating back to the earliest days of the Church. Peace as opposed to waging war has always enjoyed ethical primacy within the Catholic theological and doctrinal tradition, though, to be honest, it is frequently not always honored and respected. 

The fourth-century Church Father St. Augustine, one of the first to articulate the principles of the Just War Doctrine, taught 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.” Though Francis attempts to justify the moral irrelevancy of the Just War Teaching by claiming a development of the “importance of peace,” such awareness is really nothing new.

Based on the teachings of Augustine and Aquinas, it behooves us to review the conditions of a just war. There are two principles of war that must be satisfied for a war to be considered “just.” First, there must be “just cause” (jus ad bellum), and secondly, there must be “just means” (jus in bello). A just cause may exist, but a war may be unjust according to the manner in which it is fought, even by the country that has a right to defend itself. There are essentially six conditions of the Just War Doctrine. In addition to “just cause” and “just means” they are: 

  • Competent authority 
  • Last Resort
  • Comparative justice
  • Right intention
  • Proportionality 
  • Probability of success

We cannot in this article provide a full examination of each one of these conditions. It is important to note that the Church has never formally revoked any of these conditions as outdated or outmoded. Indeed, the Catechism, which so far has not been changed, affirms the conditions of “just war” and, quoting Gaudium et Spes, teaches: 

All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. However, “as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”

The pope’s recent claim that the Catholic Just War Doctrine may no longer be legitimate is not the first time he articulated this position. In the October 2020 papal encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Francis stated:

At issue is whether the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and the enormous and growing possibilities offered by new technologies, have granted war an uncontrollable destructive power over great numbers of innocent civilians. The truth is that “never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely.” 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.” “Never again war!”  

In footnote 247, the pope cites the Just War Teaching of St. Augustine and states it is a teaching that “we no longer uphold in our own day.” Thus, long before Francis’ meeting with Patriarch Kirill, he had repudiated the Just War Teaching—contrary to the Catechism of the Catholic Church that affirms nations have “the right of lawful self-defense.” 

Francis states clearly why the Just War doctrine no longer applies. It has to do with the condition of proportionality. Namely that, living in the age of atomic weapons, the threat of nuclear annihilation as a consequence of war simply fails to satisfy this condition. Even should a nation have a just cause, the threat exists that any war could escalate to a nuclear conflict. Grave ontic evil caused by such weapons is out of proportion to any good that may come, even in a country that seeks to defend itself from unjust attack. Thus, at a minimum, there is the potential that, in the words of Francis “all wars are unjust.”

Francis’ position is not without support. In 1947, moral theologian and canonist Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, known for his 1969 negative critique of the Novus Ordo, wrote in his work Public Laws of the Church that:

[E]ven if…the traditional doctrine of the just war…can be accepted, as a speculative, theoretical discussion, especially if you consider that these principles refer to wars which are actually wars between soldiers who fight voluntarily, and not the atrocious massacres of our own times, with their total ruin of warring nations, we must say that in practice this doctrine is no longer applicable to the actions of modern nations, unless we wish to be unjust to the citizens of warring nations and to all mankind. In other words, apart from the question of a defensive war (and that under fixed conditions) through which a state seeks to defend itself against the actually unjustified military aggression of another state, there is no longer today any possibility of a just war which permits a state to uphold its rights by proceeding with aggression. 

Pope Pius XII delivered a speech on February 21, 1943, to members of the Pontifical Academy. He warned that because of the development of atomic weapons, “there could be a dangerous catastrophe for our planet as a whole.” In 1953, he addressed the Eighth Congress of the World Medical Association. He affirmed that, in principle, nations have a right to defend against unjust attack. However, based on the condition of proportionality, Pius XII went so far as to state, “When the harm wrought by war is not comparable to that caused by tolerating injustice, we may be obliged to suffer injustice.” 

It may also be fair to point out that John XXIII came close to condemning all wars. In his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris he stated: 

We acknowledge that this conviction owes its origin chiefly to the terrifying destructive force of modern weapons. It arises from fear of the ghastly and catastrophic consequences of their use. Thus, in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice. (Art. 127) 

Francis’ recent repudiation of Catholic Just War Teaching was, however, not based on a failure of modern warfare to fulfill the condition of proportionality. Rather, all wars are unjust because “it is the people of God who pay. Our hearts cannot but weep before the children and women killed, along with all the victims of war.” 

He is right that we should have the gravest sense of compassion for the innocent victims of war! And if these women and children were targeted as part of the overall war strategy, such a war fails the jus in bello condition. And, it is true that nearly always, even in wars fought for a just cause, occasions of unjust actions such as the direct or indiscriminate targeting of non-combatants occur. However, the mere undeniable fact that war causes suffering does not necessarily mean that the condition of proportionality is unsatisfied. The suffering that citizens of Ukraine are forced to bear does not automatically negate Ukraine’s ethical right to militarily repel Russia’s unjust invasion. 

Nonetheless, the argument that all wars are unjust as they may potentially lead to horrific evils caused by atomic explosions, and thus fail the condition of proportionality, is weighty, powerful, and deserving of respect. However, the Catholic Just War Doctrine cannot simply be dismissed. Not all wars can be called unjust, in the words of Francis, as it is impossible to know and foresee every situation and contingencies of a just defense that any particular nation may face at any particular time. Whatever particularities may exist must be judged by the moral principles of the Just War Doctrine. 

Finally, and rather ironically, it is the very Just War Doctrine Francis considers obsolete that indeed provides him with the very criteria by which he could at least respectfully argue, under the condition of proportionality, that all modern wars in the age of nuclear weapons are unjust, or at least potentially so! 

However, as far as the Russian invasion of Ukraine is concerned, Francis doesn’t need this argument. What Russia has already done to Ukraine, even without recourse to nuclear weapons, is condemned under Catholic Just War Doctrine. Rather than scrap the teaching, still on the books, Francis, with the entire People of God, should invoke it, stand by it, and stand upon it. It is as relevant as ever.

[Photo Credit: Vatican Media]


  • Monica Miller

    Monica Miller, Ph.D., is the Director of Citizens for a Pro-life Society. She holds a degree in Theatre Arts from Southern Illinois University and graduate degrees in Theology from Loyola University and Marquette University. She is the author of several books including The Theology of the Passion of the Christ (Alba House) and, most recently, The Authority of Women in the Catholic Church (Emmaus Road) and Abandoned: The Untold Story of the Abortion Wars (St. Benedict Press).

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