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Wars and Rumors of Wars

Given the hyper- destructive nature of modern warfare, and the frequency of modern military engagements, can a Christian still accept the Just War thinking of earlier ages? Would Jesus? We asked theologian Joseph Capizzi, dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University of America.


Cy Kellett:

Hello and welcome to Focus the Catholic Answers Podcast for the living, understanding and defending your Catholic faith. Maybe one of the challenges to understanding and defending our faith right now is modern warfare. What exactly is the church’s position here? How are we to speak and think and live as Catholics in a world that is so occupied with warfare? We have a wonderful guest to help us talk about that today. Dr. Joseph Capizzi is Professor of Moral Theology and Dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America. He’s the author of Politics, Justice and War: Christian Governance and the Ethics of Warfare, from the Oxford University Press. Professor Capizzi, thanks for being here with us.

Joseph Capizzi:

My pleasure.

Cy Kellett:

Have you been noticing that we have a lot of wars in the modern world?

Joseph Capizzi:

Yes, I have noticed that. I’m not sure it’s qualitatively different than it’s been in the past, but yeah, things are in turmoil across the globe right now.

Cy Kellett:

So the one’s encounter with Jesus is an encounter with the Prince of Peace, one who laid down his life for others, and so there’s an immediate intellectual problem with war. How am I supposed to both be faithful to this Jesus and participate in any way in war?

Joseph Capizzi:

Yeah, I think you’ve described the problem quite well. The conflict seems to be between the notion that we’re all called to be peacemakers, right? Christ calls us all to be peacemakers. He says as much in the Sermon on the Mount, and it’s a repeated theme of Jesus’s words to his disciples, and yet war seems contrary to peace. In fact, it seems the greatest contrary to peace. The Catholic tradition has approached this by more or less arguing that in fact in a broken world, sometimes the use of even lethal force can be an instrument of peace. That has been to my mind exactly what the just war tradition is trying to spell out, those conditions in which this crazy instrument of using lethal violence against human beings can sometimes be an instrument of peace, and Christians can only embrace the use of force in those conditions when it actually is serving peace. This end of peace.

Cy Kellett:

We hear now we have phrases like forever war and whatnot, and it does seem that our country, the United States, enters into acts of war quite regularly for just for example, I don’t know when people will be listening to this podcast, but today everybody in the world knows the United States is going to commit acts of war over the next week or 10 days or some because there was an attack by a militia that killed three American service members. So now there will be the response, it’s a regular pattern of American life is we expect these things and we go to war regularly. What am I to make of that in light of the just war tradition?

Joseph Capizzi:

So I think the way to begin is to focus, instead of on these kinds of acts that you’re describing that are discreet, on the deeper pattern. So the act is provoked, as you said, by the presence of US military serving around the globe. The question for all of us is to what extent those military who are serving throughout the globe are serving as instruments of peace, and in many of these cases, they are serving in places where their absence would make currently stable situations more unstable. Stability or order if you want to use that language, is an aspect of a peaceful situation. It’s not enough. You have to balance order and stability with justice because you can have a profoundly ordered or stable situation that’s deeply unjust.

One could think for instance of a fascistic situation, but so long as those people are serving as instruments of peace, you’re already in a situation where force is being employed. Their presence is forceful, right? They’re there with guns, right? They’re there with the purpose of preventing action that might be provoked by their absence, and that’s what it means to live in a broken world. That force is a presence. Unfortunately, we wish that it were different than that, but nonetheless, it’s a presence of the situation before the return in completion of the kingdom.

Cy Kellett:

It seems to me there might be two angles of complaint about that or of critique of the Christian position. One would be the kind of the one that I started with which would suggest a pacifism, and I know that can be a pejorative word, but a kind of almost abstinence from violence that would comport better with the person of Jesus Christ. The one would come from the other angle, which is, look, this is not realistic, the way that you’re talking about. That we need to basically divorce… Public policy is on a level that these religious concerns need to be excluded from. Do you think I am fair in saying that these are the two angles of attack on the Catholic just war position?

Joseph Capizzi:

For sure. Right. There is the sort of pacifist argument that look, Jesus is nonviolent and he’s not merely nonviolent. He’s in fact non-resistant, right? So what on earth are we doing embracing things that seem to be resistant and not merely resistant but actually violent in some circumstances? The other sort of critique would be some sort of realist type critique. I don’t think the Catholic position in fact is a branch of realism. I think it’s distinct from that. But I also do think that we are called to be peacemakers. You can’t avoid that, right? So you couldn’t embrace a kind of cynicism about it. Oh, the world is broken, therefore we can do whatever is necessary. That’s not the Catholic view. Instead, it is sometimes standing in for somebody who is aggrieved and defending that person or those people against some illegitimate activity, in fact is the right thing to do, the peaceful thing to do.

That I think is in fact the tradition as articulated by Augustine, or you see this in Aquinas as well, you may know, right? Aquinas discusses whether war is always sinful in the context of a longer discussion on charity. It literally comes in a series of questions about charity in his summa. He answers the question whether war is always sinful by saying, no, it is not always sinful, and here are the conditions, he specifies the conditions, during which war is not sinful. In other words, it would be appropriate for people who follow Christ to engage in that activity that protects people who are illegitimately aggrieved.

Cy Kellett:

So the soldier, in other words, is a protector of order, is not necessarily the final arbitrary of the conditions of society, but is a defense against the worst possible conditions.

Joseph Capizzi:

Even better put, the soldier is a defender of human beings, right?

Cy Kellett:

Okay. Yeah.

Joseph Capizzi:

The soldier is defending innocent human beings who are being threatened, persecuted, raped, killed, tortured by other human beings who are acting unjustly. So it’s still under the umbrella of broader justice claims and not departing from the constraints of morality that obtain for you or for me in our daily lives. It’s the same moral strictures. So the church is clear and the just war approach is clear. We could never intentionally kill innocent people no matter how many lives it might save in the prosecution of war or in the prosecution of any campaign against injustice. You can’t do certain things according to our tradition.

Cy Kellett:

But when we think of the first and second world wars, many people think of the second world war, for example, as the epitome of the just war. But many of the things done, even by people we would say are the heroes of that war don’t satisfy that requirement. They did directly attack innocent people.

Joseph Capizzi:

Absolutely right. That’s absolutely right. This is an inescapable fact of life on this side of end times is that human beings, well-meaning human beings will act unjustly. Even in a war whose cause seemed as clear as possible and generally whose activity seemed as good as possible, we did things that from a moral perspective are prohibited by our morality. Look, Christians continue to argue over this. I have colleagues from other Christian perspectives, non-Catholic Christian perspectives, and some Catholic, Catholics as well who disagree about, for instance, the firebombing of Tokyo or atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But to my mind, those are clearly prohibited by Catholic morality because as you said, there’s no way to argue plausibly that they were not directly targeting innocent people as well as whatever else may have been targeted.

Cy Kellett:

Fair enough. So I want to go back to Augustine and Aquinas just in this sense that, here you’re referring to a man of the ancient world and a man of the medieval world. Many people will say that is not the modern world, we are living… The weapons themselves are of such a scale that the terms have changed. How do you respond to that?

Joseph Capizzi:

I think you have to respond first by acknowledging that there’s some truth to this, that there’s no question in my judgment. There’s no question that the devastation of contemporary wars is just different than it was before when again, we were talking about firebombing or the use of napalm or atomic weapons, nuclear weapons potentially and so on. You’re talking about something that’s different, that is changed the consequences of war in a way that was unimaginable from a practical perspective for Christians in the past, but was only alluded to in scripture, right? In scripture you have battles that seem and God’s activity that seems as catastrophic or devastating as these things. But in terms of warfare, it was different. Nonetheless, the church has responded to this, and in essence, it continues to apply just war analysis in my judgment to these situations and has narrowed the justification.

So if you go back to just cause language, it’s narrowed the justification for when recourse to force is permissible only in defense, in situations of ongoing defense is the language of the modern papacy. But it hasn’t excluded those things because it still seems implicitly, at least to recognize is the good of peacemaking that the use of force serves sometime. Even Pope Francis uses the language in Fratelli Tutti, for instance, of legitimate defense and the use of force that’s associated with legitimate defense against certain kinds of aggression. It is just inescapable that human beings can, number one, they will continue to grieve each other in these ways and somehow the service of peace still will require force in these cases. So the just war analysis still functions, but the scope has definitely narrowed as a consequence of the modern devastation of war.

Cy Kellett:

Well, I’m glad you mentioned Pope Francis because it’s not just Pope Francis, but like Pope John Paul using words that I think people would associate with Pope Francis, like no more war, war never again. How does that comport with a just war view? In other words, aren’t these modern popes in a sense moving beyond the just war theory?

Joseph Capizzi:

It goes even earlier than John Paul II, Pope Pius the 12th, Pope John the 23rd. You get language of never again war coming straight out of, of course, the conflicts of the early to mid 20th century. So popes have, you can find older language from Popes than that, which is very, very similar. Even Augustine laments the horrors of war. So the contemporary papal condemnation of war has roots that stretch way back early into the tradition, but no question, never again war, no more war. War is a failure of politics, et cetera. This is language that shows the Popes deeply concerned about the use of war as an instrument even for peace given modern conditions.

They say those things and then as I said, they nonetheless recognize that sometimes legitimate defense is necessary. Pope John Paul II rather famously talked about it in the situation of Kosovo. Pope Francis, as I think you know if you paid attention right to Ukraine and the situation in Israel, talked about conditions where defense may be permissible or we’re arming, the sale of arms might be permissible given circumstances. So on the one hand, there’s a pastoral component of this, which is them reminding us as human beings that we can do better than this.

We should be doing better than this. Diplomacy, international negotiation, international laws that entangle national communities more closely together so they can see how their goods can be aligned, that we can’t despair and must instead choose hope. These are things that popes are rightly calling our attention to in times of cynicism and despair. As Pope Francis says in Fratelli Tutti, he is concerned about the rise of aggressive nationalisms and so on. War almost always seems to sort of lapse into certain kinds of prideful nationalistic assertions. Nonetheless, when we face situations where there do seem to be pretty clear calls and for Pope Francis, Ukraine became a pretty clear call that this is a nation regardless of the sort of what might be complicating the political situation. There was an act of aggression and therefore an act of legitimate defense. That legitimate defense is carried out in this case by the use of force. That seems to be permissible even to a pope who says never again war.

Cy Kellett:

I wonder though, because here when you talk about Ukraine, you point to something that this does concern me, and I guess I could confess this is a personal concern that when you have a country as powerful militarily as the United States, there is a tendency to lapse into every problem is a military problem. So in the decades before the Ukraine war, instead of dealing with Russia in one way, we deal with Russia in another way because we have so much confidence in our own arms. Do you see my point or is that…

Joseph Capizzi:

No, no, I think that point’s a great point. I think what you’re seeing here, and the way I would argue these sorts of things is that just war is in fact a political thing. It entails political judgments and prior political activity. There’s no question, I think, and this is what you’re pointing to, that when you have a certain confidence in your military strength and superiority, it can lead you to operate politically in ways that sort of determine ultimately political outcomes.

Cy Kellett:

That’s what I’m getting at, right?

Joseph Capizzi:

That’s right. In as much as your political activity, all of it is supposed to serve peace. If it’s pushing you towards military activity, it’s not doing that, right? So the popes or even non popes, like people who just do good political analysis ought to be making this point, and the popes do make this point. There should be other instruments that become more normal for us as we pursue a more peaceful situation in the world. This is the point at which our conversation would get to issues of realism, for instance. The realist is just going to say, look, that’s just bunk, right? Your popes are always talking about international organizations, international laws, international mediation, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. All of that stuff is more or less bunk. Ultimately, everything’s about power. Our tradition not merely the popes says, look, power is important, but it’s not everything.

Everything’s not about power. There are other forces here than this, including a practical wisdom, a practical rationality that we as Catholics esteem, that recognizes no behavior is determined. We as human beings can imagine and pursue different outcomes. If we would just pull things back sometimes and embrace hope as Pope Francis says, following again a long papal tradition, we might actually see that there are other ways of doing these sorts of things. There is a foolishness to headlong just keep pushing in these same directions over and over. So that’s part of what is going on there. To some extent, that’s part of what informs a just peace approach. Let’s build up these other things that are real, that could actually serve to avoid some of the almost deterministic maneuvers that I think you’re alluding to in your question.

Cy Kellett:

So that might be a position for us Catholics in the political sphere is, it’s not an anti-military view. It’s more a pro there are other options if we would be humble enough and gracious enough and desire really in our heart’s peace, there are other options if we would start to build them.

Joseph Capizzi:

Yeah, absolutely. What’s interesting about it of course too, is you use the language of military. Sometimes the military gets this better than the politicians do.

Cy Kellett:

Right. They don’t want to get shot at.

Joseph Capizzi:

No. They know the consequence, right? They’ve lived the consequences of war, and this is a perennial challenge. It’s not merely sort of the way the United States, the military and the civilian pieces work together. It’s not merely a modern democratic problem. It’s a problem always that kings and princes and presidents and prime ministers have very different conceptions of the way military force can be used, ought to be used, operates and so on, then do their military leaders. So the military itself can help inform a more chasten political approach sometimes than the politicians themselves might pursue. But Catholicism, our tradition, this morality that we’re really talking about can be an instrument that helps here, and I think in fact it’s an underutilized instrument in this regard.

Cy Kellett:

There’s one thing I realize I have very short time with you, but there’s one thing that I neglected to ask that really I should have asked you about in this context. We have now proposals to go to war against Mexican drug cartels. We went to war against Al-Qaeda. We had a war against terrorism. These are not wars against nations. How do they fit into the Catholic just war calculations?

Joseph Capizzi:

Yeah. So in my judgment, we don’t want to think too much about the just war thing as though it’s some sort of thing that you break the glass and you employ it when war occurs. It’s just Catholic morality in a certain context.

So the way to think about it is the same way we would think about things like policing, preserving national stability, and so on. The language of war, the danger of resorting to the language of war goes back to the force of your questions earlier. There’s a magnification of the severity of the situation that tends to a deterministic, okay, there eventually we’re going to end up really in a catastrophic situation. Pope Francis is clear with regard to that abuse of the language of war, and especially even the language of just war. This does not serve peace. I think he’s absolutely right about that because it does take on this momentum towards increasing uses of force, escalation of the problem and so on, widening of the scope of who’s the target, et cetera.

Instead, all of these situations have to be evaluated much more precisely in terms of how does this actually serve. I’m going to use the language of peace again, but we can break it down. How does it serve order and justice? How does it serve the stability and justice of the situation we find ourselves in? So let’s just take the Mexican cartel situation. You’d have to ask questions about to what extent is the Mexican cartel actually the problem? I’m not saying it’s not, don’t misunderstand me. You’d have to now explore what are the things it’s doing that are undermining order, injustice in the United States of America? Let’s say you identify those things, then you’d have to begin to think about, well, what politically can we bring to bear on those specific things? Let’s say it’s for instance, issues regarding migration, that it pertains to the migration problem we have at the southern border.

It pertains to the inability we have to control who comes in and out of our country. It’s not clear to me what saying, well now it’s a situation of war actually does to improve that situation. Again, you’d have to get much more granular, much more precise. So the language of war there can be really disservice to the pursuit of peace, which is supposed to be the goal of political activity. Instead, if you think of, well, we need to work on those specific situations, you’re going to think of legislation that’s possible to it. You’re going to think of the use of the border patrol that’s related to it.

You might begin to think of ways that this escape, excuse me. You might think of the ways that escapes merely national control and now it becomes an opportunity for international cooperation between the United States and Mexico that really needs to be dignified. I mean, there needs to be a much more robust sense of cooperation around this problem. That itself could be motivated by other sorts of policies that are available to the United States, economic ones with regard to the… Inducing Mexico to help solve the problem, coercive economic ones, punishing Mexico if it doesn’t want to help, et cetera. It seems to me it becomes a much more granular and appropriate way of thinking about the problem.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah, the simplistic answer, world War War is not the Catholic way. You have a greater responsibility than that, and it is a responsibility to think deeply and to consider other people’s points of view and all of that. You can’t be a peacemaker without that willingness to surrender easy answers.

Joseph Capizzi:

Absolutely. I think we would argue too, it doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, it’s just going to exacerbate the problem, aside from the sort of morality of it, it’s just you’re going to fail because you’ve not even identified a discrete target. This is the danger with regard about the war on terror and so on, is what is the target? What is the end? How do I know when we’ve achieved the end? I’m sure you guys have brought Thomas on and studied [inaudible 00:26:38] yourself. If you don’t know your end of your activity, you can’t begin to think about adequate means to the thing. So if the end is just amorphous, well, good luck, right? All you’re going to do is keep expanding it and it will be a never, a war without an end, a never ending war.

Cy Kellett:

So just to conclude, if I gather your message correctly, I don’t want to as a Catholic, abandon the just war tradition because it has to do with defending human beings, defending lives. But I can embrace that and also fully embrace Pope Francis, Pope Benedict, you said John the 23rd, Pope John Paul II who say, no more war. That we can have that as our objective and our guiding light without saying we’ve now moved beyond the just war theory. That’s part of the just war mindset.

Joseph Capizzi:

Yeah. Listen, absolutely. In fact, I think there’s a good argument that Catholics have an obligation to serve peace in the world, in concrete ways. One noble way to do that within our tradition is by serving in the military or serving as a police officer, right? I’m serving in the ways that the good use of force can be employed, and as you know, we have saint soldiers in our tradition, and we have a military archdiocese that serves our currently serving men, men and women in the US Army, Navy, et cetera, right? So yes, you can serve the good of peace in this way and be a moral soldier, be a moral policeman, and also respect the changing nature of war and what the popes are concerned about today.

Cy Kellett:

Dr. Joseph Capizzi, I’m so grateful that you took the time with us. Thank you very much.

Joseph Capizzi:

My pleasure. Happy to be with you.

Cy Kellett:

I don’t know what y’all are doing at Catholic University of America, but every time we talk to someone from Catholic University of America, I just feel like, well, another fine conversation. So you must be doing great things there.

Joseph Capizzi:

Feel free to trumpet that loudly. We are doing good things. I feel very proud about the institution. I’ve been here a long time and I think we’re in a good place and it’s just getting better.

Cy Kellett:

Well, I hope you’ll talk with us again because it does feel like all that… Your answers open more questions and invite a deeper conversation. So I hope we will get to speak with you again.

Joseph Capizzi:

Happy to anytime, okay?

Cy Kellett:

Thank you very, very much and thank you to our listeners. If you want to get in touch with us, send us an email. Focus@catholic.com is our email address. If you would like to support us financially so that we can keep the lights on here, you can do that by going to givecatholic.com and as always, help us grow the podcast so that other people will know about the work we’re doing. Just give us those five stars and a few nice words wherever you listen to the podcast, that does help us grow the podcast. All right, that does it for us. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. We’ll see you next time. God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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