It ought to be with considerable embarrassment that I say this, as an atheist who thinks religion does far more harm than good, and that it does so not only through the pretense that death isn’t real but first and foremost through the promotion of blind obedience to supposedly infallible authority. Yet, I don’t feel any sort of group loyalty or opposition to the parties involved here, and I’m actually entirely thrilled to recognize the good news that the Catholic Church has now surged far ahead of U.S. academia in the basic measure of opposition to institutionalized mass murder.
The Catholic Church has a great deal to answer for over the centuries, from the dehumanization of much of humanity to the normalization of “collateral damage.” The idea of a “just war” has been propped up by flimsy arguments for many, many years, leaning on the notion of divine sanction. But the current Pope has had enough of it. He’s just held a conference in Rome on rejecting any further use of “just war” sophism to prop up mass killing. Not long back he told the United States Congress to end the bloody arms trade. He understands the connection between war waging and arms dealing. Once we admit that all war is evil, we can reject as evil the enormous business U.S. corporations do in providing much of the weaponry. As long as we pretend that some wars are good ones, the industrial complex that arms the wars and in large part produces the wars can roll on.
The Pope’s message opening this week’s meeting in Rome stated that “… the ultimate and most deeply worthy goal of human beings and of the human community is the abolition of war.” The meeting was announced with a statement from its organizers that the “just war” idea “can no longer claim center stage as the Christian approach to war and peace.”
The announcement was not of a total break unfortunately, but of a process of moving in a better direction. Still, it did call for a total rejection of the phrase “just war”:
“Emphasizing the need to work for a just peace, the Church is moving away from the acceptability of calling war ‘just.’ While clear ethical criteria are necessary for addressing egregious attacks or threats in a violent world, moral theologians and ethicists should no longer refer to such criteria as the ‘just war theory,’ because that language undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacity for nonviolent conflict.” Organizers want a “new articulation of Catholic teaching on war and peace, including explicit rejection of ‘just war’ language.”
This reflects an accurate understanding of the thought habits that need correcting. The idea that a war can be just helps eliminate from consideration numerous nonviolent options, and it does this on an almost weekly basis in the United States. Imagine developing a theory of “just child abuse” or “just cat torture” or “just rape” or “just climate destruction.” It’s not that no ethics professor can devise an imaginary scenario in which those actions could appear desirable. It’s that we have rejected them as a society, or are working on doing so.
Look at the seven countries that President Barack Obama has bragged about having bombed: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. Each is disastrously worse because of Obama’s choice of war, and ultimately perhaps the choices of his favorite philosopher, Thomas Aquinas. What if, for example, the idea that bombing Libya could be just had not been acceptable in 2011 U.S. society? Might peaceful methods of accomplishing the same goals, or perhaps even the emergence of less shameful goals have prevailed?
Ah, but what about the right of Iraqis to fight back against occupation? What about the right of the United States to fight back against the imaginary future invasion it fears so deeply and ridiculously? Using those rights to justify the institution of war, understood as including the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the bombing of the seven nations listed above is sophistry worthy of any seller of indulgences. We can either recognize the strength of nonviolence as a tool against aggression, recognize that the possibility of aggression does not justify the institution of war under the banner of defense, or both. Rome is moving anybody who pays attention to it in those directions. The rest of our culture is not.