Pope Francis: There is no such thing as a just war

Address Of His Holiness Pope Francis To Participants In The International Congress Promoted By The Pontifical Foundation Gravissimum Educationis, Clementine Hall, Friday, 18 March 2022 [Speeches]

Pope Francis: “We are used to hearing news of wars, but far away. Syria, Yemen… the usual. Now the war has come closer, it is on our doorstep, practically. And this makes us think about the “savagery” of human nature, how far we are capable of going. Murderers of our brothers. Thank you, Msgr. Guy-Réal Thivierge, for this letter that you brought, which is a wake-up call, it draws attention to what is happening. We talk about education, and when one thinks of education one thinks of children, young people… We think of so many soldiers who are sent to the front, very young, Russian soldiers, poor things. Think of the many young Ukrainian soldiers; think of the inhabitants, the young people, the young girls, boys, girls… This is happening close to us. The Gospel only asks us not to look the other way, which is precisely the most pagan attitude of Christians: the Christian, when he gets used to looking the other way, slowly becomes a pagan disguised as a Christian. This is why I wanted to begin with this, with this reflection. The war is not far away: it is at our doorstep. What am I doing? Here in Rome, at the “Bambino Gesù” Hospital, there are children wounded by the bombings. At home, they take them home. Do I pray? Do I fast? Do I do penance? Or do I live carefree, as we normally live through distant wars? A war is always – always! – the defeat of humanity, always. We, the educated, who work in education, are defeated by this war, because on another side we are responsible. There is no such thing as a just war: they do not exist!

In what sense is no war ever just? In the hypothetical “just war” spoken of in Roman Catholic moral theology, and this is the simplest case, one nation is the aggressor, who unjustly attacks another nation. The one nation is not defending itself against an imminent attack by the other nation; they have no grave moral justification for this attack. Then the other nation may justly defend itself. So even in an idealized case, in a just war in the classical sense, there is a grave injustice by the aggressor nation. Without that grave injustice of attacking another nation, the war would not occur.

So we see that the term “just war” refers to a situation, always, where a grave injustice begins the war and continues the war. If both nations behaved justly, there would be no war; the war would not exist. There is no such thing as a war that is entirely just; no such entirely just war exists. So the term “just war” is something of a misnomer, and Pope Francis is correct in what he is saying.

The other point that must be made is that real wars are not like the simple hypothetical case. Often, both side commit atrocities. In World War 2, the U.S. justly defending itself against Japan, after the latter nation attacked Pearl Harbor. However, the use of two nuclear bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki was intrinsically evil and very gravely immoral, as it was an attack on a mass population center, not on military targets. Then, the circumstances of this intrinsically evil act were also immoral, as the very grave harm that resulted to so many persons who were killed or were maimed by radiation was not outweighed by merely ending the war sooner.

In addition, the U.S. bombed Tokyo with firebombs, which is also an attack on a mass population center, not an attack on military targets. These firebombs targeted innocent civilians, and so the attacks were intrinsically evil and gravely immoral.

So even though the U.S. had a moral right to enter the war in the pacific theater, to defend itself against Japan, there were severely unjust attacks against innocent civilians committed during that defense.

In Europe, the U.S. had the moral right to assist its Allies against the Nazi regime and its forces. The Allied bombing of Dresden by the USAAF and the RAF remains controversial, with some saying that it was an attack on civilians, not military targets. In any case, the fact that a nation or group of nations are justly defending themselves against unjust aggression does not justify any and all acts during that war.

Catechism of the Catholic Church: “2312 The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. ‘The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.’ [Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 79]”

So during a real war, it certainly can occur that the nation or nations justly defending themselves can still be guilty of acts of grave immorality.

Is a war always the defeat of humanity? Yes, in the sense that we all have failed to pray enough, to do penance enough, to defeat sin in our personal lives, and also in the sense that many human persons must cooperate with the aggressor nation for the war to begin and to continue. Hitler was wicked (and a foreshadowing of the Antichrist). But he could have accomplished very little, if not for the cooperation of so many other persons in carrying out his wicked plans. Those who cooperate in the injustices of war, on either or both sides of any war, will answer to God.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

If you would like to support my work in theology, please purchase one of my books.

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1 Response to Pope Francis: There is no such thing as a just war

  1. Thank you for this article, Ron.

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