November 19, 2023 Essay: War is a Defeat for Humanity

Nov 13, 2023

In his message for the World Day of Peace on January 1, 2000, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Wars generally do not resolve the problems for which they are fought and therefore, in addition to causing horrendous damage, they prove ultimately futile. War is a defeat for humanity.” As we witness the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia, as well as the conflicts that have not garnered the West’s attention, it is difficult to deny the truth that war is, indeed, a defeat for humanity.

At the outset of Christianity, the use of violence was considered irreconcilable with the gospel of Jesus Christ. One of the earliest Christian theologians, Origen, wrote: “We [Christians] no longer take up sword against nation, nor do we learn war any more, having become children of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.” In time, of course, the Church came to articulate a theory in which the use of violence could be considered just under carefully delineated circumstances. This was the “just war theory.” The just war theory had two components. The first sought to define the conditions under which military force was justified. The second sought to define how such force may be used in an ethical manner. A war could only be considered ‘just’ if the requisite conditions necessary for military force were present and that military force was used consistent with the ethical criteria of a just war. In the just war tradition, military force could only be deployed as a means of last resort, and that force could only be deployed in a way proportionate to the wrong that was done. Every effort had to be made to avoid the killing of non-combatants.

After witnessing firsthand the progressively greater destruction wrought by wars throughout the twentieth century, the Catholic Church returned to its roots and began to reject the use of military force as a just means to resolve issues between or within nations. In his encyclical, Pacem in terris [Peace on earth], Pope John XXIII wrote: “It is contrary to reason to hold that war is now a suitable way to restore rights which have been violated.” More recently, John Paul II wrote: “Today, the scale and horror of modern warfare…makes it totally unacceptable as a means of settling differences between nations. War should belong to the to the tragic past…” Benedict XVI focused on war and violence as an assault on human dignity: “To put one’s trust in violent means in the hope of restoring more justice is to become the victim of a fatal illusion. Violence begets violence and degrades man.” Pope Francis continues in this tradition by calling for a renunciation of violence and responding to evil with the weapons of truth and love.

The Church’s repudiation of violence as a means to redress wrongs that individuals and nations have suffered was first tested with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. It has been further tested by the barbaric assault by Hamas on Israel. In the case of the war between Ukraine and Russia, our Church holds out the hope that a just and peaceful resolution can be achieved that will end the senseless suffering this war has inflicted on so many. In the case of the conflict between Hamas and Israel, our Church is deeply concerned with the disproportionate suffering of the civilian population in Gaza in Israel’s response to what was an unspeakably horrific assault on Israel’s own civilian population. Particularly painful is the large number of children killed in Gaza—4000 as of early November, with 1250 missing. It is clear in both cases that war is, indeed, a defeat for humanity—a wound that, even if it heals, leaves a lasting, ugly scar.

— Fr. Mark Hallinan, S.J., Associate Pastor