Is Ukraine A ‘Just War’?


(OPINION) Is Ukraine a “just war”?


The good news for Russia’s Vladimir Putin: A significant national leader announces that his invasion of Ukraine is a “just fight” that will end with “a great victory in the sacred struggle.”

The bad news: The speaker is North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, so what’s “just” is defined by probably the most despised despot on the planet and what’s “sacred” by an atheist who works to exterminate all religion.

Each international conflict raises the matter of what constitutes a “just war,” the theory by which Christians over centuries have sought to define what reaasons make the destruction of war morally acceptable. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asserts that Ukraine presents “as obvious a case of right versus wrong, good versus evil, as you will find in international relations since World War II.”

Except for Putin allies who head the huge Russian Orthodox Church, Christian leaders agree that Russia’s war is unjust and Ukraine’s response is justifiable. If for no other reason, in the 1994 pact when Ukraine surrendered its Soviet-era nuclear weapons Russia pledged to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”

As we’ll see, there are complications and hesitations on the Catholic left since the invasion in February 2022. The Catholic discussion on war-making is particularly notable due to the church’s global reach and the history of saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas formulating the “just war” doctrine.

Most early Christians were de facto pacifists who opposed military participation, both extending Jesus’ “blessed are the peacemakers” teaching from interpersonal relations into national and international affairs and shunning pagan oaths and rites that Rome imposed upon soldiers. But Christians began gaining responsibility for setting defense policy after the Roman Empire granted their faith legal toleration during the fourth century.

In modern times, a 1965 decree from Pope Paul VI and the Catholic bishops at the Second Vatican Council said soldiers “should regard themselves as agents of security and freedom on behalf of their people.” The council decried the evils of warfare but stated that “governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted.” The decree denounced military “subjugation of other nations,” which for both religious and nonreligious analysts accurately describes Putin’s vision of forcing Ukraine to again be a subservient province of a revived Moscow-led empire instead of a sovereign nation by the choice of its population.

The traditional Christian test for morally acceptable warfare has three aspects. “Jus ad bellum” means deciding whether conditions justify undertaking combat. “Jus in bello” means justice in the tactics of waging war, such as protection of innocent civilians and prisoners of war (universally defined by the 1949 Geneva Conventions) and avoidance of “disproportionate” means. The U.S. Catholic bishops applied that last point in a 1971 stand against continuation of the Vietnam War based upon the devastation in that country and the damage done within American society. With Ukraine, there’s widespread moral criticism of America’s provision of cluster bombs whose haphazard targeting kills noncombatants, with long-term danger from unexploded devices.

The third principle, usually less discussed and hard to achieve, is “jus post bellum,” concerning justice when a war ends, including a fair peace treaty, compensation and restoration of victims’ rights, and prosecution of war crimes.

The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2309) summarizes classic Christian criteria for “moral legitimacy” of military action employed for defense: “The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain, All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective. There must be serious prospects of success. The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

The catechism emphasizes that modern weapons’ destructive power requires heavy consideration of that final rule, a theme developed at length in the U.S. Catholic bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter on the nuclear age, “The Challenge of Peace,” which is well worth reading (.pdf here). The bishops concluded that “good ends (defending one’s country, protecting freedom, etc.) cannot justify immoral means (the use of weapons which kill indiscriminately and threaten whole societies). We fear that our world and nation are headed in the wrong direction.”

The bishops also discussed the traditional tenet that war must be approved and waged by “competent authority,” defined as “those with responsibility for public order, not by private groups or individuals.” Yet they allowed leeway for a “just revolution,” recognizing that “an oppressive government may lose its claim to legitimacy” so that “revolution in some circumstances cannot be denied.” Think of 20th century insurgents seeking independence from colonial regimes or, for that matter, the American Revolution.

The independent National Catholic Reporter has run several articles in which liberals advocate various “nonviolent resistance” tactics by Ukrainian civilians instead of the current military campaign against Russia. This past week, SimonMary Asese Aihiokhai of the University of Portland and Eli McCarthy of Georgetown University lamented that with Ukraine and otherwise, “the primary use or impact of just war reasoning has been to legitimate war rather than prevent or limit it.”

Writing in Commonweal magazine, Catholic theologian Paul J. Griffiths, formerly of Duke Divinity School, said the U.S. has no “moral superiority” over Russia and is cloaking its strategic geopolitical interests in moralistic language. He argued that America should cease sending weapons because they “have extended a conflict that would likely have already ended without them and which will certainly be lengthened by our continued supply.”

Early in the war, Father Thomas Reese, the Catholic columnist with Religion News Service, emphasized that just war theory does not support “even a defensive war if there is no chance of winning.”

CONTINUE READING:Question — Is Ukraine a ‘Just War’?” — by Richard Ostling.

This piece first appeared at

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