Ukraine And Fratelli Tutti

The War Against Ukraine in the Light of “Fratelli tutti”

The War Against Ukraine in the Light of “Fratelli tutti”

W PalaverBy Dr Wolfgang Palaver

Dr Wolfgang Palaver, Professor of Religious Studies at Innsbruck University and a Pax Christi colleague in Austria, was invited to speak at a conference organised by the Ukrainian Catholic University. He has kindly agreed that an adaptation of his presentation about just peace and nonviolence should appear as a blog here on the Pax Christi Scotland website, for which we are most grateful.  Should you wish to listen to all the presentations, click this link.

I knew I might be somewhat of an outlier in the whole conference because I presented a perspective in peace ethics that has been severely challenged by the recent war of aggression of Putin’s Russia against Ukraine.

I have been teaching Catholic social thought for over twenty years at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Innsbruck, especially focusing on peace ethics. At the same time, I am a long-time member of Pax Christi Austria, and recently have been its president. I am also a member of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative (CNI) that tries to make nonviolence a more central issue of Catholic teaching and practice.

As I will explain later, the CNI has to some degree influenced the peace ethics of Pope Francis. I did not mean to be provocative when I spoke at the conference, but to express my solidarity with the Ukranian people who are suffering severely in this war. I also hoped to convince people that even an advocate of the preferential option for nonviolence is not automatically an advocate of a naïve pacifism. As an Austrian theologian I also must note that my country is, due to its status as a neutral country, not allowed to deliver weapons to Ukraine.

Why is it important to shift from ‘Just War’ to ‘Just Peace’?

After the two world wars of the 20th century, it was necessary to aim for the abolition of war and try to create peace through law as it is expressed in the charter of the United Nations. The move in this direction remains important, even though the Security Council has for the most part of its existence been dysfunctional.

If the central piece of Catholic peace ethics is called the ‘just war doctrine’, it brings with it the danger that war is seen as something normal or even natural. However, war – a means that might become necessary in certain circumstances – should never become something normal or natural.

Peace ethics must aim for peace, and to put this aim at the centre of Catholic peace ethics is a very good reason to name it the concept of ‘just peace’. War might be a means in certain times but could never be its aim.

What are the most important elements of just peace?

  • It aims for a positive peace that is not just the absence of open violence or war but includes structural violence by connecting peace with justice.
  • It engages in the long-term prevention of conflicts and wars.
  • It stands for the preferential option for nonviolence.

Pope Francis stands for this shift from just war to just peace and by this he follows developments in Catholic peace ethics since the encyclical Pacem in terris by Pope John XXIII and even developments since the teachings of Pope Benedict XV, who fought for peace during World War One.

If we look at Fratelli Tutti, the most recent social encyclical of Pope Francis that came out in 2020, we can find two main reasons why the Pope has distanced Catholic Peace Ethics from using terms like ‘just war’. Both these reasons have not become obsolete with the war against Ukraine but can even be underlined by it.

First – how often the criteria of the just war tradition were used to justify pure aggression and warmongering:

“War can easily be chosen by invoking all sorts of allegedly humanitarian, defensive or precautionary excuses, and even resorting to the manipulation of information. In recent decades, every single war has been ostensibly ‘justified’. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the possibility of legitimate defence by means of military force, which involves demonstrating that certain ‘rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy’ have been met. Yet it is easy to fall into an overly broad interpretation of this potential right. In this way, some would also wrongly justify even ‘preventive’ attacks or acts of war that can hardly avoid entailing ‘evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated’.” (FT 258)

I think that Putin’s justification of his “special military operation” is an example of what Pope Francis has criticised.

The second reason that should make us hesitant to see war any longer as a useful means to solve conflicts is the highly destructiveness of modern weapons. I turn again to the words of Pope Francis in Fratelli tutti:

“At issue is whether the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and the enormous and growing possibilities offered by new technologies, have granted war an uncontrollable destructive power over great numbers of innocent civilians. The truth is that ‘never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely’. We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war’. Never again war!” (FT 259)

This insight is accompanied by the Pope’s call for “the total elimination of nuclear weapons” that he sees as a “moral and humanitarian imperative” (FT 262). Politically speaking this call might be utopian but it is necessary that moral leaders like the Pope remind the whole world of this task if we do not want to risk the self-annihilation of the whole of humanity.

Again, the current war against Ukraine underlines this critical view of the enormous destructiveness of modern weapons. Morally a no-fly-zone should have been established at the beginning of this war to prevent the destruction of infra structure with its terrible consequences for millions of civilians in the Ukraine. The Western world would militarily be capable to establish a no-fly-zone but does not dare it because of the risk of an escalation toward a nuclear war.

The shift towards just peace, however, does not lead to a naive pacifism as can also be shown by a careful reading of Fratelli tutti. Pope Francis continues the Catholic endorsement of peace through law as his support of an efficient world authority allowed to impose sanctions (FT 172) – an idea introduced by Pope John XXIII – and his support of the charter of the United Nations show (FT 257). Peace through law is, of course, only a relative peace and not an absolute one because it does not exclude the use of violence or coercion. One of the most important passages in Fratelli tutti that shows that Pope Francis is not naively overlooking the challenges that evil acts force on the Christian commitment to love even our enemies. The Czech theologian and sociologist Tomas Halik made me aware of a passage in Fratelli tutti when he sharply criticised the declaration against weapons delivery to Ukraine by the German activists Alice Schwarzer and Sahra Wagenknecht. Pope Francis reflected carefully on the true meaning of forgiveness by showing that it does mean to accept oppression or other criminal acts:

“We are called to love everyone, without exception; at the same time, loving an oppressor does not mean allowing him to keep oppressing us, or letting him think that what he does is acceptable. On the contrary, true love for an oppressor means seeking ways to make him cease his oppression; it means stripping him of a power that he does not know how to use, and that diminishes his own humanity and that of others. Forgiveness does not entail allowing oppressors to keep trampling on their own dignity and that of others, or letting criminals continue their wrongdoing. Those who suffer injustice have to defend strenuously their own rights and those of their family, precisely because they must preserve the dignity they have received as a loving gift from God.” (FT 241)

It is in this line of thinking that Pope Francis called weapons deliveries to Ukraine morally right if important ethical criteria are observed.

How is the ‘Preferential Option for Nonviolence’ not identical with an absolute pacifism?

Pope Francis most strongly endorsed nonviolence in his message for the World Day of Peace in 2017 with the title “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace”, a message that was influenced by the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative. He called for the strengthening of nonviolence in our personal relations as well as for international relations: “May charity and nonviolence govern how we treat each other as individuals, within society and in international life.” (2017 #1)

It is important to recognise that this emphasis on nonviolence does not abolish the ethical criteria of the just war tradition but complements them necessarily:

“Peacebuilding through active nonviolence is the natural and necessary complement to the Church’s continuing efforts to limit the use of force by the application of moral norms; she does so by her participation in the work of international institutions and through the competent contribution made by so many Christians to the drafting of legislation at all levels.” (2017 #6)

In this message of 2017 as well as in Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis refers to people such as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi as exemplary models of nonviolence. Perhaps surprisingly, even Mahatma Gandhi was not an advocate of a naïve or absolute pacifism as he is often portrayed in the Western world. He understood that there are degrees of violence and degrees of nonviolence and that a simple black and white perspective on peace issues is not at all adequate. Gandhi was aware that a clear-cut distinction between violence and nonviolence is not possible. He called, for instance, Poland’s defence against Hitler’s troops in 1939 “almost non-violent”. In December 1939, he clearly distinguished between aggression and defence:

“My non-violence does recognise different species of violence – defensive and offensive. It is true that in the long run the difference is obliterated, but the initial merit persists. A non-violent person is bound, when the occasion arises, to say which side is just. Thus I wished success to the Abyssinians, the Spaniards, the Czechs, the Chinese and the Poles, though in each case I wished that they could have offered non-violent resistance.”

This quote is enlightening in several ways.

(1) First, Gandhi shows that we have to distinguish between aggression and defence, between an offensive war and a defensive war, a distinction we should never obliterate.

(2) Secondly, Gandhi also understood that a violent defence can easily be drawn into an escalation of violence that blurs the distinction between aggression and defence.

(3) Thirdly, Gandhi expressed the hope that non-violent resistance might more and more replace violence. That is not something I recommend to the Ukraine right now but is something that the whole world should aim at to overcome war as soon as possible.

An so I suggest why the state and political forces of order have different tasks.

Putin’s war of aggression against the Ukraine as well as the recent terrorist attack of the Hamas against Israel led quite a few ethicists to question the concept of just peace by asking for a return to just war. Of course, as I said before, the moral criteria of the just war tradition also remain valid for the concept of just peace, but it is important to uphold the primacy of peace and to contribute to the universal struggle against war. For this task it is important to distinguish between the different roles that churches and political actors like the state or alliances of states have. As long as we face war in our world, a military response to wars of aggression might be necessary. At the same time, however, all nonviolent ways to strengthen peace must not be side lined or even forgotten. Political actors like the state or alliances of states are mainly responsible for securing peace and might use military means if necessary.

The churches are mainly responsible to embody the truth and efficacy of nonviolence. Distinguishing between different roles of institutions of political order and religious communities neither calls for a strict separation between state and church nor for their amalgamation. What I suggest here differs significantly from the type of “symphonia” between state and church that we see today in Russia.

My understanding of a good relation between state and church is illustrated by the German Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his interpretation of the katechon, translated as the restrainer, a rather strange concept in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians. Dealing with the concept of the katechon means to deal with a concept that was often used in the writings of the infamous German law scholar Carl Schmitt who is approvingly read today by political theorists in Russia and in China.

Bonhoeffer differs significantly from Schmitt’s interpretation and his understanding of the “restrainer” (katechon) in his Ethics provides a sound proposal how the Church should relate to the institutions of political order. It helps us to understand what it means to be a peace church in times of war. According to Bonhoeffer, the restrainer is responsible for order and must set limits to evil. He is, however, neither identical with the original will of God nor is he without guilt. The Church has a different task by proving to the world that Christ is the living Lord. This difference between the Church and the forces of order does not, however, prevent a close alliance between them in the face of imminent chaos. By preaching the risen Jesus Christ, the Church compels the “forces of order to listen and to turn back,” without, however, rejecting them arrogantly by claiming a moral superiority.

According to Bonhoeffer, the Church preserves the “essential distinction between herself and these forces, even though she unreservedly allies herself with them”. Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of the restrainer may contribute to a peace ethics that demands peace churches to be living witnesses for nonviolence and the primacy of peace without overlooking the fact that political forces of order might not be able to embody nonviolence to the same degree but at least enable churches to fulfil their task.

Let me conclude with a response that Pope Francis gave to a German journalist asking him if weapons should be given to Ukraine on his flight back from Kazakhstan in September 2022:

“This is a political decision, which can be moral […] if it is done according to the conditions of morality, which are manifold, and then we can talk about it. But it can be immoral if it is done with the intention of provoking more war or selling weapons or discarding those weapons that are no longer needed. […] To defend oneself is not only lawful but also an expression of love of country. Those who do not defend themselves, those who do not defend something, do not love it; instead, those who defend, love.”

The Pope tells the journalist first that he is asking a political question making him indirectly aware that it is not the primary task of a pope to decide such political questions. He, however, does not dodge the question and provides ethical guidelines that must be followed if weapons are delivered. Pope Francis’ concept of just peace allows him to address questions like these. According to the Pope, our current world finds itself engaged in a “horrifying world war fought piecemeal”. Talking about this current third world war shows that his view of the world is not at all naïve but highly realistic. It is for this reason that he emphasises the need to build a sustainable peace and overcome war.

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