A local resident stands next to her house that caught fire after recent shelling in the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk, Ukraine, Feb. 28. CNS photo/Alexander Ermochenko, Reuters

Analysis: Why a war is never just war

  • March 2, 2022

War is never moral. It is not ordered to the good. But the Church through the centuries has taught that when faced with war, or the prospect of war, we must think carefully and morally — prudence first. So, is a war that pits a broad Western alliance against Russian aggression in Ukraine a just war?

“This war is artificial. It’s being forced upon a people who want to be just left alone and friends with their neighbours. They’re being forced to fight. If they don’t fight, they’ll be taken over,” Ron Sorobey told The Catholic Register. “It’s really a defensive war. From what my understanding of what a just war is, it meets those criteria.”

Sorobey is a Knight of Columbus at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Shrine in Ottawa, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer and a former member of the Canadian Forces Reserves. He just can’t see a reason to hold back from war at this point.

“Do you want to sacrifice 41 million people? That’s what it comes down to,” he said.

The long-standing Church teaching on just war demands four conditions be met before a war can be considered morally licit. Only a defensive war in response to an aggressor is considered justified.

  • Damage inflicted by the aggressor must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • All other means of avoiding war must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • Using force in defence must not produce evils greater than the evil of the aggressor;
  • There must be a reasonable prospect that armed resistance will work.

Pope Francis, however, warns that this four-point moral calculus has failed in the past and most likely is simply not up to the task of morally assessing modern warfare.

“War can easily be chosen by invoking all sorts of allegedly humanitarian, defensive or precautionary excuses — and even resorting to the manipulation of information,” Francis writes in his most recent encyclical on the obligations of political charity called Fratelli Tutti. “In recent decades, every single war has been ostensibly ‘justified.’”

Weapons of mass destruction and the extreme difficulty of establishing the truth in time of war has outstripped the capacity of any just war theory to puzzle through the morality of going to war, according to the Pope.

“Every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil,” he writes.

Pope Francis has backed up those words by visiting the Russian embassy in Rome, urging and offering diplomacy at every turn.

Though Christian just war theory stretches back at least to St. Augustine, the modern formulation found in paragraphs 2307 to 2317 of  the Catechism of the Catholic Church owes its fundamental shape to 13th century Dominican friar St. Thomas Aquinas. But Aquinas expert Matt Kostellecky, vice president and dean at St. Joseph’s College in Edmonton, cautions that the Angelic Doctor had no intention of ever sanctioning any war as either moral or justified.

“For Aquinas, it’s not that we’re trying to justify war,” Kostellecky said in an interview. “War is opposed to peace and peace flows out of charity. It (war) is tied in with other vices. War is a vice.”

While Aquinas’s thinking about what to do if war breaks out around you “provides a useful framework to think through it,” it’s a 13th century way of thinking about 13th century wars. St. Thomas Aquinas never imagined Hiroshima.

“In terms of just war, you could say we have right authority, we have right intent, but when you get to the proportionality side of the equation this could be really problematic,” said James Fergusson, deputy director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies and a professor of political science at the University of Manitoba.

“If you think in terms of proportionality, is the ethical drive to come to assistance, to help  a free people? The implications of coming to assistance are that this could now escalate into a major war, a great-power war in which nuclear weapons are in the background. The destructiveness of all that is certainly out of proportion to the issues surrounding the independence of Ukraine,” Fergusson said.

He lands on the side of Pope Francis’ insistence on diplomacy, in part because he believes Russia is engaging in “coercive diplomacy.”

“This is a use of force for diplomatic reasons to coerce the Ukrainian government and potentially to coerce us to give what the Russians want,” he said.

In time of war, retired philosophy professor Fr. Jack Costello tries to centre himself on Jesus and avoid being carried away by emotion and moral outrage.

“I am no longer a just war theorist. I think the world is way beyond that now that we have nuclear weapons,” said the 81-year-old Jesuit. “It’s a very dangerous world. I don’t think the methods of the world will help us. You know what I mean by the methods of the world — self-interest first. My call as a Christian is number one to act as Jesus acted and to live in the light of his form of justice.”

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