From April 11-13, Pax Christi is convening a conference in Rome to pursue “the explicit rejection” of what is known as the “just war” tradition (JWT). Although I have considered myself a pacifist, to the extent that I refused to carry a weapon while on active duty with the Army, I find this instinct to be reckless and to dangerously undermine parts of Christian theology which still has value today.
I concede that the modern world has exploited JWT and used it more as a rubber stamp for war than as a restrictive ethic. However, this is not license to discard 17 centuries of valuable Christian teaching. My personal experience as a former combatant in war, and as one who consoles soldiers and veterans, is that the instinct to reject the tradition wholesale fails to critically engage with the history of the tradition or with the actual value it provides as a starting point for moral reintegration after war.
One young man I have counseled, Jason (not his real name), is a two time OIF veteran and a father of three. Several years ago, we had a conversation over coffee in which he shared about his memories of the people he killed in war. His descriptions oozed with detail; he said the memories flooded back into his mind the first time his wife gave birth after he returned from combat. There is something about seeing new life created that dredges up memories of the lives taken away. Although he never used the word “suicide,” the way he used “end” as though it were a verb conveyed a sense of urgency to our conversation. It was likely conversations like this that gave birth to JWT. Although it is most often treated as if it were part of systematics, it is more appropriate to think of JWT in terms of pastoral theology.
Augustine, doctor of the church, corresponded with several soldiers and violent men in his illustrious career. It was in the pages of his letters to them and his City of God (which was dedicated to one such man, Marcellinus) that references to war being theologically tolerable first appeared in Christian writings. It is Augustine whom Thomas Aquinas cites in his Summa Theologica, in the section most closely reflective of paragraph 2309 of The Catechism. The context within which the Summa emerged is important; Thomas makes clear it was intended for use by beginning priests, who would have to be prepared for taking the confessions of knights returning from the eighth crusade. Young clerics needed an answer to questions knights would have been asking, such as “have I sinned by participating in war?” (cf. II-II, Q.44, A.1)
Jason never uttered those exact words to me, but they hung off his every syllable; “Where was God in Iraq?”
I am not a priest, nor am I Catholic, but I have relied on the gifts Augustine and Thomas have passed down to us, however muddied those gifts may have become after being dragged through two world wars and multiple nuclear stand-offs. Although I find the phrase “just war” to be theologically misleading, I have found the tradition from which it emerges to be of utmost importance as a starting point for ministering to soldiers who wrestle with the oppressive burden of having killed in war.
Like me, Jason enlisted to get into college with the help of the GI Bill. Most enlisted soldiers are not highly educated, so it is unreasonable to expect them to quickly comprehend the nuances of nonviolence and the significance of pacifism for the life of faith. To get people like Jason there, I take them along the same path I followed in the twilight of my own military service. I begin with the same questions Augustine and Aquinas started with; “did you protect the innocent as far as you were able?”, “did you only obey those orders which were legal and just?”, or “was your force equal to or lesser than the force leveraged against you?”
The road home from war is long and lonely. I know because I have walked it myself. That road is scattered with dead bodies, bloodied corpses of men and women like me, who have almost nobody to walk beside them. If 22 veterans kill themselves every day, and if 70% of Americans identify as Christians, then approximately 15 Christian veterans take their own lives every day. They do so because they internalize the caricatures into which they are caste by society or because they cannot stand the deafening silence in the abyss between patriot and pacifist camps.
Casting JWT from Catholic social teaching is to throw the baby out with the bathwater, it is to take away what little the Church has offered her wounded warriors. As I have tried to argue elsewhere, the instinct to jettison JWT based upon the problematic interpretations of the last few centuries is to privilege a kind of modern arrogance over and above the time tested tradition of the Church. If patriots and realists have abused it, it is because pacifists have failed to engage JWT with sound historical and theological methods. The fault is our own, and we should not make the least of these, those who have internalized the sinful silence of the Church universal in the midst of our nation’s longest wars, to pay for the sins of their forebears and theologians.