Invasion of Ukraine questions Catholics’ moral struggle with war, ‘just war theory’

The crisis in Ukraine, provoked by what is almost universally decried as an unjust assault by Russia on a sovereign neighbor, has captured the attention of people across the world. 

It’s led to renewed discussions within the Catholic Church about the Christian attitude toward war, the just war theory, and the frightening dangers of escalation.

More than a century ago, on Easter Monday, 1916, a ragtag group of Irish rebels marched on Dublin in an idealistic attempt to overturn British rule, which had dominated Ireland for centuries. The fact that most of them were devout Catholics, and staged their revolt on the most sacred celebration in the Christian calendar, puts into question the evolving attitude toward violence in the pursuit of justice.

The secretive plot had targeted Easter Sunday, but a secret arms shipment arriving on Good Friday from Germany, which was at war with Great Britain at the time, had been discovered by the British off the coast of Kerry, challenging the rebel plans.

The people of Dublin were uncertain about the attack. Some reports say citizens went about their daily routines and offered little support, moral or material, to the rebels, who numbered by some estimates less than 1,600 people.

The fighting was fierce but only lasted a week. In the end, the British were able to suppress the rebellion. But most historians agree they then made a tactical error: their retribution was swift and brutal. Mass arrests and people imprisoned without trial culminated in the execution of 15 of the 16 rebel leaders within days. One rebel, James Connelly, had been injured so badly during the fighting that he had to be seated on a wooden box to be shot. 

The brutal retaliation roused the Irish public, which had always responded to the blood of martyrs, and by 1922 the national outrage resulted in the creation of the Irish Free State.

But it might be asked why on the celebrations commemorating the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who preached non-violence and went to his own brutal execution without protest, would Catholics plan an armed revolt?

People fleeing advancing Russian forces file across wooden planks crossing the Irpin River below a destroyed bridge in Ukraine March 9, 2022. (CNS photo/Thomas Peter, Reuters)

The history of Christianity and war is complicated. 

The early Christians suffered persecution non-violently. But things changed dramatically in the fourth century after Christ when the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, which gradually became the main religion of Rome. Existing within a major military state changed the trajectory of the Christian concept of peace and non-violence. 

History is replete with the mixture of bloodshed and Christianity. The Crusades were military ventures done in the name of faith. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation culminated in the torture and death of thousands of Christians, who fought each other for political and religious hegemony. European wars repeatedly pitted one seemingly Christian country against another.

Against this backdrop, moral theologians grappled with what history calls the “just war theory.”

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 2307-2309 and 2312-2314 discuss what constitutes the just use of legitimate defense by military force. Called the “just war doctrine” in the Catechism, the document emphasizes that “all citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war” and “strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration.”

The document mentions several conditions that must be present for military force to be justified. 

Among these are statements such as, “there must be serious prospects of success,” and “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.” 

It’s this last statement that has some moral theologians reevaluating what constitutes a “just war.”

The brutality of war in the 20th century, culminating in the dropping of atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, made some call into question the idea that war can ever be justified. The example of Mahatma Gandhi, a non-Christian who applied the principles of non-violent resistance to leading the effort to free India from British rule, inspired others, including Martin Luther King, Jr., to the use of non-violence to achieve justice.

People are seen amid the debris of a house destroyed by shelling in Marhalivka, Ukraine, March 6, 2022, during Ukraine-Russia conflict. (CNS photo/Oleg Pereverzev, Reuters)

In a March 7 article on, Jesuit Father Thomas Reese interviews several Catholic moral theologians about the war in Ukraine. Whether pacifists or proponents of a just war theory, those interviewed share the belief that the Russian invasion was unjustified and should end. But they provide insights into various ways of evaluating the Ukrainian response.

Even those who support a just war theory ask, if there is no chance of winning, does the loss of life for both Ukrainians and Russians justify the response? Will continued violence make the situation worse?

Eli S. McCarthy, a peace activist at Georgetown University’s justice and peace studies program, told Reese, “We have failed to adequately train people in nonviolent conflict, resistance, and civilian base defense.”

But he praises the many uses of non-violence active in the conflict, from blocking convoys to the increasing Western use of sanctions. 

David DeCosse, director of religious and Catholic ethics at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, said he is moved by the examples of non-violence happening in Ukraine, but adds “I wonder, too, if there are some situations in which the only way out of the cycle of the violence is violence for the sake of justice.”

Their remarks signal a continuing Catholic conversation about the problem of war.


'Invasion of Ukraine questions Catholics’ moral struggle with war, ‘just war theory’'
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