The contents of this document are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CCADD.


CCADD International Conference, 19-23 September 2008

Cathedral College at the Washington National Cathedral




The Challenge of Peace 25 Years after the Catholic Bishops’ Peace Pastoral


Gerard F. Powers[1]



Twenty-five years after the US Catholic Bishops issued their seminal pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace, the ethics of war agenda, not least its application to nuclear weapons, is very much in continuity with the pastoral and very much an unfinished agenda.  At the same time, the ethics of war agenda has moved in significantly new directions, some of which represent major challenges to the restrictive interpretation of the just war tradition which underlay the pastoral.  In addressing the unfinished agenda of the pastoral and countering the challenges to a restrictive approach to an ethics of war, the Church is increasingly focusing on the need to develop a much broader ethics of peacebuilding agenda. 


The unfinished agenda of the pastoral involves questions of nuclear arms control and disarmament and, more broadly, application of the pastoral’s jus in bello analysis to other issues, notably landmines, cluster bombs, zero-casualty wars, and economic sanctions.   The challenges to the bishops’ restrictive interpretation of just war have come in three main areas that raise jus ad bellum questions, namely humanitarian intervention, religious violence, and preventive war.  Finally, a broader ethics of peace is needed if the bishops’ call for progressive nuclear disarmament is to be realizable, to make humanitarian interventions morally palatable, in order to counter religious violence, and to deal with the consequences of preventive wars like Iraq.         


The Unfinished Agenda of the Pastoral


The peace pastoral was a document of the Cold War.  It would be very different if it were written today.  Two aspects of the peace pastoral’s legacy – or unfinished agenda -- remain salient today, however: (1) its strictly-conditioned moral acceptance of deterrence, especially its call for nuclear disarmament, and (2) its relative success in injecting morality into public policy debates on war and peace. 


The ethics of disarmament 

In the peace pastoral the bishops outlined a strictly-conditioned moral

acceptance of nuclear deterrence.@   They proposed three conditions for the moral acceptance of deterrence: (1) deterrence must be limited to deterring nuclear use and not be expanded to include nuclear-war fighting strategies; (2) sufficiency, not nuclear superiority, must be the goal; and (3) deterrence must be a step toward progressive disarmament.[2]  These conditions constituted an interim ethic@ whereby certain limited forms of deterrence may be acceptable in the short- or mid-term, but the direction of deterrence must be a global ban on nuclear weapons. 


In 1983, the bishops’ focus was on the arms control criteria of the first two conditions.  With the end of the Cold War, they shifted their attention to the third condition: disarmament.  What was seen as a moral ideal in 1983 became a “policy goal” by their 1993 statement, The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace.[3]   Numerous subsequent statements by the U.S. bishops and the Holy See have reiterated this emphasis on nuclear disarmament.[4] 


Before addressing the wisdom of focusing on the disarmament condition, it is important to address the oft-raised question of whether the bishops’ conditional acceptance of deterrence remains, as the bishops claimed in their 1993 statement, a useful guide@ for evaluating the moral status of nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War world.  According to the bishops, their approach remained relevant because (1) it acknowledges the fundamental moral dilemmas posed by nuclear weapons; and (2) it highlights the moral urgency of not being satisfied with the status quo but taking urgent steps toward nuclear disarmament.


This strictly-conditioned approach has been criticized on several counts, two of which I want to say a word about.  One challenge comes from the nuclear pacifists who see the second part of the bishops’ formula: moral acceptance of deterrence@ as a scandal.  The other comes from the nuclear realists who see in the first part of the bishops= formula -- strict conditions@ -- a dangerous naïveté about international security and the potential immoral consequences of abiding by their conditions, especially the third on nuclear disarmament. 


The argument of the nuclear pacifists is twofold: first, nuclear weapons are inherently indiscriminate and disproportionate; second, even if nuclear weapons are not immoral per se, the strict conditions outlined by the bishops certainly have not and will not be met.  The longer the U.S. bishops fail to acknowledge this reality, the more the moral credibility of their teaching on war and peace is thrown into question.


It should be obvious to any objective observer that the U.S. nuclear deterrent, as it exists today (or, for that matter, as it existed in 1983 when the bishops elaborated their conditions), does not meet all of the conditions laid out by the pastoral.  The same could be said about the Russian, Chinese, British, French, Israeli, Indian or Pakistani nuclear deterrents.  The question is how far along the road are we to meeting the conditions?  From the perspective of 1983, when a mere freeze@ on new nuclear weapons was considered somewhat utopian, the U.S. has made tremendous strides.  The risk of nuclear war between the Cold War rivals has virtually disappeared along with entire categories of weapons (e.g., INF Treaty), a moratorium on nuclear testing is in place, and the deployed U.S. arsenal is a fraction of what it was.  Yet, the U.S. continues to pursue destabilizing nuclear policies (e.g., rapid deployment of missile defense), maintains an ambiguous policy on whether it would use nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear threats, refuses to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and is not pursuing new arms control agreements that would significantly reduce still-robust nuclear arsenals.  The bishops correctly conclude that progress on nuclear disarmament has not been commensurate with the dramatic changes that have taken place since the end of the Cold War. 


Does that mean that the U.S. nuclear deterrent is no longer morally acceptable?   That conclusion misunderstands the function of the conditional acceptance of deterrence.  The bishops “interim” ethic is less a function of time than context?  It might be that “Twenty-five years is enough!”  If that is true, it’s not because 25 years is a long time but because the change in the structure of world politics is such that there is no excuse for not making more progress toward a mutual, verifiable ban on nuclear weapons. The problem of nuclear weapons is as much about politics as it is about arms control.  The arms control and disarmament criteria of the pastoral are critical.  But also needed is a political ethic that would provide a vision of and criteria for the new structures of international politics that are needed to achieve a global ban on nuclear weapons.  As Cardinal Joseph Bernardin said, the bishops’ 1993 document (and subsequent statements) “have linked more explicitly the morality of deterrence to the responsibility of the nuclear powers to use their power and resources to take the lead in building an effective system of cooperative security and a more just and stable international order.@[5]


The point here is that a security ethic that focuses narrowly on arms control and disarmament concerns is necessary but not sufficient.  What is also needed is a political ethic that underlies the disarmament condition.   The challenge is not simply to move unilaterally to eliminate nuclear weapons or to move toward a global nuclear ban.  The challenge is to create the political and institutional arrangements that make it possible to achieve a global ban.  In that sense, the 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, with its outline of the essentials of an ethical international order, is more a document for the first decade of the 21st Century than the more recent peace pastoral.   As developments in Russia, China, India and Pakistan make clear, we have a long way to go before the political preconditions for meeting the disarmament criterion are present.  The conclusion, then, is not to condemn nuclear deterrence but to work even harder to create the political conditions that are necessary for further progress on nuclear disarmament.


Even short of a final condemnation of deterrence for failing to meet the conditions, supporters of the status quo in U.S. nuclear policy, in 2008 as in 1983, find little to comfort them in the bishops’ conditional acceptance of deterrence.  If, tomorrow, the bishops declared that the U.S. nuclear deterrent was immoral because their conditions had not been met, it would make a bit of a stir at the bishops’ conference where I used to work and in ethics journals.  But, I suspect, most policymakers who cared would ask: “Is that new?  Didn’t they already say that back in 1983?” 


That is not to minimize the importance of the morality of deterrence.  The point is that the strict conditions should be less about proscribing nuclear deterrence in general and more about prescribing directions for U.S. nuclear policy.   The strict conditions have provided the basis for the bishops’ opposition to funding for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (so-called “mini-nukes”), for insisting on a “no-first-use” policy, for calling for the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and for insisting that the current U.S. arsenal, while not as bloated as in 1983, remains bloated in terms of any actual or foreseeable nuclear threats.  (Hence the bishops’ support for the Global Security Priorities Act (H.Res. 1045), which would use long-term savings derived from reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal to increased support for nuclear nonproliferation efforts.)  Most important, the conditions provide moral support for Kissinger and other critics of the peace pastoral in calling for a global ban on nuclear weapons 


While the nuclear pacifists challenge the bishops= moral integrity, nuclear realists challenge their strategic sophistication.  The familiarity of the arguments does not make them less cogent. Nuclear disarmament, they contend, remains, at best, a utopian dream, and, at worst, strategically dangerous and morally dubious direction for U.S. policy.  First, as you move closer to zero, the need to ensure an effective minimum deterrent@ necessitates the counter-population targeting the bishops condemn.  Second, going to zero could have the unintended effect of stimulating rather than limiting nuclear proliferation, as the strategic value of even a small number of nuclear weapons is enhanced and allies lose the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Third, if nuclear deterrence prevented the use of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, it can be expected to continue to deter nuclear use as these weapons proliferate; efforts to ban nuclear weapons could actually increase the moral and strategic risks of nuclear use.  Finally, especially with globalization and private supply networks, it is impossible to disinvent nuclear weapons or ensure compliance with a global ban.[6]              


Of the two challenges, this second is far more serious.  The moral debate over deterrence is important, but the more important task is to win the moral-legal-political-security debate over whether nuclear disarmament should be a policy objective. On this basic issue, the nuclear pacifists and the bishops mostly agree. Disarmament will have little traction in the policy debate, however, if the realists’ concerns are not addressed.  Bryan Hehir suggests three possible responses to the realist critique.   First, the realists too readily dismiss the dangers inherent in nuclear deterrence and the risks of proliferation inherent in maintaining the double standard in the NPT.  Second, one could revive proposals from the early days of the nuclear era that would place responsibility for nuclear weapons in the hands of an international authority.  Given the political opposition to placing U.S. peacekeepers under UN command, we should have no illusions about the prospects for this variant of the zero option.   Moreover, an international authority with a minimum deterrent would face the same problems of discrimination as with any minimum deterrent.  The third possibility, which Hehir considers most promising and which is favored by the bishops, is negotiation of a global ban on nuclear weapons.  The risks associated with this option are real but they are worth taking in order to be free of the moral dilemmas and risks of use involved in the current deterrent.[7]


Morality and national security

A second part of the unfinished agenda of the peace pastoral relates to the larger question of the role of morality in the nuclear debate. More than any other single document, the peace pastoral revived the just war tradition’s place in the public policy debate.  While realism retains its dominant place in national security debates, it is now more possible to raise moral issues about nuclear weapons and other security issues in polite company without being accused of being “soft-headed.”  Morality is no longer an uninvited guest at an exclusive party.  That said, one need not be a cynic to question whether the use of variations on the just war tradition by successive U.S. presidents to justify such military interventions as Panama, Iraq I and II, and Kosovo reflect a tendency to (mis)use morality to justify decisions made on other grounds.  Ensuring that morality has its proper place in decision-making on national security issues remains perhaps the most fundamental challenge 25 years after the pastoral.


A related challenge is ensuring that national security debates, especially debates about nuclear policy, are not confined to elites.  The prominence of the peace pastoral both reflected and helped contribute to the democratization of the nuclear debate.  Nuclear policy is an exceedingly Establishment issue.  The genius of the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s was that it helped get nuclear policy out of Washington boardrooms and into town halls and church basements.  Likewise, a significant comparative advantage of religious groups was the ability to inject morality into the debate by mobilizing and motivating the grassroots to act on the nuclear issue.  That was a principal contribution of religious bodies to the campaign to ban landmines and the nascent campaign to do the same with cluster bombs.  With the end of the Cold War, of course, the nuclear issue quickly receded in the public consciousness, so it is nigh impossible to generate interest in the nuclear issue at the diocesan and parish levels today.  While the risk of nuclear use might well be greater today than it was when The Day After was released due to the twin threats of nuclear proliferation and global terrorism, these are difficult issues around which to do grassroots mobilization, whether church or secular.  It is even difficult to get national church bodies to make the nuclear issue a priority, given so many competing concerns and a widespread sense that the technical and political nature of many current nuclear issues (e.g., trade in fissile materials, strengthening the NPT) makes them less susceptible to interventions by religious voices than was the case 25 years ago.   


No doubt the churches and others can do more to reengage people at the local level, but they also can do more to engage the experts in moral debate.  One way is to rediscover the Church=s pastoral role as convenor.  There is a tendency to expect the Church to play a “prophetic” role in addressing issues as important as nuclear weapons.  This is an important role to be sure, but it cannot be the only role.  If the Church is to be a teacher and pastor, then it cannot just make pronouncements and advocate about nuclear issues.  It must also use its special capacity to convene people in a genuine dialogue that respects both the legitimate and necessary contribution of morality as well as its limits.  From 1983-1993, Bishop John Cummins of Oakland convened a series of such dialogues with leaders from Livermore Labs, the large peace movement in the San Francisco Bay Area, and academics from the University of California and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.  All of these people were actively engaged in the nuclear issue, but few were talking to each other.  So rather than be content with making a statement on the morality of nuclear weapons, he convened leaders from each of these sectors for a series of intensive, off-the-record dialogues on the morality of nuclear weapons.  In many cases, it was the first time top nuclear scientists had an opportunity to engage top ethicists in discussions about nuclear weapons, or for those getting arrested outside the gates of Livermore Labs to engage in a frank dialogue with those who worked inside.  I don=t want to exaggerate the impact of a decade of these dialogues, but it is clear they brought about mutual respect and understanding on the part of people who had little time for each other beforehand, and, in some cases, changed some minds.                    


Another way to inject morality into the elite debate is to find different ways of speaking.  If the bishops issued a major pastoral letter on nuclear weapons today, it would likely not be considered newsworthy by any other than religious media.  This is partly due to the fact that the moral concerns of religious leaders have become well enough known that they are by now considered the usual suspects@ in calling for nuclear disarmament.  It is also partly due to the fact that religious leaders are not considered experts who have to be reckoned with on issues of nuclear proliferation or the test ban treaty.   When former military leaders, like General Lee Butler in the 1990s and policymakers like Kissinger, Shultz, Perry and Nunn more recently call for nuclear disarmament, they do get attention.  But what is usually missing in these calls is a moral argument (as opposed to general appeals to morality).  As a way to overcome the gap between technical competence and moral competence, there have been some notable joint initiatives of religious leaders and military experts, such as the major statement by the heads of major Christian denominations in the United States and former military leaders in June 2000.[8]  Such joint initiatives allow national security experts to engage moral issues that they otherwise are reluctant to address while they give more credibility to the calls of religious denominations for nuclear disarmament.


New Challenges to the Tradition


Modern Catholic teaching on the ethics of war can be understood as an effort to hold the line against total war.  Therefore, the bishops’ pastoral used a restrictive or strict interpretation of the just war tradition which begins with a strong presumption against the use of force that can only be overridden for “extraordinarily strong reasons.”  If nuclear weapons are undoubtedly the most serious challenge to a strict interpretation of the jus in bello criteria, humanitarian intervention in response to genocide, religious violence (the new holy wars), and preventive war are the most serious challenges to a strict interpretation of the jus ad bellum criteria.  These are the challenges that have preoccupied the bishops in the past 15 years.


Humanitarian intervention

Genocidal conflict is a form of total war which gained new salience since the peace pastoral.  Genocide, itself, is not a challenge to the tradition as much as the humanitarian military interventions that seemed necessary to stop it.  Part of the legacy of Vietnam is that the U.S. Bishops adopted a healthy skepticism about U.S. military interventions, opposing the contra war in Nicaragua, the interventions in Grenada and Panama, and both Iraq wars.  Their skepticism reflected official Church teaching and pronouncements by the Holy See.  Some have criticized the bishops for embracing a “functional pacifism” that is not in keeping with the just war tradition, while others, including some pacifist voices in the Vatican, have reinforced this critique by suggesting that the Church should move from a healthy skepticism about war to discarding the just war tradition altogether.  The bishops’ response to the long litany of genocides and humanitarian catastrophes, from Somalia, Sudan and East Timor to Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda raised questions about the descriptive power of the critics and the normative power of the pacifists.   


Humanitarian intervention forced the bishops to address the first principles underlying the just war tradition.  Church has a clear answer to Cain’s question.  Contra the realists, “Yes, we are our brother’s keeper.”  According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, there is not only a right but a duty of humanitarian intervention:


The international community as a whole has the moral obligation to intervene on behalf of those groups whose very survival is threatened or whose basic human rights are seriously violated.  As members of the international community, States cannot remain indifferent; on the contrary, if all other available means should prove ineffective, it is “legitimate and even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor.” [quoting John Paul II, World Day of Peace Message, January 1, 2000.]  The principle of national sovereignty cannot be claimed as a motive for preventing an intervention in defense of innocent victims.  The measures adopted must be carried out in full respect of international law and the fundamental principle of equality among States.[9]


In The Harvest of Justice, the bishops noted that the Church’s perspective on humanitarian intervention was rooted in several concerns.  First is a cosmopolitan understanding of international affairs that is human-centric rather than state-centric. As the bishops say, “[g]eography and political divisions do not alter the fact that we are all one human family, and indifference to the suffering of members of that family is not a moral option.”  Second, given this vision of a global community, sovereignty and non-intervention “remain crucial to maintaining international peace and the integrity of nations, especially the weaker ones,” but they are not absolute norms.  They “may be overridden by forceful means in exceptional circumstances, notably in the cases of genocide or when whole populations are threatened by aggression or anarchy.”  Third, consistent with an increasingly restrictive view of when military force may be justified, the bishops emphasize that “nonmilitary forms of intervention should take priority over those requiring the use of force.” Fourth, the bishops argue that “military intervention may sometimes be justified to ensure that starving children can be fed or that whole populations will not be slaughtered. They represent St. Augustine's classic case: love may require force to protect the innocent.”  Finally, the bishops contend that “a right to intervene must be judged in relation to the broader effort to strengthen international law and the international community.” They urge that the right to humanitarian intervention be “more clearly defined in international law” and suggest that “[m]multilateral interventions, under the auspices of the United Nations, are preferable because they enhance the legitimacy of these actions and can protect against abuse.”[10]

The bishops’ position on humanitarian intervention is important for three reasons. 

First, it rightly brought the focus of the just war debate -- which had mostly been focused on last resort, probability of success, proportionality and discrimination --  back to just cause and legitimate authority.  Second, it showed that the neo-conservatives allegation that the bishops’ had embraced a “functional pacifism” misunderstood the seriousness with which the bishops took the tradition. Third, it made clear that a just war analysis that permitted some forms of multilateral humanitarian intervention had to be tied to a much broader ethic and international effort that could address the root causes of these internal conflicts, that could support the spread of democratic and just political and economic orders, that could prevent conflicts and settle them promptly and peacefully when they erupt, and that could help rebuild and heal broken societies.  In short, the bishops were saying their just war analysis of humanitarian intervention must be tied to an ethic and strategy of peacebuilding.


The return of holy war

While they are very different phenomena, religious-nationalist-ethnic conflicts in places like Bosnia and Chechnya share something in common with Islamic terrorist movements like Al Qaeda:  both types of conflict are contemporary manifestations of a form of total war:  holy war. Holy war is based on the assumption that war has no moral limits because the enemy is dehumanized (as a threat to my identity or an infidel) and because war is necessary to achieve and defend ultimate religious, nationalist or ideological values. 

While they would consider themselves bitter enemies, bin Laden and Croat and Serb religious-nationalists in Bosnia would tend to agree on the “unconscionable” limits imposed by the just war tradition.  


Paradoxically, the deepest challenge to the Church’s restrictive view of the just war tradition does not come from al Qaeda or religious nationalists.  While the Catholic Church has a regrettably long and less than proud tradition of holy war, there are no significant voices within Catholicism or, for that matter, within mainline Christianity as a whole, seeking to justify holy war.  Religious leaders around the world routinely decry religious terrorism and other forms of religious violence as a crime against religion.


Rather, the challenge is more subtle – a challenge to both the strict interpretation of just war and, even more so, to religious peacebuilding.  This challenge comes from the foreign policy elites in Washington, Berlin, London, Tokyo, and Paris.  According to the conventional wisdom – which can be called the secularist paradigm -- (1) religion is and should be an increasingly waning force in world affairs, and, even if Bosnia and 9/11 put an end to that thesis, (2) religion remains mostly a problem, a source of conflict in international affairs. 


The secularist threat to the just war tradition is different from the other threats.  The other threats seek to dramatically reshape the tradition in ways that would emasculate it.  The secularist paradigm assumes that the tradition, itself, is as anachronistic as the religious institutions that still promote it.  When religious bodies use the just war tradition to justify war, they exacerbate the religious differences that cause conflict.  The solution, according to the secularists, is not to promote a more restrictive interpretation of the just war tradition or to promote a positive role for religion in international affairs, but to take religion (and morality) out of the public square (and the foreign ministry) and marginalize and privatize it.    


Obviously, the just war tradition is too often misappropriated and religion is a factor in conflicts from Iraq and the Middle East to Northern Ireland and Kashmir.  But religion is not a principal cause of global conflict.  The architects of the “mega-death” of the past century have mostly been irreligious or anti-religious leaders, such Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot; Mao, Milosevic, and Saddam.   Where religion is a factor in conflict it is usually not the direct source of conflict but a convenient marker of chauvinist forms of ethnic or national identity.  In these identity conflicts, the major challenge is less religious violence than religious nationalism.  The link between religion and nationalism may be seem less terrifying but it is arguably a much greater source of injustice and violence than religious militants preaching holy war. 


Finally, in overestimating the negative role of religion in conflict, the secularists underestimate the positive role that religion plays in promoting freedom, human rights and peace.  To counter religious nationalism, for example, the Church has called for inclusive forms of civic nationalism and legitimate expressions of patriotism while condemning as “idolatry” chauvinist and exclusive forms of religious nationalism. To counter Islamic terrorism, many Church leaders would agree with Philpott, who argues that peacebuilding in the face of religious terrorism is not mainly a matter of condemning the violence, as important as that is.  More important is the need to encourage responsible voices within Islam to delegitimize the particular form of political theology, notably Islamic Revivalism, which promotes terrorism as a means to create Islamic states that offer alternatives to corrupt, undemocratic and thoroughly secularized regimes in the Middle East.[11]  In short, the solution to today’s holy wars is not less religion, but more authentic religion.


Terrorism and rogue states: preventive war

In November 2001, the bishops issued a major statement on the response to 9/11.[12]  The statement covered a range of issues related to the U.S. response to the grave threats posed global terrorism.  I will focus here on the concerns about preventive war raised in the statements the bishops issued on Iraq.[13]  This focus on preventive war is appropriate not only because of the role it played and continues to play in the Iraq intervention, but also because the preventive use of force is a widely-touted option for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.   Such arguments for preventive war arguably represent the most serious threat to the Church’s just war teaching since the advent of the nuclear age and, in many ways, epitomize what is wrong with (what used to be called) the “war on terrorism.”        


Afghanistan represented a departure from international law, which had treated terrorism as a crime not an act of war that justified self-defense against governments that harbored them.  But Afghanistan did not represent a significant departure from the just war tradition.  While not advocating military intervention, the U.S. bishops acknowledged that the United States and the international community had just cause to use limited force in defense against al Qaeda and the Taliban government which was directly and indirectly complicit in supporting bin Laden’s terrorist enterprise. 


While the bishops have said that military force may be justified, in circumstances like Afghanistan, to defend against terrorism, they have, from the beginning, warned against an over-reliance on military means.  That over-reliance on military means reached its zenith with the preventive war justification for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.  This justification was the major reason the Vatican and Church leaders around the world were uncharacteristically outspoken in opposing the Iraq war.  While the nature of the U.S. bishops’ statements did not permit a detailed moral argument against preventive war, I would make the following case.


The preventive war justification that continues to be used by President Bush and others to justify the Iraq war – and is used by many to justify potential strikes against Iran – is the most extreme example of what some have called a U.S. policy of “muscular unilateralism” grounded in a deep sense of U.S. exceptionalism.[14]  Preventive war contributes to a widespread perception that the United States seeks to dominate through embrace of a “might-makes-right” foreign policy.[15]  Preventive war is the most permissive of the permissive ways to interpret the just war tradition.  Preventive war is a war of aggression that too often becomes a war of occupation.  Justifying force against “potential” or “gathering” dangers is a sharp departure from current Church teaching, which limits the use of force to defense against aggression or anticipatory defense against an imminent threat.  Preventive war emasculates the notion of last resort, making war an option not a matter of necessity.  Preventive war creates a dangerous precedent.  What if Iran and N. Korea adopted the doctrine? And preventive war is inconsistent with the moral certainty required to justify force.  Potential dangers are inherently speculative and prone to what John Courtney Murray called “dangerous fallacy involved in [the]casting up of desperate alternatives”[16] (ie, between preventive war and catastrophic attacks). It is hard to think of a greater impediment to peace, or a more fundamental assault on the just war tradition. 


Future Direction for the Ethics of War and Peace -- Peacebuilding 


Nuclear weapons, humanitarian intervention, the new holy wars, and the wars of occupation that are products of preventive wars each, in their own way, point to the need for the development of a jus post bellum and a practical theology and ethic of peacebuilding.  A strict interpretation of the just war tradition that calls for a global ban on nuclear weapons presumes the need to develop a political ethic of cooperative security that offers effective alternatives to existing nuclear deterrents and to preventive war as a way of halting nuclear proliferation.  Legitimizing limited forms of multi-lateral humanitarian intervention presumes that most forms of intervention will be non-military; that more effective ways of conflict prevention, conflict management, and post-conflict reconciliation can and must be found.  Similarly, the just war tradition needs no reinterpretation to condemn the new holy wars, but more is needed to address the “roots of terrorism,” and the conflicting claims of self-determination and minority rights, and the deeply-rooted sectarianism that underlie so many religious-nationalist conflicts.  In post-intervention Iraq, it is essential to distinguish between the ethics of preventive war and the ethics of exit, an issue mostly not addressed by the just war tradition.[17]    


If a new pastoral letter of the magnitude of the Challenge of Peace were written today, I would begin with the 1983 pastoral’s call for the development of a theology of peace.  This new pastoral would catalyze a concerted effort to develop, what Scott Appleby calls, “a conceptually coherent, theologically sophisticated and spiritually enlivening” approach to Catholic peacebuilding that can begin to match the sophistication of Catholic thinking on the ethics of war and peace.[18]  The task of developing a theology, ethics and practice of peacebuilding would include, among other things, the following elements:


The first task is descriptive, analytical and practical.  We must counter the secularist paradigm, which either ignores religion or sees it mostly as a cause of conflict and division.  One way to do that is to better map and analyze the mostly unheralded work of the Catholic Church and other religious bodies in preventing and mediating conflicts, and in promoting post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation.  The Catholic Peacebuilding Network, a network of some 15 major Catholic academic, charitable, and institutional Church entities, has begun to do this through 5 major international conferences since 2004, and new capacity-building initiatives with the Church in areas of conflict.[19] 


The second task is to clarify the relationship between peacebuilding, and the just war and pacifist traditions.  We have a lot to learn from the pacifist tradition about finding peaceful alternatives to war.  It’s no accident that my Mennonite colleague, John Paul Lederach, has been the lynchpin in training Catholic Bishops in many countries in peacebuilding.  That said, the development of a more systematic theology, ethics and praxis of peacebuilding is not a replacement for the just war tradition but is a necessary complement to it.  A new emphasis on peacebuilding is a logical consequence of the Church’s increasingly strict interpretation of the just war tradition.  The debates on the ethics of nuclear weapons, the ethics of humanitarian intervention, and the ethics of preventive war have more clearly defined our understanding of the just war tradition.  The newer and more difficult challenge is for both adherents of just war and pacifism to enlarge the conversation by reflecting on peacebuilding, an area where they should be able to find common ground.  A further development of a theology, ethics and practice of peacebuilding, not further refinement of the old debate on just war versus pacifism, will enable the Catholic community to achieve its full potential in becoming a “peace Church.” 


A third task is to explore the elements of a jus post bellum.[20]  One can find the outlines of such an ethic in the U.S. bishops’ statements on the need for a “responsible transition” in Iraq, but more work needs to be done by ethicists to define the relationship between a jus post bellum and the ad bellum and in bello criteria.  In developing the jus post bellum, much could be learned from the growing body of practical experience and academic reflection on post-conflict peacebuilding.  


Developing a jus post bellum is part of the wider task of developing a much more systematic practical spirituality, theology, and ethics of peace.[21]  The Catholic social tradition provides a rich foundation on which to build, but a theology and ethic of peace cannot simply be coterminous with Catholic social teaching writ large.  A careful examination of the tradition through a peacebuilding lens could lead us to new insights about old teaching and identify gaps that need to be addressed.  The role of forgiveness is just one example.  The tradition has much to say about forgiveness, but can notions of personal forgiveness and inter-personal reconciliation be adapted for the development of a political ethic of forgiveness and reconciliation?  Another example is conflict resolution. In Colombia, Northern Uganda, Northern Ireland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other countries, Church leaders at the national and/or local level are directly or indirectly involved in peace processes.  They are also involved in advocating for human rights and accompanying the victims of the armed actors engaged in peace negotiations.  What is the relationship between efforts to resolve conflicts through facilitating negotiations and efforts to promote post-conflict accountability, which is an integral part of a process of reconciliation.  In other words, how does one balance peace and justice?   A third example: Would the understanding of the Church’s teaching on human rights and development change if it were viewed through a peacebuilding lens?  Finally, a point that John Langan has raised since 9/11:  how does the just war tradition’s duty to defend the common good against unjust attack relate to a theological understanding of security (or insecurity) and hope?[22]


This is a critical time for the Church’s teaching on war and peace.  The strict interpretation of the just war tradition which shaped the peace pastoral and other Church statements faces the most serious challenges since the advent of the nuclear age.  These very challenges have also created an especially propitious moment for the Church’s teaching on war and peace to develop in new directions.  The credibility and validity of the strict interpretation of just war will depend not just on whether decision-makers and the wider community accept these moral limits but equally on whether we can define and put into practice a peacebuilding theology and ethic that can deal with the many pressing issues of war and peace not addressed by the just war tradition.  Peacebuilding is the missing dimension of a Catholic ethic of war and peace.   


[1] Director of Policy Studies, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame; Coordinator, Catholic Peacebuilding Network; formerly, director of the Office of International Justice and Peace, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (1998-2004)

[2]  National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response (Washington, D.C.: USCC Publishing Office, 1983), pp. 75-76.

[3] National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace (Washington, D.C.: USCC Publishing Office, 1993), p. 13.

[4] See, e.g., “It is truly necessary for all persons of good will to come together to reach concrete agreements aimed at an effective demilitarization, especially in the area of nuclear arms.” Pope Benedict XVI, World Day of Peace Message, January 1, 2008; Drew Christiansen, S.J., Testimony on behalf of the USCCB on the Moscow Treaty before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, July 23, 2002.


[5] Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, AThe New Challenge of Peace,@ in G. Powers, D. Christiansen, and R. Hennemeyer, eds, Peacemaking: Moral and Policy Challenges for a New World (Washington, D.C.: USCC Publishing, 1994), p. 24. 


[6] See, e.g., Michael Ruehle, spokesman for NATO, criticizing the Kissinger etal proposal: “Realists are Calling for the Unrealistic,” first published in German in Neue Zuericher Zeitung, July 5, 2008.

[7] See J. Bryan Hehir, Hesburgh Lectures in Ethics and Public Policy, University of Notre Dame, March 25-26, 2008, at, and AThe Moral Dimension in the Use of Force,@ in H. W. Brands, Darren J. Pierson, and Reynolds S. Kiefer, eds, The Use of Force After the Cold War (Texas A&M University Press, 2003), pp. 22-26.   

[8] “Joint Nuclear Reduction/Disarmament Statement,” June 2000, at

[9] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005), p. 220.

[10] National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace (Washington, D.C.: USCCB Publishing Services, 1993), pp. 16-17.

[11] Daniel Philpott, “Explaining the Political Ambivalence of Religion,” American Political Science Review, 101:3 (August 2007), pp. 505-525.

[12] U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Living with Faith and Hope After September 11,” November, 2001.

[13] The bishops developed their policy against the Iraq intervention in Fall of 2001 under the leadership of Cardinal Bernard Law, chair of the International Policy Committee, and Mary Ann Glendon, chair of the subcommittee on 9/11 and Iraq. 

[14] S. Brooks & W. Wohlforth, “American Primacy in Perspective,” Foreign Affairs 81:4 (July/ August 2002), p. 20.

[15] Michael O. Wheeler, “Preemption and Legitimacy: American Power and the Future of World Order,” unpublished paper, May 2003.


[16] John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths, pp. 266-267.

[17] For a detailed argument, see Gerard Powers, “The Dilemma in Iraq,” America, March 6, 2006, p. 19.

[18] Scott Appleby, “Catholic Peacebuilding,” America, September 8, 2003, p. 12.

[19] For papers and video from these conferences and other information on Catholic peacebuilding, see

[20] See, e.g., Gary Bass, “Jus Post Bellum,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 32:4 (2004), p. 384.

[21] The Catholic Peacebuilding Network is nearing completion of a major 3-year inductive research project on a theology, ethics and praxis of Catholic peacebuilding, which is expected to be published in 2009.

[22] John Langan, S.J., “Hope in and for the United States of America,” Presidential Address for the Annual Meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, Miami, Florida, January 2005.