Ukraine One Year OnLeave a Comment
Nonviolence, Just War, or Peacebuilding? Catholic Ethics and the Russia-Ukraine War
2023 is a year of notable anniversaries in the Roman Catholic Church. April sees the 60th Anniversary of the promulgation of John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris written as the Cuban Missile Crisis terrified the world, whilst May brings the 40th Anniversary of The Challenge of Peace published by the United States Bishops’ Conference in response to the continuing threat of nuclear war that overshadowed the years before 1989.
One would hope that in commemorating the anniversaries of these publications, we would be living in a very different context – a context in which nuclear arms were no longer a threat but rather a topic that allowed people the chance to reminisce about nuclear warning drills at school and the relief they felt at the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Sadly, we do not. In the past year, whenever people have heard that I am a Christian ethicist who works on matters relating to war and peace, they inevitably ask me in worried tones: ‘do you think that Putin will launch a nuclear missile attack on the West?’ To which my usual reply is ‘probably not, but there’s no point in worrying about it because if it happens, we’ll all be dead anyway.’
My dark sense of humour aside, the events in Ukraine over the last year have been a sobering reminder that we are, as Pope Francis frequently reminds us, ‘fighting a third world war piecemeal’ and there is something about the invasion of Ukraine that has really brought this home to us, in a way that the fighting in Yemen and Syria for instance hasn’t. Whether this is a result of the renewal of Cold War hostilities or collective guilt regarding the West’s role in destabilising the Middle East and colonisation, remains to be seen and I’m sure will be endlessly debated in the years to come.
Responses within the Roman Catholic Church, the tradition from which I write, have been similarly intense. This is particularly because, as paragraph 2309 of the Catechism teaches, self-defence is one of the few categories of Just War teaching remaining and it rapidly became apparent that both Ukrainian forces and society would be able to withstand this invasion. A Temple Tract written with Professor Tobias Winright of St Patrick’s Pontifical University, Maynooth, explores these debates in the light of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. In it, we show how the concepts of just war, just peace, and peacebuilding have been brought to bear in moral analyses of this war, as well as how the war has impacted these ethical perspectives.
Debates on matters relating to war and peace have been a key feature of the so-called ‘culture wars’ that dominate Roman Catholicism in the US, and which sadly seem to be making their way over to the UK. In broad brush strokes this means that conservatives advocate for ‘just war theory’ and liberals are ‘absolute pacifists’. Pope Francis’s advocacy of nonviolence (which is not the definitive declaration campaigned for by the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative) is seen as either dangerous or something to be celebrated rather than for what it is: a continuation of the past 60 years of papal teaching. Neither side are as bad or as naïve as the other side likes to think, but, in public at least, they aren’t conversing with one another.
This form of either/or thinking is damaging. It allows for the maintenance of a state of negative peace in which the threat of violence is always present and sees positive peace as utopian rather than the hope offered to us by Christ’s kenosis. The nature and form of the debate allows Roman Catholics to abdicate responsibility for peace, because, so the logic goes, war and peace are matters of international relations and are something that we can’t do anything about. Most worryingly though, it leaves no space in between for the kind of thinking that comes from ethicists, such as Tobias Winright, Lisa Sowle Cahill, and myself, and activists, such as women religious working in conflict zones, who seek to reconcile the two into a position which accepts that violence can and will happen, but that it should be mitigated, and that we all ought to be working towards creating a state of positive peace both globally and locally.
We have a saying in Irish ‘leagfaidh tua bheag crann mór’ literally ‘a small axe can fell a big tree’ which is helpful when one is overwhelmed by the scale of the task facing us. We can build peace in a myriad of ways, we can as Cardinal Matteo Zuppi suggests create a zone of ceasefires around our hearts which will ripple outwards like a pebble thrown into water; we can pray for peace; we can educate ourselves on the ways in which nonviolent activism works and implement its teachings into our everyday lives; we can campaign for as much money to be spent on humanitarian assistance as on arms. What we can’t do is remain silent in the face of the suffering caused by war.