“Thinking Catholic” About Ukraine and the Just-War Tradition

Published March 14, 2022

Catholic World Report

I really should get it rebound one day, my crumbling copy of The Catholic Tradition of the Law of Nations, originally published in 1935 and compiled by John Eppstein, a British scholar. The book is an annotated compilation of texts from the gospels, the Fathers of the Church, medieval scholars, and modern Church theologians and leaders, addressing everything from military service and civic duties to Augustine’s just-war doctrine (and its successors), the Catholic conception of peace, the origins of a Catholic theory of human rights, and Catholic thinking about international society from St. Paul through Dante and on to Pope Benedict XV. Browsing through this remarkable collection of authorities confirms that there once was a distinctively Catholic way of thinking about world politics.

And while that Catholic way of thinking was entirely realistic about the human condition, it had little to do with what is now termed the “realist” school of international relations theory. In the nineteenth century, foreign policy Realpolitik was identified with such figures as longtime Austrian foreign minister Klemens von Metternich, German’s “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, and British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. In modern American terms, the “realist” school of foreign policy took its theoretical bearings from the many editions of Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations, which argued that, power and national interest being the fundamental realities of the interaction of states, world affairs are often, and needlessly, confused by the profligate use of moral categories of analysis, as had often happened between the first and second world wars. Morgenthau did not deny that there was an ethical element in foreign policy decision-making. But he and other realists have long warned against confusing the ethics of interpersonal relations with the ethical dimension of international relations, as if the former could be applied to the latter in a kind of one-to-one correspondence.

For its part, Catholic international relations theory insisted that, as politics is a human enterprise, there can be no escape from moral analysis in thinking through the dilemmas of public life, even international public life. Every pope of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has insisted on this. And the Second Vatican Council, picking up St. Augustine’s definition of “peace” as tranquillitas ordinis [the tranquillity of order], began its discussion of world politics in these decidedly non-Realpolitik terms:

Peace is more than the absence of war: it cannot be reduced to the maintenance of a balance of power among nations nor does it arise out of despotic dominion, but it is appropriately called the “effect of righteousness” (Isaiah 32.17). It is the fruit of that right ordering of things with which the divine founder has invested human society and which must be actualized by man thirsting after an ever more perfect reign of justice. But while the common good of mankind ultimately derives from the eternal [moral] law, it depends in the concrete [upon] circumstances that change as time goes on; consequently, peace will never be achieved once and for all, but must be built up continually. Since, moreover, human nature is weak and wounded by sin, the achievement of peace requires a constant effort to control the passions and unceasing vigilance by lawful authority. (Gaudium et spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 78]

The Just-War Tradition

The claims of Catholic pacifists notwithstanding, the just-war tradition is the normative way of thinking about the challenges of war and peace within a classic Catholic understanding of international relations. It has been since it was first given a basic, systematic articulation by St. Augustine, and it remains so today. Yet for all that historical longevity, the just-war way of thinking is often misunderstood as a kind of policy quiz, when in fact it is something quite different. Moreover, the just-war tradition has evolved to include a “peace imperative” that is too often neglected.

In its classic form, the just-war tradition’s mode of analysis involves two categories of moral criteria for thinking through the relationship of military action to the ends of peace, freedom, and justice.

The first is called the ius ad bellum, or “war-decision” criteria. Any just military action must be authorized by a competent authority, for a just cause, with a right intention. Military action must be a proportionate response to the grievance it is intended to remedy; it must have a reasonable chance of succeeding in restoring the peace of order; and other means of redressing a legitimate grievance should have proven unavailing.

The second set of just-war criteria is called the ius in bello: the “war-conduct” or “war-fighting” criteria. The war-conduct criterion of proportionality teaches that no more force than is necessary should be used to achieve a legitimate political and military end. The war-conduct criterion of discrimination insists on non-combatant immunity: there can be no deliberate targeting of civilians or civilian infrastructure in just war-fighting.

In addition to these classic criteria, the intellectual trajectory of just-war thinking points to what I began calling thirty-five years ago a ius ad pacem: a commitment to conducting a just war in such a way that a just peace is its result. Victory, in short, is the proximate end of a justly-fought war. The reconstitution of the peace of order, which includes freedom and justice within and among societies, is the more comprehensive end.

The temptation to use the war-decision and war-conduct criteria as a kind of check-list for policymakers has often proven irresistible. Succumbing to it tends to reduce the just-war way of thinking to a simple algebraic equation, however, when it is in fact something more richly-textured and therefore more useful. As I understand it, the just-war tradition is an intellectual framework for collaborative reflection among three principal interlocutors: public officials with the responsibility of providing for national security while enhancing international order; military leaders, whose responsibilities to provide counsel extend to strategy (ius ad bellum) as well as tactics (ius in bello); and ethicists. In the dialogue among these parties, it should be understood that the just-war criteria do not always yield simple, syllogistic answers: there can be no logical certainty, for example, about a given war’s “reasonable chance of success.” What this collaborative reflection can yield, however, is a measure of clarity about where the red lines in a given situation are, and how the inevitable grey areas in the proportionate and discriminate use of armed force for proper ends are to be handled. In all such collaborative reflection, and in the decision-making that follows, the operative cardinal virtue is prudence, which means fitting appropriate means to good ends. And the exercise of the virtue of prudence is not like solving a quadratic equation.

The complexities of just-war reflection notwithstanding, there are wartime situations, however, in which a straightforward application of the classic criteria do yield an unambiguously negative answer to the question, Is this war a just use of military force? The Japanese war in China in the 1930s was one. So was the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. The Russian war on Ukraine is clearly another.

Vladimir Putin is, by any reasonable standard, an autocrat who, despite a veneer of constitutionalism, is unaccountable to a legislature, a judicial authority, or the public. As he said on February 20, he is motivated by the imperial ambition of restoring to Russian control a people who have no claim to sovereign nationhood, but who are in fact “little Russians” properly located within the Russkiy mir, the Russian world: a world that Putin deems himself to have both a national and, in some senses, religious obligation to restore after its dissolution in 1991. Putin may well have thought that his forces would easily conquer the “non-nation” of Ukraine, but that expectation has been thoroughly falsified by events – and by the remarkable courage and skill of the Ukrainian army, Ukraine’s volunteer territorial defense forces, and brave civilians. His war-aim – the obliteration of a sovereign state – was hardly “proportionate,” and both his illegal seizure of Crimea in 2014 and the eight-year long low-grade war Putin facilitated in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine makes clear that he had no intention of trying to resolve by negotiation whatever grievances he may have believed to have existed between Russia and Ukraine.

The conduct of the war by the forces under his command has been barbaric, including (by his own foreign minister’s admission) the targeting of civilian facilities like a maternity hospital. His blitzkrieg against the Ukrainian military having failed, President Putin seems determined on a campaign of unrestrained attack on civilians as his method of war-fighting; and according to Russian military doctrine, such a campaign could include the use of tactical nuclear weapons in support of conventional forces.

As for the ius ad pacem, a Ukraine subjugated to Russia against the will of the Ukrainian people (including the great majority of the Russian-speaking Ukrainian people) cannot qualify as a just peace.

No Realpolitik gnattering about Russian “encirclement” by NATO (an alliance of now largely-pacifist countries formed, not to threaten Russia, but to deter and defend against Russian aggression) can alter the moral fact that a simple just-war analysis of Putin’s war on Ukraine brings into sharp relief: his is an unjust war. And no Catholic who understands the Catholic way of thinking about world affairs can possibly make credible excuses for such brutal aggression. As for Ukraine, its is a war of legitimate self-defense, which for two and a half weeks has been conducted proportionately and discriminately, in stark contrast to the war being fought by Russian forces.

Just-War Thinking and Policy Creativity

If the just-war way of thinking aims at both defending the right when the right has been violated and fostering serous policy reflection on post-war peacemaking, what might the tradition say about the use of economic sanctions against an aggressor?

It seems to me that it would suggest deploying at least some of the results of economic sanctions in ways that support legitimate defense and create conditions for the possibility of a just peace.

In a recent Washington Post article, Michael Doyle, Dorotha Koehn, and Janine Prantle made a legal case for not only freezing the foreign-held assets of Vladimir Putin and the Russian oligarchs who help empower him, but seizing those assets – and then using them to provide humanitarian aid within Ukraine, to the almost two million refugees who have fled the country, and to the nations sheltering those refugees.

The sums involved here, it should be noted, are colossal. Reputable scholars variously estimate Putin’s personal wealth as being between $100 billion and $200 billion, much of which is held “offshore” and therefore liable to seizure. Then there is the vast wealth held outside Russia by its oligarchs, which the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated five years ago as being on the order of $800 billion.

The just-war way of thinking, in my view, would endorse such an asset-seizure, but would broaden the uses to which these extraordinary sums would be put, so that their seizure serves the ends of both a just war and a just peace.

In addition to providing humanitarian aid to refugees and the countries supporting them for as long as the war continues, seized assets would be used to purchase needed military equipment to Ukraine’s armed forces. Then, after the war, these assets would be used for three purposes: to rebuild the civilian and economic infrastructure that Russia has destroyed in Ukraine (now estimated to cost at least $100 billion); to provide compensation to the families of Ukrainian soldiers killed or severely wounded in the defense of their country; and to indemnify Russian families whose sons were killed in Putin’s war of aggression (more than 10,000, at last estimate). Making these plans known in Russia through social media, the Internet, and radio broadcasting would be an additional tool in the war for the global information space that Russia now fills with lies and propaganda – and would demonstrate that the West is committed to a just peace in eastern Europe.

There is much more to the just war tradition than logic-chopping. When all concerned grasp that, real policy creativity is possible.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.

Upcoming Event |

The Promise and Peril of Civic Renewal: Richard John Neuhaus, Peter L. Berger, and “To Empower People”


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today

More in Catholic Studies