“Ask a Priest: Did the Pope Ban All Wars?”

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Q: Looking at the section on war in Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, I was wondering if I misunderstand. Did the Holy Father do away with just-war theory? – K.S.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The short answer is no, the Holy Father didn’t “do away” with just-war theory.

What he did do was say that it’s harder and harder to meet the conditions required for a just war.

He writes in No. 258 of the encyclical, “We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war.’ Never again war!”

Notice how he hedges his language — “will probably always be greater” and “it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria …”

He isn’t categorically ruling out just war theory altogether. Rather, he is saying that the traditional conditions for it are less likely to be found nowadays.

Pope Francis notes that the Catechism speaks of the possibility of legitimate defense by means of military force, as long as “rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy” have been met.

But he cautions that it is “easy to fall into an overly broad interpretation of this potential right,” noting that in recent decades every war was presented by its instigators as a “just war.”

All of this recalls something of the tightening of the criteria regarding capital punishment. The Church leans more and more against the death penalty because modern prisons (in theory) allow for incarceration that could amply protect society without resorting to the taking of human life.

In other words, the Pope is urging people to rethink the very use of war, though he isn’t saying it’s prohibited absolutely.

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