Should Ukraine “defend itself by force?”

John Paul II did not support war, but he signed off on the Catechism in which the right to wage a just war is enshrined. When, after his election he wanted to charm the crowds on Saint Peter’s Square he said “I come from a far country”. Since that time, this statement seems to be more a clear case of flirtation. Pope Francis is truly “from a far country.”

On February 24, the forces of the Russian Federation crossed, unprovoked, the border with Ukraine. Someone invades, someone defends and global sympathy is with the defender. It is obvious that the defender has a right to defend his territory and citizens. But in the Vatican, and especially in the view of the Holy Father this is not that cut and dried, even though the Catechism of the Catholic Church does allow the right of self-defence under specific circumstances.

Only on Sunday, February 27, Pope Francis during the traditional Angelus prayer on Saint Peter’s Square referred to the war in Ukraine thus “Whoever wages war, forgets humanity. He doesn’t start from the individual human being, doesn’t look at he concrete details of individual life but supports above all the particular interests of authority. He submits himself to the diabolic and perverse logic of weaponry which is at the furthest from the Will of God and distances himself from the ordinary people who thirst for peace.”
The faithful listeners of the Pope could be forgiven for thinking that the one “who wages war” is in fact Russia. But an online meeting was swiftly called between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow, Cyril I. The transparency of the declaration for some at least, underwent a degree of obfuscation; for others, clarification. Media sources related that the Pope was to have said to Cyril amongst other things “People pay the bill for war, they are Russian soldiers and the people who are bombarded and who die.”

The Pope presented the theory that the eternal doctrine of the Church was to change. “ As shepherds, we have a duty to be close to people and help all who suffer as a result of war. At one time, even in our churches we spoke of holy war and a just war. Today that is not possible. The Christian view of the meaning of peace has undergone a change.”

We must add that the hierarchy of suffering established by Russian soldiers and continued by civilians has been expanded by the Pope. This was uncertain if this was as the result of criticism of his talks with Cyril I. On March 18 in the Papal Congress ‘Gravissimum Educationis’ the Pope stated “ We are talking about education, but as we talk we think about the children and young people. Let’s pause and think about the soldiers so many of whom are sent to the frontline. Poor Russian soldiers. Let us think too about Ukrainian soldiers who are so many and so young, about townspeople, young people, young women boys and girls… This is happening close to us”.

This time, apart for the plight of poor Russian soldiers and civilians, eliciting the Pope’s sympathy some sympathy was found by the Pope for Ukrainian soldiers. Perhaps the civilians are Ukrainian too, as Russian territory is not undergoing bombardment,

The Pope avoided adding Ukrainian soldiers to the list of war victims as during the statement he added “A society or nation that is attempting to defend itself by force is damaging other societies and nations and becomes a source of injustice and violence. Destruction is an easier path to adopt, but leaves only ruins behind. Only love can save the human f family.”
Pope Francis during the Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square on April 17, 2022 in Vatican City prayed: "in this terrible night of suffering and death, may a new dawn of hope soon appear!". Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images
There are no more just wars or rights to self-defence. Defenders have become a source of violence and not a way of not giving the appearance. Perhaps within the confessional, the attacker will obtain a less severe penance than the defender.


The Papal remarks and other condemnations of war, without indicating the attacker, break away from the Church doctrine of the just war that had been formulated over the centuries. The early Christians , as pariahs within the Roman Empire, tried avoid service in the legions and condemned all acts of force, based on the precepts in the Gospels to answer aggression with love and turn the other cheek. The evangelical message had not changed but the situation of Christians within the empire had changed fundamentally under the reign of Constantine the Great in the fourth century. As adherents of the leading religion, the empire’s citizens recognised it as their own nation that definitely had to be defended.

Aristotle was a favourite author during the medieval period. He outlined the conditions to be met for a just war. He stated that a war was just as its aim is to defend a country against enslavement of its citizens by others or the expansion of the country over others in the interests of its citizenry and enslaving those who participate in enslavement, namely barbarians, .

Apart from the first reason namely self-defence, the rest must have raised doubts in the Christian mind. The right to enslave barbarians, those who are for various reasons worse than us and that could not be tolerated in Christian thinking, that itself had emerged from slavery.

For Aristotle and his followers thinking about war in the ancient classical or Christian eras was clear, the aim of war is peace. The initiator of war itself has peace on the most advantageous terms than before the war. Cicero would expand this understanding to include regaining lost property, material or non-material such as honour.

Such a war ought to be preceded by attempts at understanding and a formal declaration. The war should be conducted honourably, without needless atrocities and any promise made should be kept even to an enemy. But not to every enemy, pirates for instance, whom one can trick and withhold the payment of any ransom because the pirate is an enemy of humanity.

Saint Augustine , after non-Christian exemplars, also reflected on the legal and moral aspects of war. His moral and intellectual authority lasted for centuries after his death and remains cited by philosophers and theologians alike. His thought even during his lifetime departed from the interpretation of Gospel teachings, that forbade any manifestation of violence whatsoever.

In his polemic entitled ‘Contra Faustum’ he wrote “ In the impulse to inflict cruelty to exact revenge, the soul is disturbed nor does it allow itself any rest. Wildness in combat, the impulse to conquer and other manifestations are justly condemned during war. And very often, to punish these passions, even good people guided by law, wage war, standing in opposition to violence on the orders of God or some other lawful authority.”

In the ‘City of God’,”Could those who win in a just cause doubt in wishing them victory together with the intended peace. These are good things and undoubtedly the gifts of God.”

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A just war may be waged if the previous conditions are not rectified by negotiation and ultimate means are reached for. Saint Augustine adds “ God’s gravity, that forbids the killing of a human being has made certain exceptions”.

A just war is the tool of divine justice and mostly it is defensive in nature. A war of revenge may be waged under the condition that it is conducted by a lawful authority and avoids unjustified violence and cruel, exemplary vengeance.

In accordance with the universalism in Saint Paul’s ‘Letter to the Galatians’, in which “there is no Jew nor Greek but you are all one in Christ Jesus”, moral being does not just lie in Christian institutions and countries and a just war may also be waged by non-Christian countries.

Saint Thomas Aquinas based his thoughts in part on Saint Augustine. In the ‘Suma Theologica’, he indicated the conditions necessary for a just war. Saint Thomas expanded on the thoughts of many theologians and lawyers who had worked out that war could be started only by lay authorities for the repair of received injuries or to defend the country with the aim of achieving a just peace and not satisfying any notions of revenge or hate, and under the authority of the Church or a, already-recognised authority to support the action.

There were three conditions. A leader should declare war as he is responsible for the country in his care. Secondly, any war must have a just cause (causa justa) so that the side against whom war should be waged deserves it. Also when it is demanded by the good of society against which the war is waged”. Thirdly and the war must be undertaken in a just manner (intentio recta) to achieve its stated aims or to avoid evil and to finally achieve a just peace. A war must be characterised by moderation with no recourse to revenge.

In the Middle Ages, the just war doctrine was being formulated and lay between realism and pacifism. Realism is the admission that war is persistent in history and arises from the urge to dominate and material gain. Pacifism is the strict adherence to the sixth commandment, no killing under any circumstances. But the sixth commandment, although it reads “Thou shalt not kill”, should read “Thou shalt not murder”. In Hebrew, it is used in this sense and was translated generally later to mean “kill”, meaning not to kill arising from baser intentions rather than during a just war.

When Spain stared to colonise overseas, it considered the question of waging war against the inhabitants of the New World. The legal academy in Salamanca worked out the doctrine, with Francisco do Vittoria and Francisco Suarez based on by then forgotten law of nations (jus gentium) which was contrary to that which accompanied these crusades.

In the eleventh century, the Pope proclaimed the First Crusade in reaction to the persecution of Christians in the Holy Land and to enable pilgrims to travel from Europe. According to the Old Testament, the Holy Land was seen as belonging to the Christiana as Canaan did to the Israelites. They were allowed to expel the occupying Saracens as the Israelites did to the Canaanites. Other pagans around the Christian world had to be converted to the Church by the sword of necessary, because without this conversion they could not be saved. An extreme view proclaimed that the infidels had no right to their lands and their national organisations were equally unlawful.
Count Godfrey of Bouillon in battle with Muslim forces during the First Crusade. Photo: Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images
Based on the study of Saint Augustine, the Salamanca school raised the equality and individuality of both Christians and non-Christians alike. Christian states if not attacked should not attack pagan lands. The preaching of God’s message should take place certainly but without the use of force. Neither the Pope nor emperor could force their legal authority to embrace pagan lands or pagans. Being a Christian does not of itself confer any justice or legitimacy; pagans to may have a just cause for a just war. Moreover,neither those freshly baptised who later became apostates nor blasphemy entails that Christians are justified in any military intervention.

In the late Middle Ages after numerous crusades and holy wars, the Salamanca school gained a revolutionary reputation by reminding and developing the doctrine of the just war. These were similar to the views of Stanisław of Skarbmierz and Paweł Włodkowicz who at Council of Constance rebuffed the arguments advanced by the theologians of the Teutonic Knights who justified their north and north western expansion from the lands of the Polish Crown. The arguments of the Polish lawyers were similar to those of Salamanca. Since their treaties were only committed to print in the twentieth century, the stricture on conversion by force and the right to a just war were associated with learned Spaniards and pagans.

The Church has forgotten about the holy wars. Permission to wage a just war can be found in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic church. The Catholic should strive to keep the peace but “ so long as the danger of war lasts and there is a lack of an international authority that has the competence and strength, governments cannot be deprived of the right of self-defence so long as they have exhausted all the means of a peaceful resolution”.

The intellectual legacy from the theory on the doctrine of the just war has been appealed to, based on the dwindling conditions in which a Catholic may indeed fight:

■ “So that the damaged caused by an attacker on the nation or community of nations would be persistent, major andunavoidable;”

■ ”So that all the remaining means to bring the conflict to an end have been unrealistic or ineffective;”

■ “So that the conditions to achieve success should be warranted;”

■ ”So that the use of arms should not leave a trail of even more major evil, or chaos than the evil which should be eradicated. The power of contemporary means of destruction should be considered. ”

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In his encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti’ in October 2020, Pope Francis stressed the primacy of peace, basing his arguments on Saint Augustine, so “ as Saint Augustine, who developed the concept of the just war that we do not support today stated “The greatest achievement of glory is to quash war with the word instead of killing with the sword and by peace not war, reaching for peace or maintaining it. ”

The Pope admits that the Catechism allows for war under limited circumstances but this permission could be open to abuse and so in the light of the destructiveness of modern war, should be generally abolished.

Few read the encyclicals, but if they did they wouldn’t be confused by the later statements uttered by the Pope especially equating self- defence with sheer violence the fall into utopian pacifism. “ We are a guilty” was stated around a month ago after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Pope John Paul II who was no supporter of war, signed off on the Catechism of the Catholic Church and was elected after nearly 500 years of Italian dominance. Also, he was from behind the iron curtain and attempted to charm the crowds gathered on Saint Peter’s Square in declaring that he was “from a far country”. Since that time, this statement seems to be more a clear case of flirtation without any real base. Pope Francis is truly from a distant country.

- Krzysztof Zwoliński
- Translated by Jan Darasz
Main photo: Saint Augustine, creator of the theory of the just war. Painting by Phillipe de Champagne. Photo: Wikimedia
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