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Theological and Moral Perspectives on Today's Challenge of Peace

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Department of Social Development and World Peace

Theological and Moral Perspectives on Today's Challenge of Peace

Speaking notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Coadjutor Archbishop of Dublin
Washington, 10th November 2003

Collective security

“Nothing is to be lost with peace; everything can be lost with war”. These were words used by Pope Pius XII on 24th August 1939, on the eve of World War II, a war which was to bring devastating effects on the entire European continent for the following six years, and which gradually expanded, bringing into its clutches the entire globe.

World War II was a war which was accompanied by the horrors of the Holocaust, that terrible mark on the twentieth century which should be a permanent reminder to all of the depths of depravity to which totalitarian regimes are prepared to stoop, when they remain unchallenged.

The outbreak of World War II showed up the weaknesses of the collective security structures which it had been hoped would emerge, at least in an embryonic manner, in the League of Nations.

That early concept of collective security was the fruit of the horrors of World War I. The strong support of President Wilson was crucial for the establishment of the League of Nations. In many ways, the concept of collective security was a “new” proposal from the United States to what it felt then was “old Europe” and its factious nations.

The subsequent lack of support at home in the United States fatally weakened the League of Nations. The inability of the remaining major powers within the League to address aggression, such as the invasion of Ethiopia, finally rendered it ineffective. Collective security requires responsible and coherent action on the part of all.

The United Nations, after World War II, was also inspired by the ideal “of saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind” (Charter of the United Nations, Preamble).

It is worth noting that precisely those generations of the twentieth century which had experienced both the horrors of war and the terrors of totalitarianism felt the need to turn to mechanisms of international cooperation to defend their security. The Purpose of the United Nations is to maintain peace and security. Those who emerged from the horrors of war seemed to be more clearly aware that security transcends national power, that no one is secure when anyone is insecure. Peace and security are primordial global issues.

The just war doctrine

Pope John Paul II belongs to that generation which bears deep in its own personal identity the experience of World War II. That personal experience has led Pope John Paul to an abhorrence of both the horrors of war and the inhumanity of totalitarian systems. It is important to recall that his abhorrence is about both: the horrors of both war and totalitarian systems. This was especially clear in his comments on the recent Gulf Wars

Some have begun to ask: has Pope John Paul II assumed a pacifist approach? Has he abandoned the just war theory? Is he – or someone in his name - attempting to change it or does he read that theory with the lens of a particular viewpoint?

Pope John Paul II is against war. At the beginning of this year, addressing the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, he repeated his conviction: “No to war, war is never inevitable, it is always a defeat for humankind”, just as he has in the past affirmed that war is a path of no return and that the international community must find new ways of ensuring that disputes are resolved by means other than war.

The Catholic Church has however not renounced the just war theory. The Second Vatican Council recalled the theory and the Catechism of the Catholic Church §§ 2307 to2309 and § 2312 to 2314 explicitly mentions the “just war doctrine”.

The Church recognizes that a nation has not just the right, but the obligation to ensure the security of its citizens and to respond to an aggression, even - if only under very strict conditions - by means of military force. Article 51 of the UN Charter prescribes that all States, if attacked, retain the inherent right of self defense. The Pope has stressed further that in certain other situations the community of nations has the obligation to block the hand of an aggressor, when he threatens those who cannot defend themselves.

But the section of the Catechism which deals with the strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force is headed “Avoiding war”. The treatment of the just war doctrine is introduced by the phrase (§2308): “all citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war”. It talks (§2307) about “the evils and ...

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