Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Workshop examines church’s stance on just war, armed conflicts

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 25, 2018

MARIETTA—What to make of global conflicts where missile-heavy drones unleash deadly violence on “battlefields without borders,” the dizzying number of extremists vying for control in the Syrian Civil War and nuclear weapons being engineered smaller for use on the front lines?

Some 50 people assembled at Transfiguration Church, Marietta, April 28 for “A Catholic Look at War and Global Conflict.” They wrestled with the tactics and strategies of modern warfare, examining how gangs and violence drive millions of people to flee their homes as part of migration crisis and where armed groups grab power under the cloak of religious clashes.

Pearce Edwards, of St. Thomas More Church, Decatur, is studying polictical science at Emory University in pursuit of a doctorate.

“The stakes of this are people’s lives and morality,” said Edwards.

The conversation about war and violence needs to be at “a deeper level than a political talking point,” he said. The church can add to the conversation by reminding the policy makers of the “human dimension to the questions.”

Justice and Peace Ministries of the archdiocese organized the daylong look at war and global conflict.

“We want to be sure that we are offering ways for the faithful to continue to grow and learn in their faith, especially as it pertains to Catholic social teaching, as well as suggest concrete ways in which they might live their faith through social action,” said Kat Doyle, director of Justice and Peace Ministries.

Catholic activists and scholars said increasingly the church is evolving its thought on war, urging nations to adopt alternatives to armed conflict.

“The question is not can we do away with conflict, but can we do away with violent conflict. War is not the answer. We have to find other ways,” said Marie Dennis, co-president of Pax Christi International.

The scope of global conflicts is perplexing. According to the Global Conflict Tracker, there are 10 conflicts worsening, with another 15 where conflict is simply part of life navigated by women, men and children. The Council of Foreign Relations labels the conflicts from civil wars and sectarian battles to terrorism and unconventional.

“We’re struggling as a global society to even understand what war looks like,” said Dennis.

Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III welcomed the group with a videotaped message.

“God is not an absent participant in the world in which we live. God is the main player in bringing about peace,” he said.

Christ is the answer to “the problem of the human heart,” he said, quoting from the Gospel of John: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

As an Air Force pilot, Bishop Shlesinger recalled being told by a commander he’d be a “manager of violence,” but he felt the opposite. “I learned a lot about being a peacemaker. I knew my commitment was to make sure the world could live without violence, through nonviolent ways searching for peace as well.”

The bishop, in his taped comments, said the individual must be at the center of discussions about conflict.

“We should consider the human person always as beyond violence,” he said. “Somebody who must be respected, somebody who has inherent dignity, somebody who remains forever in a special relationship with God, his creator.”

The church been guided for centuries by its understanding of war with the just war theory, developed first by St. Augustine, then by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and later by other philosophers. Political leaders, theologians and military ethicists use the theory to guide military conflict and ensure war is morally justifiable.

“There is a moral and ethical dimension to war and peace, and it is not just just national interest,” said Phillip Thompson, director of the Aquinas Center of Theology at Emory University.

The theory’s first criteria is if a country goes to war, it needs to have a just cause. A just nation cannot be the aggressor. And what follows are seven additional principles to contain armed conflicts.

Another condition is a probability of success. Thompson said conflicts have such complexity now with different actors. The violence in Syria involves so many factions it isn’t certain war would be justified because the outcome of success is uncertain, he said.

In response to modern warfare, church leaders are arriving at a point where they believe no war is sanctioned as just.

“Those kind of situations are rarer and rarer today. We are totally conflicted” between the traditional stance and the current reality of modern weapons and tactics, said Thompson.

Catholic Relief Services offered examples from its experience in the world’s trouble spots. Chris West, the director of partnership, training and engagement, said millions of people are on the move as refugees because of violence.

CRS has learned that interventions with crisis counselors and hiring local people for their skills help refugees to reclaim their dignity and rebuild communities once the conflict is resolved, West said.

And Dennis said the knowledge CRS has acquired post-conflict can be used before armed struggles erupt.

“We know what makes for peace. What we are learning is we have to do that work all the time,” she said.

Among the group of attendees was Mark Harding, a four-year veteran of the Navy. Harding wore a T-shirt with the slogan, “Vets for Peace.” He is a critic of the just war theory because it “lacks foundation.”

“It doesn’t match up to Jesus in the Gospels. I’m hopeful the church will re-examine that. I believe we are called to follow Jesus and sometimes that means to the cross, nonviolently,” said Harding. He said he favors “nonviolent, direct action to confront evil.”