National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 2006

Is it time for Catholics to become pacifist?

By Robert Drinan, S.J., NCR contributor

The regular newsletter of the Friends Committee on National Legislation has almost persuaded me that it is difficult if not impossible to justify any modern war. Is it time for Catholics to become pacifist?

John XXIII addressed the issue in Pacem in Terris issued on Easter Sunday, 1963. He said very categorically that “it is almost impossible to justify any modern war.” Vatican II echoed that sentiment but did not openly reject the seven principles which modern Catholic theologians continue to use to justify a war.

I have tested every war in the light of those principles. Only World War II seems to be justified. The hope in 1945 was that the establishment of the United Nations could prevent any further major war. The United Nations made it clear beyond doubt that all members of the United Nations solemnly promised and pledged that they would not go to war without the explicit the authority of the United Nations. The mandate denies the status of a just war to America’s military adventures in Vietnam, Grenada, El Salvador, and Iraq. There was a United Nations authorization for military action in Kuwait. But it still must be justified by the proportionality test in the definition of a just war. Can the liberation of Kuwait be deemed of more value then the loss of countless lives?

The just war principles can trace their origins to St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. They are summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Paragraph 2309). But the doctrine in the last analysis is so remote and metaphysical that one has to wonder if it is usable in the modern world. The words of Pope John Paul II keep coming back, “War is always a defeat for humanity.” ( emphasis supplied)

The Quaker position is simple pacifism. It is easy to dismiss it as an incomplete understanding of what Christ and the Christian church have said. But more and more it makes sense. Pacifism, of course, calls for almost total disarmament. It affirms again and again that the destruction of nuclear weapons will lead to the elimination of war. Again the most learned Christian will argue with the Quaker doctrine of pacifism but everyone must admit it’s a more compelling view.

But if the Catholic community accepted the views of Pope John the XXIII and John Paul II, noted above, the world would move against war in all its forms. The sentiments of other bodies like the World Council of Christians replicate that of the Holy See. If we stress the ever more horrendous aspects of war and ban on all weapons might well emerge.

President Kennedy said it well, “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.” Kennedy spoke in the great tradition of Catholicism and a Quaker appeal when he predicted that, “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today.”

Will that “day” really be “distant?”

Pax Christi (Peace of Christ) has been echoing these sentiments since its beginning. This is an indispensable organization that radiates positions against war and for peace that are in the most honorable traditions of the Catholic Church.

All of this has been complicated and obscured by the relentless pounding of the White House on the alleged need for a “war on terrorism.” The existence of this threat is supposed to justify almost any atrocity including the torture of detainees.

The prophetic voice of the Quakers stands bravely about all of the tactics about terrorism. Ten times a year its newsletter relates spiritual values of the Quaker heritage.

The Washington Office of the Religious Society of Friends is located at: 245 Second St NE., Washington, DC 20002-5795. Phone: 202-547-6000. Fax: 202-547-6019. E-mail: Website:

It is time for Catholics to connect with the teachings of Pope John XXIII, those of Vatican II and those of John Paul II.

It is time to declare that in the light of the indefensible increase in weapons the Catholic church move toward pacifism and declare that modern war can seldom if ever (or never) fulfill the requirements of a just war.

Longtime NCR contributor, Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is

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