On War: The Strange Death of Catholic International Thought

by Andrew Latham and Chris Werbos

It is no secret that since the 1960s the Catholic tradition of moral reflection on international affairs, a tradition that has been unfolding at least since the time of Saint Augustine, has taken a decidedly leftward turn. Whether the issue has to do with war and peace, development and the fight against poverty, protecting the environment, or encouraging disarmament, Catholic doctrine — as articulated most comprehensively in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church — has become virtually indistinguishable from the views of leftist scholars and activists.

Nor are the reasons for this turn unknown. Beginning in the interwar period but accelerating in the 1960s, Catholic international thought was powerfully reshaped by several emergent intellectual trends, chief among them Marxist theories of imperialism; the dependencia theories of thinkers like André Gunder Frank and Samir Amin; the writings of the Frankfurt School theorists such as Herbert Marcuse; the works of peace studies scholars such as Johan Galtung; the Catholic pacifism of activists like James Douglass and Gordon Zahn; the active nonviolence embodied in Gandhi and MLK; and, of course, the liberation theology of thinkers like the Jesuit priest Juan Luis Segundo.

What is less well understood, however, is the profound degree to which this “progressive turn” constitutes a rupture in the 1,500-year-long tradition of what I will call the “deep tradition of Catholic international thought.”

The conceit on the left is that developments in the Church’s moral reflection on international affairs in the decades since the second Vatican Council have been nothing more than the unfolding of that millennium-and-a-half tradition. The reality, however, is quite different: for the past half-century or so, “progressive” Catholic thinkers have been less interested in updating traditional Catholic international doctrine in light of “the signs of the times” than in remaking that doctrine in the image of their radically non-traditional political theology of war and peace.

The result has been the death of Catholic international theory, at least in the sense that the distinctively Catholic tradition of reflection on international affairs that persisted for the fifteen hundred years before the mid-twentieth century has passed from this world. In its place has congealed a toxic brew of “progressive” bromides that is indistinguishable, except for a thin theological froth, from the secular and materialist international thought currently prevalent on the political left.

Elsewhere I have addressed the revolutionary break in traditional Catholic international thought that has taken place since the interwar period. In this article I will focus on a relatively under-explored rupture in this tradition of thought: the causes of war.

Pre–20th century Catholic international thought located the causes of war in both humanity’s fallen nature and the anarchic nature of the international system. With respect to the first of these, from the time of the Church Fathers, key Christian thinkers such as Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine argued that war was a byproduct of personal sin. As a result of Adam’s fall, they all agree, pride, vanity, and what Augustine called libdo dominandi — the lust for domination — drive princes to attempt to subjugate their neighbors or perpetrate other grave evils. As Augustine and Aquinas argued most explicitly, humanity’s fallen nature thus gives rise to two kinds of war: unjust wars motivated by pride, vanity, and libdo dominandi and just wars fought in self-defense against unjust aggression or to otherwise punish evildoers.

From the Middle Ages on, Catholic thinkers such as Dante Alighieri and Pierre Dubois also came to view what we would now call the “anarchic international system” as an important, if merely permissive, cause of war. Such an international system, they argued, by its very nature lacked a universal political power that could adjudicate disputes among kingdoms and other lesser powers and so maintain the peace. As a result, they argued, the conflicts that naturally arise between political units pursuing their own interests can be resolved only by arbitration; diplomacy; or, if those two fail, war. For Dante, this argument took a specific form: war is caused by the lack of a universal empire that could definitively adjudicate disputes among lesser powers. So too for Dubois: war is caused by the lack of an international council charged with maintaining what we would now call collective security.

This was the prevailing etiology of war in the world of Catholic international thought through the early twentieth century: war is the product of fallen human nature and the anarchic nature of the international order. Beginning in earnest in the 1960s, however, the Church initiated a root-and-branch re-examination of its approach to war. As the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, usually referred to by its Latin title, Gaudium et Spes, put it, the post–Vatican II era was to be a time for “a completely fresh appraisal” of war.

What was the result of this “completely fresh appraisal” of war? For the purposes of this article, the answer to this question is that in the aftermath of Vatican II, the Church’s core teaching on the causes of war began to give way to an entirely new set of explanations — explanations that ultimately represented not a gradual unfolding of traditional Catholic international thought, but a radical rupture with it.

The first of these departures from tradition was the belief that war is caused not by personal sin, but by structural sin, sometimes referred to as structural evil. What do progressive Catholics mean by structural sin? Put directly, they used the term to refer to evil that extends beyond the sin committed by individual people — that is, to refer to the violence and injustice produced and reproduced through societal institutions and cultural norms. These institutions and norms may be political in nature, having to do with the direct oppression of groups or peoples through state power. But they may also be economic in nature, taking the form of unjust systems of economic organization that systematically redistribute wealth in ways that harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs. Finally, these institutions and norms may be social in nature, systematically marginalizing, excluding or subordinating certain groups on the basis of ascribed identities.

How does structural sin cause war? Simply put, progressive Catholic international thought asserts that wars happen when those seeking to perpetuate unjust or violent institutions and cultural norms clash with those who seek to resist or overturn them.

Although it appears that explanations that depend on the concept of structural sin represent nothing more than an evolution of the traditional Catholic understanding that war is caused by personal sin, in reality, the adoption of this concept marks a profound rupture with that understanding. Historically, the concept of structural sin was not simply an evolution of the concept of personal sin. Rather, it was a totally new concept forged out of the raw material originally furnished by Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung and the Marxist school of “peace studies” he founded in the 1960s. Galtung and his colleagues defined structural violence as the harm done by institutions or cultural practices, as opposed to individual sinners. Beginning around the time of the Second Vatican Council, Liberation Theologians and other progressive Catholic thinkers took up Galtung’s idea, lightly sacralized it, and then rebranded it as the concept of structural or social sin described above. They subsequently institutionalized this new concept, working it into a number of conciliar documents. Explaining war in terms of structural sin is therefore not strictly speaking an unfolding of the deep Catholic tradition of international thought. Rather, it is an alien concept grafted onto that tradition.

The second new explanation for war that crystalized in Catholic doctrine in the mid-twentieth century was the theory of arms racing. According to this theory, competitions between nations for superiority in the development and accumulation of weapons tend to end in military conflict. More specifically, the theory held that in the context of the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the competitive acquisition of nuclear weapons was, to understate it somewhat, not a safe way to preserve a steady peace. In this new theory, the causal mechanisms linking arms racing and war are totally unspecified. But there is a clear sense in doctrinal and other statements that arms races carry with them the clear danger of deliberate or unintended nuclear war.

Finally, in more recent years, Pope Francis has advanced a third new explanation for war: the “merchants of death” theory. According to this theory, first floated in the aftermath of the First World War, wars are caused in large measure by the manufacturers of weapons themselves, who pressure nations to start and enter wars for the sake of their own profits.

What is the ultimate source of this theory? Not scripture, to be sure. And certainly not the Magisterium. And most certainly not the millennium-and-half-old tradition of Christian international thought, which drew on Christ’s admonishment to sell one’s cloak to buy a sword. Rather, the source of this theory is the half-baked Marxism of the post–World War I peace movement, which sought to place the cause of the war, as with all wars, on purely materiel concerns — namely, the extensive loans made to Great Britain and the supposed political power of arms manufacturers. This theory was popular on the left between the two world wars, with the convention of the Senate’s Nye Committee being explicitly done to “prove” the causal link. But no serious scholar of the causes of the World War I today would argue that the “merchants of death” had anything to do with either the outbreak of the war or America’s entry into it, pointing instead to the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and the strength of the central powers in 1917.

To conclude, these new theories of war and peace are rooted within the Marxist, materialist tradition of peace studies, which seeks now as it has sought since the 1920s to accomplish the impossible task of ending all violence and injustice. This is not the organic unfolding of the Christian tradition in light of the “signs of the times” — rather, it is a subversion of the tradition of Christian international thought and an attempt to replace it with a theory of war and peace which is simply inimical to that tradition.

But even if it is not, strictly speaking, a gradual unfolding of the tradition begun with Saint Augustine, some might argue that these are merely doctrinal adaptations to social scientific advances in the study of war. These thinkers are as mistaken as they are misguided. Indeed, modern Christian thinking about war is almost willfully ignorant of all the actual social science research — psychological, anthropological, sociological, and political — on war published over the last half-century or so. They make a complete mockery of Pope John Paul II’s 1982 declaration that “building peace … depends upon the progress of research about it. Scientific studies on war, its nature, causes, means, objectives and risks have much to teach us on the conditions of peace.” Ultimately, these new Christian theories of war are not grounded in social science — indeed, they are really nothing more than time-bound, ideologically derived congeries of platitudes and bromides that retard rather than advance the cause of peace.

Ultimately, and despite the assumptions and assertions of modern Christian thought on the topic of war, the tragic reality is that if you are expecting total peace and justice in this life, you are bound to be disappointed — in a post-lapsarian world, sin and strife are simply the default settings for humankind and, while this can be mitigated and moderated to some degree, it can never be transcended. If the Church continues to promote peace on the basis of the utopian belief that we can overcome this basic reality, it will achieve nothing. If, on the other hand, the Church were to abandon the ill conceived intellectual legacies of the interwar period and the mid-twentieth century and recover and reinvigorate its traditional wisdom regarding the causes of war, it would be better placed to promote the cause of peace.

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