Just Peace Theory: A Syllabus of Errors

The Catholic Church should not abandon Just War doctrine in favor of Just Peace theory. The social and political realities of our time, as in all times, require that we have a theologically grounded moral framework for both judging particular acts of war and then working to limit war on the basis of those judgments.

In recent years there have been troubling indications that what seemed to be settled Catholic teaching regarding war and peace may no longer be, well, settled. Among the more important of these were two, recent gatherings in Rome—one around the Fiftieth World Day of Peace and one in 2019—both sponsored by Pax Christi International, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and a number of other international Catholic organizations, which culminated in a call for the Church to “no longer use or teach ‘just war theory.’” In its place, they proposed, the Church should commit itself to “a Just Peace approach based on Gospel Nonviolence.”

Specifically, the conference participants called for Pope Francis to issue an encyclical on nonviolence, integrate Gospel nonviolence into the life and work of the Church, promote nonviolent practices and strategies, and initiate a global conversation on nonviolence. The Holy Father responded on the occasion of the 50th World Day of Peace by publicly embracing the concepts of Just Peace and Gospel nonviolence, while remaining silent regarding the future of Just War doctrine.

The Holy Father having thus clearly accepted the premises of the Just Peace argument, the question arises: should Pope Francis embrace its logic fully and press the Catholic Church to abandon current Just War doctrine in favor of the new vision of Just Peace? Five errors underlying the Just Peace vision suggest that the answer to this question should be a resounding “no”: a confused understanding of “peace,” a conflation of private morality and political morality, a Pelagian utopianism, a flawed foundation in Marxist “peace studies,” and a failure to address the actual causes of interstate war.

It would be a mistake, of course, to think that this is all merely a matter of internecine Catholic politics. To be sure, the engine driving this movement at the moment is undeniably Catholic. Given the fact that Just War is an established Church doctrine, and that its critics have ample institutional platforms from which they can challenge that doctrine both within and beyond the Church, this is hardly surprising. But, it is important to realize that this is not just another solipsistic Catholic “inside baseball” debate. Other Christian denominations have also taken up the cause, as has the ecumenical World Council of Churches. Indeed, the movement has grown at an astonishing rate over the past decade or so, metastasizing during that period into a global project no longer tethered to the Christian church writ large, but involving the transnational “progressive” movement as well. In other words, this issue has moved from being a Catholic issue to a catholic one. But underpinning the entire movement is an essentially Catholic set of arguments. This being the case, it makes eminent good sense to challenge the Just Peace project by challenging its Catholic underpinnings.

 Error #1: A Confused Understanding of Peace

To begin with, Just Peace advocates ground their theory on a biblical concept—shalom— that is simply inappropriate to the realm of political life. As is widely known, the concept of shalom can be understood in spiritual or eschatological terms. In a spiritual register, shalom refers to the right ordering of the relationship of a person to God made possible by grace. Eschatologically, the word refers to the social condition of perfect justice and righteousness that will be realized in the House of the Lord during the end times. Just Peace advocates focus on the eschatological meaning, minus the eschatology. As even a cursory reading of the literature reveals, the fundamental assumption of the Just Peace camp is that the condition of perfect peace and justice denoted by the term shalom can be brought about today and through human action; for them, there is no need to wait for Christ to bring it about during the end times.

Perhaps the best example of this line of reasoning is to be found in Terrence Rynne’s influential book Jesus Christ Peacemaker: A New Theology of Peace. In this book, Rynne argues that the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Micah believed that “peace would come to all nations through the spread of God’s word and justice—without the need for kings and wars,” substantiating this claim by offering two proof texts, Isaiah 2:3-4 and Micah 4:3. He then goes on to assert it was the stirring vision of these two prophets in particular that led the Church Fathers to enthusiastically and authoritatively embrace the idea of positive peace.

The problem with this argument is twofold. First, the Old Testament proof texts cited in support of Just Peace are obviously taken out of context. Here I offer the example of Isaiah 2:3-4. Rynne presents this passage as if it were a straightforward recipe for a positive peace that could be achieved in the not-too-distant future through human effort. What he omits, however, is the preceding verse: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.” Read in proper context, it is clear that Isaiah is prophesying regarding the “last days,” also known as the eschaton, and not some imminent future achievable through human enlightenment. In other words, this is obviously an eschatological text. As such, neither it nor the passage from Micah can be used to support the Just Peace argument.

Second, and perhaps most fundamentally, Rynne’s argument is undermined by his conflation of eschatological prophecies and political principles, especially in the realm of international order and conflict among nations. The Old Testament prophets Daniel and Micah, not to mention the Church Fathers, were not drawing up a blueprint for a temporal political community to be constructed by human action. Rather, they were painting a picture of a spiritual kingdom to be ushered in by divine will. And they were painting a picture of a spiritual kingdom that could only be made immanent in the world at a single, very specific point in salvation history: the eschaton or, to quote Isaiah, “the last days.” Trying to apply an eschatological concept like shalom to a contemporary political issue is to make a fundamental category error—one that necessarily leads to faulty analysis and fatuous policy prescriptions.

Error #2: A Conflation of Personal and Political Morality

Not only do advocates of Catholic Just Peace theory confuse the eschatological and the political, they also confuse the personal and the political. Just Peace advocates make their arguments in favor of nonviolence by erroneously grounding what is an essentially political project in Jesus’ unambiguously personal morality. In other words, their argument rests on an elision of the realms of personal and political morality.

A plain reading of the Gospels, however, reveals that Jesus did not make such an elision. His teachings regarding Christian discipleship pertain solely to the actions of private persons and their interpersonal interactions; they are effectively silent with respect to the morality of the state and its officials. In other words, Jesus’ moral teachings in the Gospels are not political teachings—they are teachings about personal morality. They deal with the morality of adultery, divorce, almsgiving and other standards of personal conduct, as well as specifying how to respond to personal insult or injury. They have no direct bearing on the practices of governance and statecraft.

Take, for example, the Sermon on the Mount, a key Just Peace proof text. According to Matthew’s account of this sermon, Jesus first declares that “peacemakers” are blessed and then proceeds to offer three teachings that are said to collectively constitute a blanket prohibition on the use of force. The first reaffirms the Old Testament injunction against murder, but proscribes personal anger as well. The second bans personal vengeance and calls on Christians who have been wronged to “turn the other cheek” rather than retaliate. And the third enjoins Christians to love not just their neighbors but their enemies as well.

In the three teachings, Jesus is clearly schooling his listeners regarding the proper response to personal insult and injury and, more generally, how private persons should conduct themselves in the interpersonal domain. He is not teaching them anything at all about the way public officials should execute their public duties. Nor is he saying anything about the broader issue of the propriety of the use of force by the state. Nor, finally, is Jesus barring Christians from wielding the sword in the service of those authorities.

To be sure, there is little doubt that the Fathers opposed Christian service in the Roman army. Whether on the grounds of a deep-seated aversion to the idolatrous practices of the pagan Roman army, a scripturally derived antipathy to bloodshed, or respect for the dominical command to love one’s enemies and pray for one’s persecutors, the scholarly consensus is that the early Church Fathers viewed service in Rome’s legions as incompatible with the moral strictures of Christianity.

Arguendo, then, let us concede that the Church Fathers clearly opposed the participation of Christians in the pagan Roman Army. But even if we concede this point, it does not mean that the Fathers of the early Church were pacifists—at least if we define pacifism as a principled belief that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable under any circumstances. Nowhere in the writings of the Fathers of the early Church, for example, do we find an aversion to the use of military force as such. Indeed, Tertullian (c. 155-240), ultimately one of the staunchest opponents of Christian military service, actually began his public life celebrating such service. In the Apology (197 AD), for example, he emphasized and applauded the responsible participation of Christians in the public life of Rome—including military service. As he put it in response to claims that Christians were indifferent or inimical to the common good of the Empire: “We sail with you and fight alongside you and serve in your army.” In the Apology, Tertullian also cites favorably the Legio Fulminata, the famed and largely Christian “Thundering Legion” that fought heroically under emperor Marcus Aurelius. Finally, it is in the Apology that Tertullian first recognized the necessity of “brave armies” capable of defending the Empire, a theme that would persist in his later writings even as he waxed increasingly hostile to Christian service in the Roman army. This is not to suggest, of course, that the early Tertullian had no misgivings about Christian service in the Roman army. Even in the Apology he foreshadows what would evolve within the next decade-and-a-half into a radical rejection of Christian military service on the grounds that life in the Roman army was inherently idolatrous. And by the time he wrote On Idolatry (c. 202) and On the Crown (c. 211) his condemnation of Christian service in the Roman army had become both comprehensive and uncompromising. Rather it is to make the point that neither the early nor the later Tertullian had any objection to the use of military force as a means of preserving the Empire.

As with Tertullian, so with the other Church Fathers—none was a pacifist, at least if we define pacifism as a principled belief that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable under any circumstances. And it is simply not the case that these early Church leaders, up to and including Augustine, viewed the Sermon on the Mount as some sort of master class in political science or international relations.

Error #3: A Pelagian Utopianism Instead of Augustinian Realism

A third error underpinning Catholic Just Peace theory is that it is grounded in a kind of Pelagian utopianism rather than the Augustinian realism that has always characterized the Catholic tradition of international thought. Pelagianism, of course, was an early Christian heresy that held that human beings were not fallen—that is, not tainted by original sin. The world was full of sin and evil. But Pelagians believed that both individual human beings and collective human institutions could be perfected through acts of will. In other words, they believed that if those who had seen the light could convince people through personal and political efforts. all the world’s people could be perfected and all the world’s evils eliminated.

As George Weigel has argued, however, traditional—that is to say, Augustinian—Catholic realism always held that the world has always been populated by fallen human beings tainted by original sin. In such a world imperfect human beings, operating through imperfect institutions, made evils such as war an ever present reality. War as the early Church, and maybe especially Augustine, believed simply could not be abolished or eliminated from political life. According to this Catholic realist tradition, Weigel argued, the problem of war could certainly be managed and mitigated. Properly ordered international institutions, for example, could promote tranquillitas ordinis (the tranquility of order) and reduce the incidence and intensity of war. But the problem of war could never be definitively solved or transcended—at least not until Christ returned in glory to usher in the Millennium.

As the Second Vatican Council noted in Gaudium et Spes, the traditional perspective holds that “insofar as men are sinful, the threat of war hangs over them, and hang over them it will until the return of Christ.” Beyond this, the tradition also held that the use of military force was not itself intrinsically evil. Sometimes, when fought humanely and for a just cause, war could be a necessary, even virtuous, course of action.

Pelagian utopianism, on the other hand, is based on a radically different set of assumptions. Pelagianism assumes that war is an evil that must be eliminated if the world is to be perfected. And, they believe, this really can happen, but only if the righteous elite can organize and mobilize to convince people that war can be definitively and decisively eliminated. But that can only happen if people organize to first delegitimize evil and then develop just righteous alternatives.

In the case of war, this means first delegitimizing Just War doctrine, which they argue perpetuates war by distinguishing between a few illegitimate weapons and practices and a great many legitimate ones, and then replacing it with Just Peace theory. Once this is accomplished, the next move is to dismantle the institution of war. The problem with this is that there is nothing in all of human history to support this irenic vision. It’s one thing to abolish dueling or even slavery. Historically, they are both ubiquitous, but not absolutely necessary to the survival of any society. War, on the other hand, is. Therefore it will always be with us. And therefore we will always need an institution like the millennium-and-half-old Just War doctrine to act as legal and institutional guardrails.

Error #4: A Flawed Foundation in Secular “Peace Studies”

Catholic Just Peace theory, then, is theologically problematic. But its most fundamental problem is that it is grounded, not in scripture or the magisterium, nor in the millennium-and-half old tradition of Catholic international thought, but rather in a particular strain of 1960s “peace studies” proposed and popularized by the most famous advocate of that tradition, Johan Galtung. Specifically, it is grounded in Galtung’s three master concepts: structural violence, positive peace, and nonviolence.

Galtung defined “structural violence” as the harm that is done by institutions or cultural norms that prevent people from flourishing as human beings. He rejected what he considered an overly narrow focus on “negative peace” in favor of a broader focus on “positive peace.” For him, the former term referred to the absence of direct violence or war, whereas the latter referred to the absence of indirect or structural violence. From the outset, Galtung and his fellow travellers rejected both pacifism and revolutionary violence, embracing instead the Gandhian strategy of challenging the institutions of structural violence through active civil resistance.

The resonances of these concepts with those of Just Peace theory are obvious: both bodies of work focus on the harm generated, not by individuals, but by social arrangements and practices; both define peace, not merely as the absence of war, but as a social condition of harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility; both link true peace, not to mechanisms limiting the incidence and ferocity of war, but to social justice; and both assert that nonviolence is the only way to reform or replace unjust structures and institutions.

The problem for the Just Peace camp is that these concepts—foundational to both peace studies and its lightly sacralized Catholic derivative—are themselves highly problematic.

To begin with, although terms such as structural violence and positive peace are presented as social-science concepts, they are in reality little more than ideologically laden metaphors that reflect nothing more than the cherished values of the peace studies community. Indeed as peace researcher Kenneth Boulding quipped four decades ago in his article “Twelve Friendly Quarrels with Johan Galtung,” in practice structural violence simply refers to “anything that Galtung does not like.” A litany of Galtung’s dislikes, which he then translates into the language of structural violence, would include hierarchy, poverty, injustice, deprivation, ill-health, low life expectancy, and oppression.

The same could be said of the concept of positive peace: it is simply a shorthand for everything that Galtung and other peace studies scholars do like. Again, as Boulding puts it, “The term ‘positive peace’, by which Galtung seems to mean any state of affairs which gets high marks on his scale of goodness, is also most unfortunate.” Among those states of affairs that Galtung gives high marks on his scale of goodness are equality, freedom, and justice.

So too with Just Peace advocates. For them, structural sin or structural evil simply refers to institutions or practices they find abhorrent, drawing on the categories of both the Peace Studies and Marxist-inspired Latin American liberation theology of the 1960s: war, poverty, oppression, and inequality being perhaps the most oft-mentioned examples.

But if the idea of structural sin is subject to the same criticism as structural violence, it is also subject to a number of distinctively theological criticisms. These come in three major forms. To begin with, this collectivization of sin is grounded in a very selective and ideologically inflected reading of post-Vatican II papal pronouncements. It is simply not the case, for example, that John Paul II or Benedict XVI endorsed this concept. Indeed, both explicitly defended the magisterial teaching that sin is always a personal turning away from God, even as they conceded that social structures could amplify personal sin. Second, the concept of structural sin is subject to the theological (and simply logical) critique that only people, and not institutions, can act and that therefore only people can commit acts contrary to God’s order (the very definition of sin). Finally, the concept of structural sin is based on an elision of two related but distinct ideas: injustice on the one hand and sinfulness on the other. While it is a banality to observe that some social structures (say, slavery) are fundamentally unjust, it does not follow that these structures either act sinfully (which would imply agency) or cause sin (which would imply that if the structures disappeared so would sin, a theological nonsense).

Error #5: A Failure to Address the Actual Causes of Interstate War

Because it is assembled largely out of the raw materials provided by peace studies, Just Peace theory also fails to address adequately the narrower challenge of “negative peace.” As Boulding noted many years ago, the threat to human well-being posed by war—especially nuclear war—is far more urgent than that posed by structural violence. As he put it, “the breakdown of Galtung’s ‘negative peace’ remains the greatest clear and present danger to the human race, a danger to human survival far greater than poverty, or injustice, or oppression. . . .” By focusing on positive peace to the near exclusion of negative peace, Boulding argued, peace researchers were ignoring the real threat to human security.

The same can be said today of Catholic Just Peace theory: it largely ignores the crucially important issue of negative peace, focusing instead on injustice, underdevelopment, and oppression. Indeed, not only does the field of peace studies and its Catholic Just Peace derivative seem uninterested in negative peace, they actually seem uninterested in the underlying problem of interstate war. The real focus of attention in both cases is on promoting justice and development within states, not preventing or mitigating war between states. This is a serious weakness for a theory that purports to be about addressing the scourge of war.

An important corollary of this inattention to negative peace is a naïve belief that a generalized positive peace will end the scourge of interstate war once and for all. Simply put, the conventional wisdom among peace studies scholars and Just Peace activists is that interstate war is ultimately a byproduct of structural violence—injustice, underdevelopment, and oppression—and that positive peace will therefore necessarily entail or produce negative peace, the absence of war.

But this is a fantasy. Since the end of the First World War, academic fields as diverse as psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy and political science have each generated methodologically rigorous and empirically rich studies into the proximate and “root” causes of war. While there are the usual disagreements within and between these fields, taken as a whole, this literature reveals that war is an incredibly complex phenomenon, one that cannot simply be reduced to an epiphenomenon of injustice or underdevelopment.

Rather, scholars have explained the recurring incidence of war across civilizations and down through the ages in terms of factors like the political structure of the international system, the war-prone nature of particular kinds of states, and the inherent bellicosity of human nature. An obsessive focus on injustice, underdevelopment and oppression, however, has blinded Just Peace advocates to the findings of countless scholarly works on the causes of war produced over the last century. As a result, they propose solutions to the problem of interstate war that are unscientific, ahistorical, unrealistic and, ultimately, fatuous.


The Catholic Church should not abandon Just War doctrine in favor of Just Peace theory. The social and political realities of our time, as in all times, require that we have a theologically grounded moral framework for both judging particular acts of war and then working to limit war on the basis of those judgments. Just War doctrine provides such a framework. It provides a coherent moral—and for the last few centuries, legal—basis for mobilizing the international community against acts of unjust violent aggression and in support of military operations that contribute to the universal common good. It is grounded in the reality that war will always be with us, and that the most we can hope to achieve is limiting its incidence and ordering it toward just ends. Just Peace theory cannot substitute for this. It is wholly unrealistic about the causes of war and the prospects for peace, and too theologically and conceptually flawed to be adopted as either as Church doctrine or the foundation for a broader social movement.

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