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22 Sep 2016History Essays

Is Pacifism a Utopia or The Only Way to Safe Future?

The persistence of violence and war, particularly terrorism and government responses to terrorism, rekindled the debate over the appropriate moral stand over violence. Pacifism and just war theory are two perspectives towards violence and war. Now more than even, the stand of the Vatican on issues related to violence and war is of importance, especially with the sizable number of Catholics in the world, whose stand on these issues could influence aggregate decisions and responses. It is important to consider these two theories to determine the perspective likely espoused by the Roman Catholic moral tradition.

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Pacifism and Just War Theory

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The difficulty in considering these theoretical perspectives of moral tradition is the lack of clear definition or the existence of various meanings. On one hand, Cahill (1994) describes pacifism as “a way of life […] opposed not only to war, but to any form of direct physical violence” (p. 2) by nurturing the values of “mercy, forgiveness and compassion” (p.2). On the other hand, Cahill (1994) characterizes just war theory as the perception allowing “violence under certain conditions but attempts to limit it” (p. 1) by requiring a valid justification for such actions. Rasor (2008) further explains these two theories as applied in a spectrum. The application of pacifism could be in the absolute or conditional sense. Absolute pacifism means outright opposition towards any form of violence or war while conditional pacifism starts out as in opposition to war but considers the causes of war when these is already occurring. Just war could apply as hard or soft manner. Hard just war refers to the permissive perspective likely to agree with different government actions while soft war pertains to the restrictive perspective that requires justification for war or acts of violence using criteria to determine acceptable and non-acceptable violence or war.

Singularity or Co-Existence of these Theories in the Roman Catholic Moral Tradition

The different characterization and description of pacifism and just war theory influence the weight of the alignment of these perspectives, singly or in co-existence, with the Roman Catholic moral tradition. The history and development of the Roman Catholic moral tradition shows strands of pacifism and just war with one perspective gaining strength over the other depending on the situation.

On one hand, roots of pacifism in the Roman Catholic Church is in the Bible through the values of forgiveness, love and reconciliation (Klejment & Roberts, 1996; Ryden, 2001) and the precept “love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you” (McNeal, 1992, p. 23). Known pacifists include Dorothy Day, a Roman Catholic and an advocate of pacifism and the Catholic Worker Movement (Cahill, 1994, p. 180, 213; Klejment & Roberts, 1996). These advocate against violence and war and strive to address global issues through peaceful means such as prayer, charity, and fellowship.

On the other hand, just war also has strong historical ties with just war by using war to end violence. Known thinkers or theologians such as Ambrose, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas all discussed the morality and rationality of just war with Augustine declaring the validity of just war in the Roman Catholic context (McNeal, 1992). Constantine tied just war to the Roman Catholic Church by integrating the Church with the Roman Empire (Cahill, 1994, p. 40; Rasor, 2008).

Today, Roman Catholic moral tradition has branched out into the pacifist and just war clusters. There are groups within the Roman Catholic Church that advocate pacifism while others support just war. The co-existence of these two strands emerged through the shift towards conditional pacifism and soft just war united by the consideration of war as a last option and requiring just cause (Rasor, 2008). In this sense, there is co-existence between the two moral perceptions but with juts war taking a dominant position.

Just War as a more Convincing Description of the Roman Catholic Moral Tradition

The nature of the co-existence of pacifism and just war leads to just war as a more convincing description of the Roman Catholic moral tradition for a number of reasons.

With just war described as soft war, this overshadows pacifism. The shift of pacifist advocacy towards conditional pacifism means the initial lack of support for violence and war but actions to ensure sufficient causes of violence and war once this occurs. This has very little difference with soft just war that does not accept violence or war but places the burden upon governments or groups imposing war to justify this action. (Rasor, 2008) In this sense, soft just war has subsumed conditional pacifism. Only a small cluster advocate absolute pacifism but do not expect governments to practice their moral perspective (Sharp, 1996).

The Roman Catholic Church, as a block, has accepted just war as early as during the time of Augustine and as maintained this stand up to now. Many popes advocated just war, especially those in position during the two great wars and the various post-WWII conflicts in different countries. (Cahill, 1994, p. 183, 190) Popes Benedict XV, John Paul I and John Paul II together with the incumbent Pope Benedict XVI who are staunch supporters of pacifist values, applied soft just war in their official statements regarding wars and violence, such as the war against terrorism launched by the United States and the military intervention in Iraq. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI asked governments to consider violence and war as a last resort, placed upon governments the burden to provide just cause for engaging in violence and war, and called for restraint or violence within the bound of just cause. (Rasor, 2008)


Pacifism and just war are two strands of the Roman Catholic moral tradition. Pacifism found exemplification through Roman Catholic biblical teachings on love, peace and reconciliation that opposed war. Just war found expression in the use of war by the Roman Empire to spread religion. As time progressed, the delineation of the two moral traditions intertwined with the development of conditional pacifism and soft just war, these made co-existence possible. However, while pacifism and just war can co-exist, just war is the dominant moral tradition in Roman Catholicism subsuming pacifism, with the influence of pacifism found in the advocacy for peaceful means as the initial response. Nevertheless, just war primarily directs the moral perspective of the Roman Catholic Church, such as in its response to war waged by governments or states, which makes this theory the more fitting description of the Roman Catholic moral tradition.


  1. Cahill, L. S. (1994). Love your enemies: Discipleship, pacifism, and just war theory. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers.
  2. Klejment, A., & Roberts, N. (1996). American Catholic pacifism: The influence of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  3. McNeal, P. (1992). Harder than war: Catholic peacemaking in twentieth-century America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  4. Rasor, P. (2008). Beyond just war and pacifism: Toward a unitarian universalist theology of prophetic nonviolence. The Journal of Liberal Religion, 8(1), 1-29.
  5. Ryden, E. (2001). Just war and pacifism: Chinese and Christian perspectives in dialogue.
  6. Taipei: Taipei Ricci Institute.
  7. Sharp, G. (1996). Beyond just war and pacifism: Nonviolent struggle toward justice, freedom and peace. The Ecumenical Review, 48(2), 233-250.
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