Cardinal discusses ‘atrophying’ just war framework at Notre Dame Forum event
Peter Breen | Thursday, March 2, 2023
A cardinal, an imam, a general and a lawyer together contributed to Wednesday’s Notre Dame Forum event in McKenna Hall titled “New and Old Wars, New and Old Challenges to Peace!”
Following an introduction by the evening’s moderator, Kroc Institute’s director of Catholic peacebuilding studies Gerard Powers, University President Fr. John Jenkins explained his decision to invite campus-wide dialogue about war and peace this year.
“The folly of war is evident today in Ukraine… but mostly invisible in largely ignored conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Myanmar and far too many other places,” Jenkins said.
“Catholic community — all of us — have a responsibility to know, live out and further develop the Church’s rich tradition of reflection and action on war and peace.”
Next Cardinal Robert McElroy, who was appointed Bishop of San Diego in 2015 and elevated to Cardinal in May 2022 by Pope Francis, delivered his remarks on the Church’s traditions of just war theory and comprehensive nonviolence.
McElroy contextualized his discussion of contemporary foreign policy with two “seminal documents” that provided a moral compass at the height of the Cold War: Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical “Pacem in terris” and the 1983 pastoral letter of the American Catholic Bishops, “The Challenge of Peace.”
“Written in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis, [“Pacem in terris”] arose from a conviction that the church must speak forcefully to the question of peace,” McElroy said.
“Pope John placed the threat of nuclear weapons vividly in front of the world and proclaimed [that] it is irrational to think that war is a proper way to obtain justice for violated rights.”
“The Challenge of Peace,” McElroy continued, presented both the tradition of nonviolence and the legitimate use of military means to defend human rights as authentic expressions of Catholic faith designed to attain the same goal — the comprehensive protection of humanity under attack.
In the 40 years since “The Challenge of Peace,” Cardinal McElroy said that continuing wars among nations and within societies — enlisting devastating weapons and resulting in countless deaths — have pointed to the need to fundamentally renew and prioritize the claim of nonviolent action as “the central tenant” of Catholic teaching on war and peace.
“The atrophying of the just war framework as an effective constraint on war or pathway to peace caused the Church to redesign the just war framework,” McElroy said. “Pope Francis [has constructed] a framework for Catholic teaching on war, on peace that places non-violence — rather than the just war ethic — as the dominant prism through which to evaluate decisions.”
McElroy added that, according to Pope Francis, every war leaves the world worse off than it was before and war is a failure of politics and humanity — a shameful capitulation and a stinging defeat for the forces of evil.
Concluding his talk with a demonstration of nonviolent resistance’s effectiveness and also a clarification of the moral claim for the defense of Ukraine, the Cardinal was then joined on stage by a lawyer, imam and general — three Notre Dame faculty members — for a panel discussion.
Notre Dame Law School professor Mary Ellen O’Connell, who specializes in international law, spoke about the connection between Catholic teaching and the general prohibition on the use of military force by the United Nations Charter.
“At the very heart of the international legal order is the prohibition on the use of military force,” O’Connell said. “And in classic law there is only one acceptable reason, or one narrowing of the prohibition, and that is when a sovereign state has been attacked by another sovereign state, and that attacked state — that victim state — is facing an ongoing challenge of armed conflict.”
O’Connell explained how “Pacem in terris” invokes international laws and said that Pope John XIII looked to the United Nations to bring the ideas every major faith tradition extols about peace into law.
Kroc Institute Islamic studies and Peacebuilding professor A. Rashied Omar, who also serves as an imam or religious minister in Cape Town, South Africa, brought up the perspective of the Global South on the “palpable injustice” in the global power system.
“Most of the countries and citizens of the Global South have unequivocally condemned the Russian invasion and aggression in the Ukraine,” Omar said. “But at the same time, they have also been disappointed at the hypocrisy and the double standards of NATO and the U.S. and its allies. And it’s not impossible to hold both of those positions together.”
Considering Russian President Vladimir’s decision to suspend Russia’s participation in the New START treaty — the last surviving arms control agreement between the two largest nuclear-armed powers — retired Major General and Notre Dame adjunct professor Robert Latiff said nuclear disarmament is still a worthy objective.
“I do think that we are naïve and utopian to believe that [nuclear zero] will ever actually happen,” Latiff said. “I think disarmament and nuclear zero are very good goals.”