Handbook of Catholic Social Teaching
War and Peace
1. What is the Catholic attitude toward war?
"The Church's teaching on war and peace establishes a strong presumption against war which is
binding on all." U.S. Bishops. The Challenge of Peace (1983) 70.
"War is the most barbarous and least effective way of resolving conflicts." Pope John Paul II,
1982 World Day of Peace Message.
"The Church cannot accept violence, especially the force of arms--which is uncontrollable once
it is let loose--and indiscriminate death as the path to liberation, because she knows that
violence always provokes violence and irresistibly engenders new forms of oppression and
enslavement which are often harder to bear than those from which they claimed to bring
freedom." Pope Paul VI, On Evangelization in the Modern World (1975) 37.
"No more war, war never again! Peace, it is peace which must guide the destinies of people and
of all mankind." Pope Paul VI, Address to the United Nations General Assembly (1965) 5.
"We call in season and out of season for the international community to turn from war and to do
the works of peace. The primary obligation of the nuclear age is to banish resort-to-force from
the daily affairs of nations and peoples. From Pius XII to John Paul II the cry of the Church and
the prayer of all believers is a reiteration of the words of Paul VI: 'No more war, war never
again! ' This must remain our primary response to war today." U.S. Bishops. Statement on
Registration and Conscription for Military Service (1980) 3.
Reflections on the Catholic attitude toward war.
a) What does the phrase "presumption against war" mean?
b) Why is it binding on everyone?
c) Why is war the least effective way of resolving conflicts?
d) Give an example of violence provoking violence. How does this principle apply to war?
e) When Paul VI declared "No more war, war never again," do you think he really believed that
there would never be another war? If not, then why did he make the statement? Why must his statement, according to the U.S. bishops, be our primary response to war today?
f) What do you think the bishops had in mind when they called on the international community
"to do the works of peace"?
2. Is counter population warfare acceptable?
"Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along
with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and
unhesitating condemnation." Vatican II, Church in the Modern World (1965) 80.
"Not even by the broadest definition can one rationally consider combatants entire classes of
human beings such as school children, hospital patients, the elderly, the ill, the average industrial
worker producing goods not directly related to military purposes, farmers and many others. They
may never be directly attacked." U.S. Bishops, The Challenge of Peace (1983) 108.
"Under no circumstances may nuclear weapons or other instruments of mass slaughter be used
for the purpose of destroying population centers or other predominantly civilian targets." U.S.
Bishops, The Challenge of Peace (1983) 147.
Reflections on counter population warfare.
a) Why is the destruction of entire cities to be condemned?
b) If we are not allowed to destroy cities, how are we to defend ourselves against an enemy that
has decided to attempt to destroy our cities?
3. Is total war acceptable?
"Response to aggression must not exceed the nature of the aggression. To destroy civilization as
we know it by waging a 'total war' as today it could be waged would be a monstrously
disproportionate response to aggression on the part of any nation. Moreover, the lives of innocent
persons may never be taken directly, regardless of the purpose alleged for doing so. To wage
truly 'total' war is by definition to take huge numbers of innocent lives. Just response to
aggression must be discriminate; it must be directed against unjust aggressors, not against
innocent people caught up in a war not of their making." U.S. Bishops, The Challenge of Peace
Reflections on total war.
a) Total war is one in which everything and everyone in the enemy country becomes a potential
target, and the goal of the war is to destroy everything and everyone in its path. Why is this kind
of war a "disproportionate response to aggression"?
b) What does it mean to say that a just response to aggression must be discriminate?
c) Is total war the only kind that can be waged today, or is there an alternative that avoids the
moral pitfalls of total war?
4. What is the Catholic attitude toward nuclear war?
"Traditionally, the Church's moral teaching sought first to prevent war and then to limit its
consequences if it occurred. To day the possibilities for placing political and moral limits on
nuclear war are so minimal that the moral task, like the medical, is prevention: as a people, we
must refuse to legitimate the idea of nuclear war." U.S. Bishops. The Challenge of Peace (1983)
"Our 'no' to nuclear war must, in the end, be definitive and decisive." U.S. Bishops. The
Challenge of Peace (1983) 138.
Reflections on nuclear war.
a) Why must we say 'no' to nuclear war?
b) What does it mean to "legitimate the idea of nuclear war"? What do people do who want to
refuse to legitimate the idea of nuclear war?
5. Is nuclear deterrence an acceptable policy?
"In current conditions 'deterrence' based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step
on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable.
Nonetheless in order to ensure peace, it is indispensable not to be satisfied with this minimum
which is always susceptible to the real danger of explosion." Pope John Paul II, Message to the
UN Special Session (1982) 3.
"(1) If nuclear deterrence exists only to prevent the use of nuclear weapons by others, then
proposals to go beyond this to planning for prolonged periods of repeated nuclear strikes and
counter-strikes, or 'prevailing' in nuclear war, are not acceptable. (2) If nuclear deterrence is our
goal, 'sufficiency' to deter is an adequate strategy; the quest for nuclear superiority must be
rejected. (3) Nuclear deterrence should be used as a step on the way toward progressive
disarmament. Each proposed addition to our strategic system or change in strategic doctrine must
be assessed precisely in light of whether it will render steps toward 'progressive disarmament'
more or less likely." U.S. Bishops, The Challenge of Peace (1983) 188.
Reflections on deterrence.
a) When is nuclear deterrence considered morally acceptable?
b) Why is it wrong to plan for prolonged nuclear war?
c) Why is it wrong to count on winning a nuclear war?
d) What is the difference between the two strategies of nuclear sufficiency and nuclear
superiority? Why is sufficiency acceptable and superiority unacceptable?
e) What is your view of the U.S. policy of deterrence: Does it conform to the conditions stated by
6. Is it ever morally acceptable for a country to make the first strike in a nuclear war?
"We do not perceive any situation in which the deliberate initiation of nuclear warfare on
however restricted a scale can be morally justified. Non-nuclear attacks by another state must be
resisted by other than nuclear means." U.S. Bishops, The Challenge of Peace (1983) 150.
Reflections on a nuclear first strike.
a) Why would it be wrong for us to start a nuclear war?
b) Suppose we were losing a non-nuclear war: Would it be acceptable for us to introduce nuclear
weapons in an attempt to turn the war around? Why?
7. Why is the arms race immoral?
"The arms race is a threat to man's highest good, which is life; it makes poor peoples and
individuals yet more miserable, while making richer those already powerful; it creates a
continuous danger of conflagration, and in the case of nuclear arms, it threatens to destroy all life
from the face of the earth." Synod of Bishops, Justice in the World (1971) 9.
"The arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for humanity, and one which ensnares the poor to an
intolerable degree." Vatican II, Church in the Modern World (1965) 81.
"The arms race is to be condemned as a danger, an act of aggression against the poor, and a folly
which does not provide the security it promises. U.S. Bishops, The Challenge of Peace (1983)
Reflections on the arms race.
a) Describe how the arms race does each of the following:
--It threatens man's highest good, which is life.
--It makes poor peoples and individuals yet more miserable; it ensnares the poor to an
intolerable degree; it is an act of aggression against the poor.
--It makes richer those already powerful.
--It creates a continuous danger of conflagration.
--It threatens, in the case of nuclear arms, to destroy all life from the face of the earth.
--It is a folly which does not provide the security if promises.
8. May governments defend their people against unjust aggression?
"The Council and the popes have stated clearly that governments threatened by armed, unjust
aggression must defend their people. This includes defense by armed force if necessary as a last
resort." U.S. Bishops, The Challenge of Peace (1983) 75.
Reflections on defense against unjust aggression.
a) Why is defense against unjust aggression necessary?
b) What does the phrase "as a last resort" add to the statement?
9. Why and when is recourse to war permissible?
"a) Just Cause: War is permissible only to confront 'a real and certain danger,' i.e., to protect
innocent life, to preserve conditions necessary for decent human existence, and to secure basic
human rights b) Competent Authority:... war must be declared by those with responsibility for
public order, not by private groups or individuals c) Comparative Justice:... In essence: which
side is sufficiently 'right' in a dispute, and are the values at stake critical enough to override the
presumption against war? d) Right Intention:...war can be legitimately intended only for the
reasons set forth above as a just cause e) Last Resort: For resort to war to be justified, all
peaceful alternatives must have been exhausted f) Probability of Success: This is a difficult
criterion to apply, but its purpose is to prevent irrational resort to force or hopeless resistance
when the outcome of either will clearly be disproportionate or futile g) Proportionality:... the
damage to be inflicted and the costs incurred by war must be proportionate to the good expected
by taking up arms." U.S. Bishops, The Challenge of Peace (1983) 85-99.
Reflections on the just war theory.
a) State in your own words each of the seven conditions that must be met to have a just war.
b) Explain why each condition is necessary if the war is to be considered just.
c) Why would no nuclear war ever be able to be regarded as just?
10. How does the Church view military service?
"Those who devote themselves to the military service of their country should regard themselves
as the agents of security and freedom of peoples. As long as they fulfill this role properly. they
are making a genuine contribution to the establishment of peace." Vatican II, Church in the
Modern World (1965) 79.
"The role of Christian citizens in the armed forces is a service to the common good and an
exercise of the virtue of patriotism, so long as they fulfill this role within defined moral norms."
U.S. Bishops, The Challenge of Peace (1983) 232.
Reflections on military service.
a) How do the military contribute to peace?
b) What is the significance of the phrase "as long as they fulfill this role properly"?
c) What do you understand by the virtue of patriotism?
11. How does the Church view conscientious objection?
"In the light of the Gospel and from an analysis of the Church's teaching on conscience, it is
clear that a Catholic can be a conscientious objector to war in general or to a particular war
'because of religious training and belief.' As we hold individuals in high esteem who
conscientiously serve in the armed forces, so also we should regard conscientious objection and
selective conscientious objection as positive indicators within the Church of a sound moral
awareness and respect for human life." U.S. Bishops, Declaration on Conscientious Objection
and Selective Conscientious Objection (1971).
"First, we support the right of conscientious objection as a valid moral position, derived from the
Gospel and Catholic teaching. Secondly, we support the right of selective conscientious
objection as a moral conclusion which can be validly derived from the classical moral teaching
of just war theory." U.S. Bishops, Statement on Registration and Conscription for Military
Service (1980) 7-8.
Reflections on conscientious objection.
a) What is conscientious objection? What is selective conscientious objection?
b) Why do you think the Church has come out in support of both?
c) How does the conscientious objector demonstrate sound moral awareness?
d) How does the conscientious objector demonstrate respect for human life?
e) How is conscientious objection derived from the Gospel?
f) How is conscientious objection derived from the just war theory?
12. How does the Church view pacifism?
"We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in the vindication of their rights
and who resort to methods of defense which are otherwise available to weaker parties." Vatican
II, Church in the Modern World (1965) 78.
Reflections on pacifism.
a) What is pacifism?
b) Why do you think the Church has taken a stand in support of pacifism?
13. How must a Christian react to an order for him to kill a noncombatant?
"No Christian can rightfully carry out orders or policies deliberately aimed at killing
noncombatants." U.S. Bishops, The Challenge of Peace (1983) 148.
Reflections on the Christian reaction to an order to kin a noncombatant.
a) Why is a Christian not allowed to carry out an order to kill a noncombatant?
b) What is the relationship between this statement and the answer to the earlier question about
obeying laws that are contrary to the moral order?
14. What is peace?
"The true and solid Peace of nations can consist, not in equality of arms, but in mutual trust
alone." Pope John XXIII, Peace on Earth (1963) 113.
"Peace is not merely the absence of war; nor can it be reduced solely to the maintenance of a
balance of power between enemies; nor is it brought about by dictatorship. Instead, it is rightly
and appropriately called an enterprise of justice. Peace results from that order structured into
human society by its divine Founder, and actualized by men as they thirst after ever greater
justice." Vatican II, Church in the Modern World (1965) 78.
"Peace can refer to an individual's sense of well-being or security, or it can mean the cessation of
armed hostility, producing an atmosphere in which nations can relate to each other and settle
conflicts without resorting to the use of arms. For men and women of faith, peace will imply a
right relationship with God, which entails forgiveness, reconciliation, and union." U.S. Bishops,
The Challenge of Peace (1983 ) 27.
"Peace is above all a state of mind." Pope Paul VI, World Day of Peace Message (1973).
Reflections on peace.
a) What is wrong with each of the following statements:
--Peace consists in equality of arms.
--Peace is the absence of war.
--Peace is the calm that prevails in a dictatorship.
b) Explain what each of the following means:
--Peace consists in mutual trust.
--Peace is an enterprise of justice.
--Peace is a state of mind.
c) What does it mean to say that peace implies a right relationship with God?
15. What is the relationship between peace and justice?
"Justice is always the foundation of peace." U.S. Bishops, The Challenge of Peace (1983) 60.
"If you want peace, work for justice." Pope Paul VI, World Day of Peace Message. (1972).
"Commitment to justice must be closely linked with commitment to peace in the modem world."
Pope John Paul II, On Human Work (1981) 2.
"It does no good to work for peace as long as feelings of hostility, contempt and distrust, as well
as racial hatred and unbending ideologies, continue to divide men and place them in opposing
camps." Vatican II, Church in the Modern World (1965) 82.
Reflections on the relationship between peace and justice.
a) What do you think working for justice has to do with peace?
b) What happens when we try to build peace on a foundation other than justice?
16. How are we to build up peace?
"In order to build up peace the causes of discord among men, especially injustice, which foment
wars, must above all be rooted out." Vatican II, Church in the Modern World (1965) 83.
"Peace is not built up only by means of politics, by the balance of forces and of interests. It is
constructed with the mind, with ideas, with works of peace." Pope Paul VI, Address to the
United Nations General Assembly (1965)5.
Reflections on building up peace.
a) What needs to be done in order to build up peace?
b) Why don't politics and the balancing of forces and interests suffice to build up peace?
c) What is meant by saying that we have to construct peace with the mind, with ideas?
17. What is the fundamental condition for peace?
"These rights (of the worker) must be examined in the broad context of human rights as a whole,
which are connatural with man and many of which are proclaimed by various international
organizations and increasingly guaranteed by the individual states for their citizens. Respect for
this broad range of human rights constitutes the fundamental condition for peace in the modern
world: peace both within individual countries and societies and in international relations." Pope
John Paul II, On Human Work (1981) 16.
Reflections on the fundamental condition for peace.
a) Why is respect for human rights the fundamental condition for peace?
18. Do Christians have an obligation to work for peace?
"Peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith. We are called to be
peacemakers, not by some movement of the moment, but by our Lord Jesus. The content and
context of our peacemaking is set, not by some political agenda or ideological program, but by
the teaching of his Church." U.S. Bishops, The Challenge of Peace (1983) 333.
Reflections on Christians working for peace.
a) What is it about the life and teachings of Jesus that calls us to be peacemakers?
b) How do you explain the fact that there have been, and still are, wars between hostile camps of
c) How do you explain the fact that there have been, and still are, Christians who are not
committed to peacemaking?
19. What is the relationship between personal sanctity and world peace?
"There can be no peace between men unless there is peace within each one of them." Pope John
XXIII. Peace on Earth (1963) 165.
"To have peace in our world, we must first have peace within ourselves." U.S. Bishops, The
Challenge of Peace (1983) 284.
Reflections on personal sanctity and world peace.
a) Why is peace within ourselves a necessary condition for peace in the world?