Just Peace Theory

By Andrew Latham
October 12, 2018



In the culmination of a half-century long effort on the part of progressive Catholics to overturn traditional Church teaching regarding the death penalty, Pope Francis recently redefined capital punishment as an “inadmissible… attack on the inviolability and dignity of the human person,”.  Paralleling this decades-long effort to alter a long-settled doctrine, since the 1960s progressive Catholics have also been at work trying to replace the Church’s teachings regarding Just War with what they now call the theory of Just Peace. 

Thus far, this campaign has been conducted just below the political radar, attracting little attention among the laity.  Given the abrupt way in which the Church’s teaching regarding the death penalty recently changed, however, perhaps now is the time to raise the profile of this issue and to make the case that Just Peace theory is not an organic unfolding of the Catholic tradition but a radical – and theologically problematic – rupture with that tradition.
 
Just Peace Theory
 
The concept of Just Peace has several defining elements.  It rests on a specific understanding of the word “peace”.  In common usage, of course, peace typically refers to the political condition that is the opposite of war.  Within the Just Peace tradition, however, the word has a radically different meaning—It is a social condition of harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. It is a state of social wellbeing in which all relationships between humanity, God and creation are justly ordered and in which the basic needs of people are met. Violence then is viewed as a manifestation of evil that prevents people from meeting their basic needs or that undermines the social structures and relationships necessary for human flourishing.
 
Just Peace theory assumes that the principal source of violence in the world is structural sin, sometimes referred to as structural evil. As leading advocate for Just Peace theory Terrence J. Rynne defines it, structural sin or structural evil “extends beyond the evil that people do; it extends to institutions and cultural norms or habits that harden injustices in place.”  These institutions and cultural 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 Just Peace theory assumes that if peace is threatened primarily by structural evil then securing true peace requires the elimination of that evil. Logically, if people are harmed by unjust political, economic and social structures then these must be reformed so that they are more just or, if they prove irredeemable, simply replaced by new, more just, structures.  From a Just Peace perspective, there is an intimate and inescapable link between peace and justice.  The nature of this link is captured most pithily in Pope Paul VI’s phrase “if you want peace, work for justice.” 
 
The Cause of War under Just Peace Theory
 
To the extent that it addresses the narrower issue of war at all, Just Peace theory does so by asserting that war is a function of the operation of unjust political, economic and social structures. Presumably, the operation of these structures gives rise to violent conflict when those seeking to perpetuate those structures clash with those who seek to overturn them.  The underlying assumption here is that, as war is a function of structural sin, once the issue of structural sin is addressed, the scourge of war will simply be no more.  The condition of Just Peace in the holistic sense, in other words, solves the problem of both structural violence (harm) and direct violence (war).
 
Significantly, Catholic Just Peace thinking emphasizes that the road to Just Peace is necessarily not that of the Catholic pacifism of the 1960s and 70s but rather one of “gospel nonviolence.”  The former, understood as the refusal to fight in war, was eschewed on the grounds that it had quietest connotations – that is, that it appeared indifferent or apathetic to the world’s evils.  In its place, Just Peace theorists have embraced a more muscular approach that emphasizes active resistance to structural violence through the use of “active nonviolence” tactics – civilian conflict management, human rights promotion, sustainable economic development, disarmament, etc. – to resist structural violence and dismantle the institutions that perpetuate it.  
 
The Theological Critique
 
The concept of Just Peace is in fact highly problematic and the Church should resist the siren call of those who advocate its adoption as doctrine. Let me focus here on the theory’s resulting theological flaws.  
 
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. At the risk of oversimplification, their argument is that the condition of perfect peace and justice denoted by the term shalomcan be brought about today and through human action – there is no need to wait for Christ to bring it about during the end times.
 
The problem is that the eschatological understanding simply cannot help us understand and address issues that are particular to, and definitive of, the political domain – issues such as how to order political community and how to avoid war between political communities.  The Old Testament prophets Daniel and Micah 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.  Trying to apply an eschatological concept to a political issue is to make a fundamental category error – one that necessarily leads to faulty analysis and fatuous policy prescriptions.  The Catholic tradition of International Relations, as George Weigel pointed out many years ago, does provide us with an understanding of peace that is appropriate to the political domain – tranquillitas ordinis or the tranquility of order.  But the Just Peace camp has rejected this concept, likening it to the narrow definition of peace that they deem so inadequate.
 
Catholic Just Peace theory is grounded in a kind of Pelagian utopianism rather than the moral realism that has always characterized the Catholic tradition of international thought.  That traditional realism held that in a world populated by fallen human beings, operating through imperfect institutions, the possibility of war was ever-present.  War simply could not be abolished or eliminated from political life. According to the Catholic realist tradition, the problem of war could certainly be managed and mitigated. Properly ordered international institutions, for example, could reduce the incidence and intensity of war.  But the problem of war could never be definitively solved or transcended.  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.  Specifically, pelagianism assumes that human beings can earn salvation, individual and collective, by their own efforts.  In its modern, secularized, utopian form it also assumes that war is intrinsically evil – an evil that can and must be eliminated.  It further assumes that human beings can create institutions that will eventually immanentize this irenic vision and eliminate the scourge of war once and for all.  In other words, the pelagian utopianism that underpins Just Peace theory rejects the traditional Catholic teaching that the threat of war will hang over humanity until the second coming of Christ.  This marks a radical rupture with the tradition, not an unfolding of it.