New Catholic Pacifism: A Rejoinder to Professor Duffey

I fear that Professor Duffey escapes the dilemma of the new Catholic pacifism only through a number of equivocations, concerning especially the terms pacifism, Catholic tradition, and moral principle. The dilemma simply put is this: the Catholic pacifist must either accept moral relativism or a breach in the continuity of Catholic tradition. I shall attempt to draw the terms of the dilemma more precisely. Also I wish to commend, but qualify, Professor Duffey’s appreciation for a genuine Catholic witness to a life of non-violence.

The pacifists, according to Professor Duffey, seek to “harmonize power and authority” and to “minimize the use of violence.” Indeed, then who is not a pacifist? Those who adhere to a just war doctrine also desire peace, harmony, and minimal violence. However, they recognize that these goals sometimes require the threat or use of lethal force. This use of force should of course be minimal — i.e., it should only be a last resort, it should only be used in a proportionate amount, etc. Pacifism, as I understand it, rejects any use of deadly force: no amount of force, not even as a last resort. There is simply no calculus permitted to “minimal” violence. If this is not what Duffey means by pacifism then his position is trivial; for we are still within the just war framework. We may disagree about the prudential application to particular actions.

Now within such a framework one may claim that non-violent resistance is to be preferred in certain circumstances. Perhaps this option has not been considered often enough. Fine. But by no stretch of the moral imagination will it do for all circumstances. For Afghan rebels? For NATO countries in the face of Soviet tanks and nuclear missiles? It is a preposterous suggestion to any reasonable citizen. Indeed, the burden of proof lies on those who would use force. But the burden of proof in the realm of preparation and readiness lies on those who say that non-violent resistance will be effective for all contingencies. So if the pacifist argues his case from effectiveness, he has quite a long way to go. Rather, it seems to me that the pacifist is arguing for a new framework, one that allows no use of lethal force. The question of effectiveness is secondary; one must be prepared to suffer the consequences. Thus some “peace” bishops conclude that we must be ready to surrender to the Soviets. This is a type of withdrawal from political responsibility. The Documents of Vatican II, on the other hand, qualify the claim of non-violent resistance in light of responsibility. Non-violence is to be commended “provided that it can be done without harm to the rights and duties of others and of the community” (GS, n. 78). The counsel of political surrender, an unavoidable implication of absolute pacifism, is a gross irresponsibility and quite out of line with Vatican II.

Let me then repeat: pacifism claims that “any use of lethal force is immoral” or “any use of military force is incompatible with the Christian vocation.” The other position, call it “just war” if you will, claims that “some use of lethal force is not immoral” or “some military force is compatible with the Christian vocation.” These are clear contradictions, are they not? I find it astonishing that Duffey says this is not a disagreement in moral principle. Then what is all the fuss about? It is not a question about exceptions to a moral rule; it is about the very rule itself. We do not agree that there is an obligation not to kill. That begs the question. We may agree that human life is a good and that, good should be cherished and protected. Indeed, we may say that we have a prima facie case to preserve it. But again, the very preservation of life and the demands of justice may require taking the life of an aggressor. Thus, the moral rule reads, murder is wrong. Murder is the direct taking of innocent life. There are no exceptions to this rule. (Professor Anscombe explains most of this in great detail.) There is no way to avoid the contradiction, in principle, between absolute pacifism and just war doctrine. Both cannot be right. Let us be forthright and not hide behind a specious type of “pluralism.” Absolute pacifism contradicts Vatican II and Catholic tradition. Thus, assuming that we cannot hold contradictory principles, on the pain of relativism, let us turn to the problem of continuity and tradition.

I do not base my argument for the just war teaching on personal preference but on reason and Catholic tradition. By tradition I mean that faith which is handed down from the apostles and developed through centuries of Christian thought and action. As a Catholic my guide to the authoritative tradition is the Magisterium and it is embodied primarily in creeds, conciliar documents, and papal encyclicals. In this tradition I do not find absolute pacifism. The case of the early Church I shall mention below. Duffey cites a number of scholarly advocates of the pacifist tradition — all of them Protestant. They certainly see the contradiction between the just war teaching and pacifism; and they consistently and forthrightly claim that the Roman Catholic Church is in error. For example, Professor Hornus, in his book It is Not Lawful for Me to Fight, claims that pacifism is the true Christian norm. All military service “defies Christian teaching.” The Church’s acceptance of military service is said by him to be a compromise due to “weakness and lack of faith” and it is ultimately “a mark of sin.” Augustine he calls an “ideologue,” the chief architect of a trend which falsified the genuine faith. Roland Bainton, also cited by Duffey, considers the conversion of the barbarians a time of great compromise and decline for the Church. The Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, on the other hand, considers the conversion of the barbarians to be a great glory in Church history and a development of genuine Christian culture. Hornus and Bainton are no relativists; they see the contradiction and feel quite comfortable in rejecting centuries of Catholic life as a colossal error.

What of early Church pacifism? The question is too large for this forum. I will say simply that Origen and Tertullian are guilty of excess and overstatement. Yet their witness was preserved and developed in the fourth century and later. The pacifist witness was taken up into monasticism and the religious life. This was a genuine development, not a sinful compromise. In good conscience the layman may marry, acquire property, pursue law, and defend his people through force of arms; all subject, of course, to the moral law of justice and virtue of temperance, etc. This development centered on a distinction between religious and lay states of life. Both are called to holiness but in different modes and through different disciplines. In their quest for “the ethical purity of the early Church,” the Protestants reject this development and break the continuity of tradition. Professor Hornus faults monasticism with being the chief cause of the Church’s undoing. Specifically, he considers monasticism to be “theologically erroneous and the source of ethical decline.” By his own accounting, this judgment is central to the modern Christian pacifist claim. How in the world can a professor at Benedictine College such as myself, accept such an assessment?

Absolute pacifism, i.e., a norm of non-violence binding on all and in all circumstances, must be rejected because it places Catholics in an unacceptable dilemma. However, we should appreciate and encourage a qualified pacifism on the part of some. The witness of non-violence is part of a larger, but special vocation for religious, or for lay who want to embrace the “higher way” praised by Vatican II, subject as it is to limits. This special vocation does indeed complement the vocation of those who are responsible for the temporal life of a political society. Its witness is both direct and indirect. It is a direct witness to the Kingdom of God. Some are called to serve directly the supernatural mission of the Church and thus are free from temporal affairs. Some are called to follow the highest counsels of perfection such as poverty and celibacy. Their service and witness to the Kingdom make us all recognize the relative claims of the temporal order and anticipate the Kingdom to come. Their witness may have an indirect role in the temporal order itself as a “leaven.” They should be a constant sign and reminder that we must make a presumption against war; that we must seek reconciliation and not yield to hate. Also, in their freedom from temporal affairs and political passion they can provide a source of judgment concerning unjust purposes and indiscriminate means when those involved in temporal affairs overlook or rationalize them.

So, let this type of pacifist come off the side-line. Let them zealously pursue the things of God. Let them protest with might and main perceived injustices. Let them warn against blind allegiance to temporal power. But let them not denounce military service as dishonorable and “in-compatible with Christian vocation.” Let them not mock a prudent concern and preparation for the nation’s defense. Nor let them shout down speakers who seek to explain the venerable tradition of just war doctrine. These types of things are increasing in frequency and forebode an irreparable division in the Church. I accept the qualified pacifism as sketched out above. Can the new Catholic pacifist accept the Catholic soldier, citizen, and scholar who see armed force as an essential factor in the work for peace? Professor Duffey is correct in saying that the two types of witness need and complement each other; but this is only possible if the proper distinctions are made. Otherwise, with much confusion, the “higher way” becomes a way of irresponsible spiritual hubris.


John Hittinger is a professor in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St Thomas, Houston and the author of Liberty, Wisdom and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory. He is the founder and director of the Pope John Paul II Forum for the Church in the Modern World and president of the International Catholic University, founded by Ralph McInerny (1929-2010), the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He is also developing a MA in John Paul II studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.