Fratelli tutti on war: What next for Catholic social teaching?

Pope Francis’ new encyclical very nearly rejects Just War reasoning, writes Theodora Hawksley, who leads the social and environmental justice programme at the London Jesuit Centre.

When Pope Francis changed the Catechism’s teaching on the death penalty in 2018, some voices in Catholic media were deeply unhappy. The death penalty had always been permitted by Catholic teaching; how, therefore, could Pope Francis change the constant teaching of the Church and make impermissible something that had always been permissible? The simple answer was that, in more recent teaching, the Church has treated the death penalty as permissible only when there is no other way of protecting society from the offender. John Paul II argued that such circumstances today were ‘very rare…if not practically non-existent’ (Evangelium vitae 56). Pope Francis just pulled the loophole shut: there are no such circumstances anymore, and the death penalty should be abolished. At the time, I wondered whether future years would see the same logic applied to Catholic teaching on Just War, which has been moving in the same direction since John XXIII’s Pacem in terris in 1963. The answer, looking at Pope Francis’ Fratelli tutti, is ‘Yes’.

War and the death penalty
Fratelli tutti groups the death penalty and war together in one section (FT 255–270), and the same logic runs through both. The death penalty is a means of ‘protecting the lives of other people from the unjust aggressor’; today, there are ways of doing that other than capital punishment, and therefore the death penalty is now inadmissible. Notice here that killing is regarded as prima facie wrong, or at least incompatible with recognising the ‘inalienable dignity of every human being’ (FT 269), and therefore requiring justification. Notice also the parallel reasoning about war: war is understood as a means of ‘repairing the violation of justice’ (FT 260); it is, echoing Carl von Clausewitz’s classic definition, ‘a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means’.1 There are now other ways of negotiating such conflicts (the United Nations system, FT 257), and therefore war is no longer a ‘fit instrument’. The document also points out that even when war is purportedly being used as an instrument in this way, vested interests and manipulation are often behind the justifications offered (FT 258). Added to this basic reasoning are two further arguments against war.

Login for more...