Robin Gill’s ethical perspectives on warfare, Christian Ethics: The Basics (Routledge, 2020)


The US Catholic Bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace concludes emphatically that ‘the nuclear age is an era of moral as well as physical danger’:

In simple terms, we are saying that good ends (defending one’s country, protecting freedom, etc.) cannot justify immoral means (the use of weapons which kill indiscriminately and threaten whole societies). We fear that our world and nation are headed in the wrong direction. More weapons with greater destructive potential are produced every day. More and more nations are seeking to become nuclear powers. In our quest for more and more security, we fear we are actually becoming less and less secure.


Remarkably they break away from traditional Catholic teaching that sees, following Aquinas, just-war as the only legitimate position. Instead, they treat just-war and pacifist traditions as both contributing ‘to the full moral vision we need in pursuit of a human piece’:

We believe the two perspectives support and complement one another, each preserving the other from distortion. Finally, in an age of technological warfare, analysis from the viewpoint of non-violence and analysis from the viewpoint of the just-war teaching often converge and agree in their opposition to methods of warfare which are in fact indistinguishable from total warfare (para. 121).


For them, just-war and pacifist perspectives ‘share a common presumption against the use of force as a means of settling disputes’. The nuclear era makes this presumption imperative. Specifically, the Bishops distinguish carefully between just causes and just practices:


Just causes for going to war [ius ad bellum] they assess, as others have, in terms of seven criteria: just cause; competent authority; comparative justice; right intention; last resort; probability of success; and proportionality. They find ‘competent authority’ and ‘last resort’ especially difficult today in democracies, regretting that the United Nations Organisation is relatively powerless. 


Just practices within war [ius in bello] they consider simply in terms of proportionality (again) and discrimination. Proportionality in both contexts causes them huge problems in a nuclear age, as that even in the non-nuclear Vietnam War ‘the conflict had reached such a level of devastation to the adversary and damage to our own society that continuing it could not be justified’. Nuclear weapons, in addition, face massive problems of discrimination, especially given their potential for massive collateral damage on non-military populations.  

Recent Anglican positions include Oliver O’Donovan who examined just-war theory in depth prior to the Iraq War in The Just War Revisited (2003). Highly critical of statements on war by some church leaders, with their ‘voices raised with perfect foreknowledge around me’, he does not place much reliance upon the UN. Noting critically its indecisiveness ahead of the Iraq War, that ‘the quickest way to make the great UN experiment a memory of past history is to try to use it as an icepack to freeze the nations of the world into inactivity’.

O’Donovan mainly seeks to give greater nuance to the just-war theory categories, such as ‘just intention’:

 to distinguish innocence from guilt by overcoming direct co-operation in wrong. To search for a pure intention behind this intention is to chase a will o’ the wisp. An act of war, like any other act, is inserted into a dense weave of practical purposes and intentions, most of which will inevitably be peculiar to the circumstance and the particular agents. 


Applying this concept of intention to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima he then claims:

One can test for the intention to harm non-combatants by a simple hypothetical question: if it were to chance that by some unexpected intervention of Providence the predicted harm to non-combatants did not ensue, would the point of the attack have been frustrated? If on 6 August 1945 all the citizens of Hiroshima, frightened by a rumour of what was to occur, had fled the city, would the attack have lost its point? If the answer is ‘yes’, then there was an intention to harm , and their deaths were not collateral.


Nigel Biggar, goes further, as the title of his 2013 book In Defence of War suggests, arguing that even military belligerence can be justified, although with this important qualification:  

By ‘just war’ I do not refer to war that is simply or perfectly just; and I certainly do not refer to a war that is holy. ‘Just’ here means ‘justified’ – on balance and all things considered. No war waged by human beings will ever be simply just; but that is not to say that no war can ever be justified (p.3).


Nevertheless he also notes:

As I believe in the fact of gross and intractable wickedness, so I believe that punishment is necessary and that it has a basic, broadly retributive dimension. Retribution is important because wrongdoing needs to be contradicted, fended off, and reversed. Not to contradict it and fend it off and try to reverse it is to imply that it does not matter and, therefore, that its victims do not matter… Human beings are capable of loving what is good and doing what is right, sometimes with heroic courage. Equally, however, they are capable of becoming so wedded to evil that sweet reason, for all its patience, cannot detach them.