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Is war in our nature? Catholic teaching on war and violence

Benjamin Boivin

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Photo by UX Gun on Unsplash
War is a part of human nature. Or is it?
Man, a wolf to man?
One of the most common assertions of modern political thought is that man, by nature, is a dangerous creature whose life is inevitably tied to the experience of violence and its consequences, war being a paramount expression of this reality.
This assumption is ubiquitous and even underlies the foundations of our political communities. The intellectual founders of the modern state – Thomas Hobbes, for example, who famously asserted that "man is a wolf to man" – often conceived of the state as an institution that would guarantee us a measure of protection against this inevitable evil in exchange for our natural liberties.
If our nature is violent, then it stands to reason that interactions between states should be conducted on the same predatory basis, and violent confrontations between them should in no way come as a surprise. Although our violent nature can be tamed within political communities through a monopoly on violence, no such thing is conceivable beyond the limits of individual political communities, that is to say, between nations.
This understanding of human nature and its implications for the conduct of international relations is a key feature of modernity. In the world in which we live, political thought and practice are understood in terms of power – how to gain it, how to keep it. Any attempt to apply moral reasoning to political problems appears to us as a confusion of naturally distinct orders of reality.
Of course, that is all foreign to Catholic social teaching. Where political modernity sees the violent nature of man expressed through struggles for power, the Church sees a perversion of the sociability of man, naturally ordered to the common good.
The Russo-Ukrainian crisis
The current military standoff taking place along the Russo-Ukrainian border and attracting a large amount of international interest is a good example of all this.
While on the surface this is a confrontation between the Russian Federation and neighboring Ukraine, no one is under any illusions: the real conflict is between a Western alliance of liberal democracies (of which the United States is the most significant) and an illiberal Russia, nostalgic in many regards for its former glory and motivated by imperialistic ambitions over its former sphere of influence, which has historically included Ukraine.
Working from a generic understanding of these events in modern political terms, we could view the tendency for large nations such as Russia and the United States to ever expand their sphere of influence as a natural expression of their power. In fact, this understanding is so common and comes so naturally to us that we find it very difficult to think of these things in other terms.
Even our pleas for peace take these ideas for granted: we hope that great powers will be able to show restraint, furthering their ambition through less damaging means, such as diplomacy and economic policy. It never occurs to us even to doubt that those ambitions should exist or that they should hold within themselves the potentiality for violence.
A Catholic understanding of war and violence 
The Catholic view is different. It’s not that we fail to appreciate the persistence of violence in the human experience, nor its tragic character. That reality finds ample expression in the Scriptures, as well as the writings of saints and doctors of the Church. But against those who think of man as a fundamentally violent creature, the Catholic tradition presents a far more sophisticated understanding of human nature.
Man is by nature good, indeed very good. He is also social, and this goodness of his outflows into a shared experience: the family, and then the political community. It is within a community that the nature of man is fulfilled, and it is as such that we can speak of the common good as the end pursued by men in the context of a community. The purpose of the community is not to avoid evil, although it does try to do that, but to live out the goodness of man in an integral way, that is to say through all of what man is.
The Christian tradition, however, also accounts for the failure of man, who as a result of the Fall is prone to sins of all sorts. It is this reality of the Fall and its lasting effects on our experience in this life which is at the root of the evils we somewhat lazily ascribe to human nature.
This tendency to desire the good and yet to repeatedly fall into various evils has been described by St. Paul with marvelous psychological insight: ''For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I'' (Romans 7:15).
It is in this way that we make sense of the persistence of violence and power struggles which so lastingly affects our communities and our political lives. Those political communities which exist precisely to foster unity and enable us to do good in a way that is common and not particular is what we so often use for our own devices, for our own aggrandizement. Because states are governed by particular persons, and not abstract realities obeying their own theoretical set of rules, the sinfulness of man has consequences at levels of authority which we are not used to thinking about in moral terms. But to accept a separation between politics and morals is inconsistent with the Catholic tradition of political philosophy.
War as the absence of peace
Traditional Christianity has always understood evil as the absence of good, as opposed to an equally substantial and opposite force against the good. That is what we often call the privation theory of evil. It means that sickness is nothing but the lack of health, hunger nothing but the lack of nourishment, chaos nothing but the lack of order, and yes, war nothing but the lack of peace.
Peace, then, should not be understood as a state of exception or the rare moments of retreat in between wars but as the true expression of human nature and activity. The prevalence of war is indicative only of sinfulness and disorder. Therefore, a perception of war as the inevitable expression of the nature of the political community is intrinsically disordered.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Church also teaches that under specific circumstances, war can be fought in a manner consistent with justice. This is the well-known just war theory. The difference between the Church’s way of thinking and the world’s way of thinking is that the Church accounts for the persistence of sin and violence without ascribing them to man as intrinsic and natural characteristics.
The understanding of war and violence consistently upheld by the Catholic Church throughout its history and especially insisted upon in modern times comes as a sign of contradiction to a world whose particular understanding of the nature of man and his embeddedness into political communities has led to unparalleled catastrophes in living memory.
We can reasonably hope that its strength and audacity will provide wisdom and prudence to those who, right now, are endowed with the authority to ponder the prospects of peace.
Some of the ideas that were influential in writing this blog post are best expressed in this essay, originally published in Communio, an international Catholic review founded, among many others, by Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

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