Political violence and the just war tradition

I am at a conference on political violence at Helsinki University. My presentation is about the theory of just war, and its title is Fratelli tutti and the just war tradition: lists vs. theory.

Here is a short abstract:

Although the Christian theory of just war had long been viewed as a lasting contribution to political thought, Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli tutti in 2020 seemed to abandon the concept itself, declaring that its original Augustinian formula was something that “we no longer uphold in our own day.”

Reducing the theory of just war to a list of “rational criteria,” as the encyclical says, may indeed reinforce the suspicion that the latter showed a continuous decline throughout the centuries. While Augustine’s justifications of war included many references to the “holy wars” of the Jewish people, and medieval canonists regularly used these as the starting point of their investigations, most philosophers of the Middle Ages already tended to construe ever simpler (and more “secular”) criteria lists, until – in the early modern age – Francisco de Vitoria explicitly excluded “religious difference” from the possible causes of a just war. The examples of “just cause” have become even rarer over time, until the 1944 Christmas message of Pope Pius XII explicitly named self-defense against aggression the sole possible reason for waging war. The proliferation of nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s also contributed to this decline, until the number of criteria – as it seems – reached point zero in Pope Francis’ encyclical. What is less obvious is whether all this was only an adaptation to the changing nature of warfare or the result of a continuous reflection on the tradition. In either case, it might be asked how such a radical change might affect other elements of the tradition; whether it is possible to reconcile pacifism with just war theory under a label like “conditional pacifism;” or it is perhaps better to give up lists and conceive just war theory as it originally was; a description of the ontological essence of the civitas terrena.

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