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Cardinal Robert W. McElroy: ‘The moral claim for the defense of Ukraine is clear and compelling’

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Cardinal Robert W. McElroy of San Diego delivers a speech at an event titled "New and Old Wars, New and Old Challenges to Peace" at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., Indiana March 1, 2023. (OSV News photo/Barbara Johnston, courtesy University of Notre Dame)

SOUTH BEND, Ind.  — Offering a comprehensive but engaging overview of both traditional and modern Catholic teaching on war and peace, Cardinal Robert W. McElroy of San Diego spoke March 1 at the University of Notre Dame, assuring his audience that the church will never be done speaking out about war and peace.

This year, he pointed out, marks two important anniversaries of church teachings on war and peace. The first is the 60th anniversary of St. John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical, “Pacem in Terris” (“Peace on Earth”), which was written, Cardinal McElroy said, “in the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis,” the 1962 nuclear standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States.

St. John XXIII, Cardinal McElroy said, wanted to put the very real threat of nuclear weapons in front of the whole world. The pope warned world leaders and the nervous world, “in this age of ours that prides itself on its atomic power, it is irrational to think that war is a proper way to obtain justice for violated rights.”

This year, the cardinal continued, also marks the 40th anniversary of “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” the 1983 letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops on questions of war and peace. That document, Cardinal McElroy pointed out, was a wonderful catechesis for American Catholics on what both Scripture and the Catholic Church teach about peace, justice and human rights.

St. Paul VI, he told his audience, continued St. John XXIII’s appeal for peace by traveling to the United Nations in 1965. “No more war. War never again!” St. Paul VI dramatically told the nations of the world. St. John Paul II continued this same teaching legacy and insisted that war is never a good way to settle disputes.

“And (Cardinal) Joseph Ratzinger chose the name Benedict to tie his entire pontificate to that of Benedict XV (the pope during World War I), who tried to end all war,” the cardinal said.

However, Pope Francis, Cardinal McElroy told his audience, has combined and woven together statements about war and peace from his papal predecessors in a new and important way. And, the pope has gone further in condemning even the possession of nuclear weapons.

“The pope has constructed a framework for Catholic teaching on war and peace that places non-violence rather than the just war ethic as the dominant prism through which we can evaluate decisions in situations of deep conflict,” he said.

According to Cardinal McElroy, Pope Francis in his 2020 encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti” (“All Brothers”), boldly wrote, “We can no longer think of war as a solution because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits.” Because of the horrific nature of war in the 21st century, making a justifiable case for war is far more difficult today than years past.

Because of this grim reality, the cardinal said, Pope Francis wrote, “Every war leaves our world worse off than it was before. War is a failure of politics and humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil. … Let us ask the victims themselves … the mothers who lost their children, and the boys and girls maimed or deprived of their childhood. In this way, we will be able to grasp the abyss of evil that lies at the heart of war. Nor will it trouble us to be naïve for choosing peace.”

Cardinal McElroy admitted that the church and its moral teachers have been accused in the past of being naive when nonviolence has been advocated. Moral persuasion, critics of the church charged, wouldn’t stop tyrants bent on violence and taking what they wanted.

However, newer studies of real world conflicts seem to make a good case for nonviolence as an effective strategy in a wide variety of conflicts, he claimed. Cardinal McElroy, who holds not only licentiate in theology and a doctorate in moral theology, but also a master’s in U.S. history and doctorate in political science from Stanford, cited a scholarly book published in 2011, “Why Civil Resistance Works.”

Quantitative analysis done by these scholars, he said, made a very important point about nonviolence. The authors, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, studied real world conflicts both within and among nations.

Their demonstration that non-violent resistance can be more effective than armed defense is crucial. Cardinal McElroy said, “It lends tremendous strength to the proposition that the church should place nonviolent resistance at the center of its theology of war and peace.”

However, regarding the current brutal war in Ukraine, Cardinal McElroy said that it must be recognized also “there are instances which call out for military action against profoundly barbaric aggression. We are witnessing just such a moment in Ukraine.”

“While one can criticize Ukraine for not adequately seeking continuous de-escalation in their tensions with Russia in recent years, the moral claim for the defense of Ukraine is clear and compelling,” he said. “A sovereign nation with a historic culture and identity was invaded with the goal of dismembering it.”

Throughout his talk, Cardinal McElroy frequently addressed “just war theory,” a centuries-old principle of Catholic teaching on war and peace. But, he admitted that he was hoping for a new moment in Catholic teaching on war and peace. This new moment would mean that active nonviolence — not just war theory — would be at the center of Catholic teaching on settling conflict.

“I don’t like the term pacifism,” the cardinal explained near the end of the evening during a panel discussion with Notre Dame faculty members. “When people hear that word ‘pacifism,’ they think — ‘passive!'”

He said, “Active nonviolence is a way of action that eschews violence in most circumstances and seeks to effect change. This can be a new moment for church teaching on war and peace.”