The war that Russia launched and has been waging against the country of Ukraine and its civilian population since February 24, 2022, has led to thousands of deaths on both sides. In discussing the war with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Pope Francis said, “At one time we also spoke in our churches of holy war or just war. Today we cannot speak like that. The Christian conscience has developed on the importance of peace.”
Jesus Christ, through the sacrifice of his death on the cross and resurrection, brought not only reconciliation between man and God, but also peace within humanity itself (Eph. 2:11–18). The message of Jesus is a powerful one that those who seek to create divisions in humanity have always sought to distort. The sacrifice of the cross is the foundation of reconciliation and peace for each person and the entire world (Col. 1:20). As such, war is a challenge to the message and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and justification for war can only ever be with the aim of bringing about peace.
The Church acknowledges in Gaudium et Spes that “peace will never be achieved once and for all, but must be built up continually.” Justice is at the heart of peace, but it is through love for one another that justice obtains its truth and claims on all human action (Lev. 19:15–18). Christians are known through their actions of love (John 13:35). Jesus declared, “No one can have greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), and he demonstrated this principle in his death on the cross for the salvation of the entire world.
Recognizing this point as an important element of the deposit of faith, the church states, “peace is also the fruit of love, for love goes beyond what justice can endure.” Consequently, a war can only ever be just if it is done with the aim of achieving peace, and is only ever justifiable if entered into as a last resort and waged with the love and compassion of Christ. This may sound contradictory, but as the catechism of the church observes, acting for the just “security and freedom of nations . . . truly contribute[s] to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.” However, “every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man.”
In this light, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia can be seen to demonstrate the evil and sin of all who take up arms in the service of division and injustice; while, in contrast, all who take up arms in the service of peace and justice are acting in accord with the love of God and living a moral life reflective of the teachings of Christ. This said, it is crucial to underscore the seriousness of Christ’s teachings in not seeking vengeance (Matt. 5:39) and retribution (Matt. 5:44), and to recognize that any conversation around the ethics of war and peace must reserve a primary place for war-prevention efforts rooted in gospel nonviolence. The point in Matthew’s gospel is that being lured into acts of war endangers one’s own moral self and that public discourse is always the best option (John 18:23).
Nevertheless, as Pope Benedict XVI has noted in Western Culture Today and Tomorrow (2019), “when law is trampled on and injustice comes to power, peace is always threatened and is to some extent broken.” For this reason, when examining the truth behind armed conflict and war, Benedict suggests considering “the very ability to make peace a genuine criterion for truth.” If the goals and motivations for war do not include peace at the core of the justifications, then truth will also be absent.
As the war continues to rage at this moment in time, all those who have died on either side are now in the mercy of God, because all people are children of God and all people are loved by God. Pope Benedict reminds us that “only reconciliation can create peace; it is not violence that can resolve situations, but rather justice.” The sacrifice of the Eucharist presents for us an example of how we as Christians can respond to the war in Ukraine, even when we are separated by great distances and limitations. In our liturgies, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and the promise of reconciliation with God are made present here and now in the Eucharist. In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis makes the point that the grace of reconciliation that is present in the Eucharist provides the space in which recognition, responsibility, and healing can occur; it is imperative that in times of great conflict the prayers of the faithful are lifted in unison for peace and justice. “Blessed are the peacemakers: they shall be recognized as children of God” (Matt. 5:9).
However, it is important to recognize that prayers are needed for all involved on all sides of the conflict. As Pope Benedict pointed out in remembering those who died in World War II, “we are grieved by the fact that [the soldiers of the aggressor,] their idealism, their enthusiasm, and their loyalty to the State were exploited by an unjust regime. . . . every one of them stands before God as an individual, with the course of his life and with his death; each one stands before the God whose merciful goodness, as we know, protects all our dead.”
What Christians can do wherever they are is to pray—both privately and in community, in celebrating the Eucharist—for peace and justice to overcome conflict and war, regardless of whether it is just or not. This is the moral life of Christians. ♦
Daniel J. Goodey is a psychological therapist and counselor based in Perthshire, Scotland. He is currently an associate lecturer in forensic psychology and counseling at the Open University, and he provides counseling to university students at the University of Strathclyde. He has previously taught philosophy at the University of Louvain and lectured in psychology at West Highland College of the University of Highlands and Islands. You can read more about his psychological therapy and counseling practice at his website here.