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War, truth and Christianity


Pope Francis recognised that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine was ‘perhaps somehow provoked’ and said he was warned before the war that Nato was ‘barking at the gates of Russia’. In an interview with the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica the Pope condemned the ‘ferocity and cruelty of the Russian troops’ but warned against a fairy tale perception of the conflict as good versus evil.

‘We need to move away from the usual Little Red Riding Hood pattern, in that Little Red Riding Hood was good and the wolf was the bad one,’ he said. ‘Something global is emerging and the elements are very much entwined.’ The Pope showed a balance and insight that is not seen in Western media.

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-428ce) wrote at a time when the Roman Empire was collapsing, and he saw the Church as the new ‘City of God’ which would replace the secular and declining empire. Augustine addressed two issues relating to warfare: when wars should be fought (Jus ad Bello) and how wars should be fought (Jus in Bellum).  He argued that war is permissible if: 1) It is authorised by a proper authority. 2) If the war is just and 3) If the aim of the war is to bring peace. St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) was later to add two more conditions: 4) If there must be a reasonable chance of success and 5) If there is a right intention.

There are two major problems with these criteria. Firstly how does one decide what is just and secondly the issue of right intention. ‘The proper authority’ has been generally recognised as the government of a sovereign state although some have argued that, today, only the U.N. should be the proper authority. This, however, is unrealistic as each of the five permanent members of the Security Council can exercise a veto thus effectively emasculating the UN’s role except in relatively minor conflicts. The second issue is to work out the real intention of any war – behind the political rhetoric and this is far from easy. When Tony Blair decided to support the United States in the invasion of Iraq, what was the real reason? It is almost impossible to be sure.


'Ordinary Russians are persuaded of the rightness of the conflict by the government with its security apparatus, the power of the media (with dissenting voices being suppressed) and the power of the Russian Orthodox Church.'


It is important to recognise that religion and secular power have always been related. However powerful the monarchy, the leader or the government, religion has always been seen as providing an alternative source of power and this has been understood by secular leaders. All these factors come into play in relation to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. President Putin knew that the power of the Russian Orthodox Church was considerable, in spite of the previous communist attempts to suppress religion. He therefore strongly supported the building of new Orthodox Churches and the restoration of old buildings when he came to power. More than this, he secured the appointment of Patriarch Kirill as patriarch of Moscow and primate of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2009. Kirill’s support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been unqualified. Ordinary Russians are therefore persuaded of the rightness of the conflict by the government with its security apparatus, the power of the media (with dissenting voices being suppressed) and the power of the Russian Orthodox Church. For many, being Russian and being a member of the Orthodox Church go together and the idea of the Church as speaking truth to power is unrealistic.

Before people in England are too critical of political intervention in Church affairs, it is worth remembering that the Church of England has as its primate Justin Welby – a fellow Old Etonian of Boris Johnson and David Cameron - and it is the Prime Minister’s recommendation as to who should be appointed that is decisive.  Anglican Churches are required to sing the National Anthem on particular occasions and senior Bishops sit in the House of Lords – the link between the established Church and State is obvious. In the Second World war, in the U.K.  Christian Churches supported the Allies and most German Churches (with obvious few exceptions notably Bonhoeffer) supported the Germans. Having said this, the recent 18 Anglican bishops who opposed deporting refugees to Rwanda had almost no influence showing the decline in the power of religion.

When it comes to the Ukrainian conflict, the religious situation becomes more complex. The separate Orthodox Churches are autonomous – each acknowledge the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople (now Istanbul) as ‘primus inter pares’ (first among equals) but he has little real power and Kirill has rejected any influence from Constantinople. The Orthodox Church in Ukraine used to fall under Moscow but in 2019 (three years before the Russian invasion) the Ecumenical Patriarch formally accepted the autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a position rejected by Kirill. Today many Russian speaking Orthodox Churches in the East of Ukraine still look to Moscow but many Churches in the remainder of Ukraine now accept the autonomy of the Ukrainian Church.

In a way the conflict goes back to 1054 – a decisive moment in Christian history when the Orthodox Church centred on the ‘new Rome’ (Constantinople) and the Catholic Church centred on Rome itself separated. There were many reasons behind this, but the immediate cause of the split was the ‘Filioque clause’ – the addition by the Western Church of the words ‘and the son’ to the words of the Creed (‘..the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the son’) established by the universal Church in the C4th. The Western Catholic Church has, since then made various decisions which, again, the Orthodox Church do not accept because they have not been approved by the universal Christian Church to which the Orthodox see themselves as being faithful. This accentuates the tension between West and East.


'All churches tend to have a small minority of those who oppose all war – but this leaves us with the problem of what to do when an iniquitous state attempts to impose its will by force of arms.'


Politics and religion are, therefore, closely connected but there is yet another factor. Determining when a war is just is difficult at times. We tend to watch or read media that confirms our own views. Russians have little alterative due to the tight state control of the media but in the West there is a similar problem. Most Republicans in the United States watch Fox news and therefore take truth and reality to be what the Murdoch owned Fox presents. In the U.K. the readers of the Telegraph (Barclay Brothers), Times (Murdoch), The Mail (Viscount Rothermere) or The Sun (Murdoch) are likely to have different political views than readers of the Guardian, Independent or the Mirror and will find these reinforced by their choice of media. Determining Truth is far from easy. The Pope in presenting his views on the conflict is careful not to be one sided and to recognise there are some merits on both sides. To assume, therefore, that the views of the British media one chooses to be influenced by presents a ‘truthful’ view is somewhat complex. Certainly, the West is fortunate in having a relatively free press, but the influence of the owners of various media outlets is great.

The first step, therefore in determining whether any war is just is to try, as best one can, to determine as balanced a perspective as is possible. Then one has to look at the real intentions of motives behind conflicts and this is far from easy. Shortly after President Clinton was found to have had a relationship with Monica Lewinski, he ordered the launch of missiles against targets in the Lebanon – they were referred to as ‘Monica missiles’ as war can provide a welcome distraction for some political leaders from problems at home. A cynic might wonder whether visits by some Western leaders to Kiev might sometimes have similar motives.

Although the doctrine of Just War had been part of mainstream Christian thinking since Augustine, this has not always been the case. Origen (185 – 254ce) said that Christians ‘do not go forth as soldiers’. Tertullian (155 – 240ce) wrote ‘only without the sword can the Christian wage war: for the Lord has abolished the sword.’ Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215ce) wrote ‘...he who holds the sword must cast it away and if one of the faithful becomes a soldier he must be rejected by the Church, for he has scorned God.’

In the First World War, 10 per cent of casualties were civilian. Today that figure is above 90 per cent. The idea of ‘discrimination’ between combatants and non-combatants is ceasing to be convincing. Increasingly war is ‘total’: The idea of the ‘innocent and the ‘guilty’ is far less clear than when armies were fighting each other. Terrorist activity and drones make the boundaries between war and extra-judicial killing more complex.

There are some indications that there are changes in Christian attitudes to warfare. In April 2016 there was a major conference in Rome to discuss this (sponsored by The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi). A number of factors influenced this re-consideration. Modern methods of warfare (such as nuclear weapons and drones) seem to have made the just war theory obsolete. A clearer understanding of the message of the Gospels and how this might relate to war can challenge the very basis for war and Jesus seemed to emphasise the importance of peace. Non-violent protests starting with Ghandi have been yet another factor.

The Quakers have always resolutely opposed war and all Churches tend to have a small minority of those who oppose all war – but this leaves us with the problem of what to do when an iniquitous state attempts to impose its will by force of arms (The British Empire and local rulers? Hitler and Poland? Putin and Ukraine?). The Pope recognises complexity. He said of the Ukraine conflict ‘We do not see the whole drama unfolding behind this war, which was, perhaps, somehow either provoked or not prevented.’ Sadly, few Western politicians have any sense of history or any recognition of nuances behind conflicts. The people who vote for them are even worse.

There are no easy answers – but there are certainly issues that need discussion.




Dr Peter Vardy was previously vice-principal of Heythrop College, the then specialist Jesuit run theology and philosophy College of the University of London. In 2021 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Chichester for services to religious education. His most recent book was Beyond the Cave was a defence of Truth in a relativistic world. His is next book The Philosophers’ Daughters (2023)  focuses on questions raised by his two young daughters – Petra and Thora – and replies from leading figures around the world.

Main image:  View of a destroyed church which served as a military redoubt for Russian soldiers in Lukashivka village, Ukraine. The Russian retreat from Ukrainian towns and cities has revealed scores of civilian deaths and the full extent of devastation since the beginning of the Russian invasion. (Anastasia Vlasova / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Peter Vardy, Ukraine, Russia, War, Invasion, Just War, Balance, Media, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

Whoever told the Pope that NATO was barking at the gates of Russia was barking up the wrong tree. The barking came from the Baltic states and the former states of the Soviet Union who worried about their security in the face of Russian military expansion. These states were barking to be let into NATO. No surprise that Sweden and Norway were so raucous that NATO finally opened the gates just six weeks ago, while the people of Denmark have voted to join the European Union's defence pact. Russia is the barking dog in the European neighbourhood, not NATO.

Peter Breen | 21 July 2022  
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‘Russia is the barking dog in the European neighbourhood, not NATO.’

If Russia has learned that it is very difficult to invade Ukraine, Russia has surely learned that if it imitates Ukraine, it will be very difficult for anyone to invade Russia. So, where’s the problem except in Putin’s head?

roy chen yee | 23 July 2022  

The Pope has taken an extremely sensible and nuanced view towards causes of the current appalling conflict in the Ukraine. I think the important thing is not to attempt to work out the complex moral questions about a just war here but to stop the appalling, indiscriminate slaughter and destruction in what has now become a barbaric conflict with the latest modern destructive weapons. The only reason Ukraine has held out for so long is because of the provision of these weapons at enormous cost to the providers. Russia sees this as a proxy war against it by the West, which may turn very nasty for the latter because of the shortage of gas and petrol and disruption to the world's food supply. Russia is shoring up both its finances and alliances with nations such as Iran, the country which has the second largest gas reserves after it. Russia will not be defeated easily and if it is it will be an extremely Pyrrhic victory after a devastating war in Europe with a possible spillover with China the way NATO is talking. Interestingly, no BRICS country supports the West here. I fear disaster looms here.

Edward Fido | 21 July 2022  

Complex issues like abortion and euthanasia are simplified by 'pro-life' people down to one issue that overrides all other considerations - the sanctity of life. To be consistent, surely these pro-life people should then simplify the issue of war in the same way by absolutising the sanctity of life to argue we should never kill and therefore oppose all war, all armaments, all sanctions, and be total and absolute pacifists? But they don't.

Why is it unacceptable to kill embryonic human life in the womb and dying human life on the death-bed, but quite OK to kill human life with missiles and bombs? Why is it unacceptable to kill in the name of compassion and relief of suffering, but quite OK to kill in the name of geopolitics, nationalism, markets and profits, even though it vastly increases suffering?

Peter Schulz | 21 July 2022  

As of June 2022, five additional states have formally informed NATO of their membership desires: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Georgia, Sweden and Ukraine. Currently there are 30 members including Italy as a founding member.
For Pope Francis to suggest that somehow Ukraine provoked the conflict when Russia was clearly the aggressor, is at best misconceived. At worst, an insincere attempt to mollify Kirrill and Putin.
The Vatican has drawn its physical defence protection from Italy's membership since 1949.
Rather than Francis barking up the wrong tree, if he really thinks Russia had some spurious justification for murderously invading Ukraine, he is pissing in the wrong pockets.
Italy lopsidedly, has 26 cardinals with the right to vote in the Conclave, 10 of them are residential bishops and 16 are members of the Curia: this accounts for 21% of the electoral college. Meanwhile, the US has 11 cardinal electors. Australia did have one cardinal of sorts but since he has retired in comfort to the mists of his Roman bath, we can't look for any leadership there.
As for Kirrill and Putin, dress a thug up in a fancy religious costume and masquerade him on a bandit's horse, you've still got a pair of thugs.

Francis Armstrong | 25 July 2022  

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