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Catholic theologians question the morality of Ukraine’s violent resistance

Catholic moral theologians uniformly condemn Russian invasion of Ukraine but debate the proper response.

Russian military strikes hit on and around a television tower in Kyiv, Ukraine. The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center is near the communications tower. Video screen grab via Telegram

Russian military strikes hit on and around a television tower in Kyiv, Ukraine. The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center is near the communications tower. Video screen grab via Telegram

(RNS) — The response of Catholic moral theologians to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been universally negative. 

“The war in Ukraine is a spiritual, human and ecological catastrophe,” said Eli S. McCarthy, a peace activist at Georgetown University’s Justice and Peace Studies, in a recent email to me.

The view is shared by Catholic pacifists as well as followers of the just war theory. There is no justification for the invasion, they agree. The fighting should stop, and the Russian troops should go home.

Where Catholic moralists begin to disagree is on what means are appropriate in responding to the invasion.


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Peace advocates like McCarthy believe that a violent response will make matters worse. He bemoans the fact that “we have failed to adequately train people in nonviolent conflict, resistance and civilian-based defense.”

But he does see signs of hope. He wrote:

A variety of creative, courageous, nonviolent ways of resistance are being activated and could be scaled up by Ukrainians and others: blocking convoys and tanks … fraternization of Russian soldiers to lower morale and stimulate defections, humanitarian assistance and caring for refugees, evacuations, outpouring of public statements by key political leaders, reducing the flow of money to the aggressor (ex. via banks, media, trade, fossil fuels, etc.), supporting the anti-war protesters in Russia, disrupting the technology systems of the aggressor, interrupting disinformation, coalition building, activating key civil society leaders (ex. religious, athletes, business), ex. 100,000 Russians from a variety of sectors have signed petitions to end the war, Russians close to the military and foreign ministry, in the Russian oil industry and billionaires, have spoken out against the war. 

Natali Sevriukova reacts to seeing her residence following a rocket attack in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Natali Sevriukova reacts to seeing her residence following a rocket attack in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

McCarthy quotes Pope Francis, who, on the World Day of Peace in 2017, said,

Violence is not the cure for our broken world. Countering violence with violence leads at best to forced migrations and enormous suffering, because vast amounts of resources are diverted to military ends and away from the everyday needs of young people, families experiencing hardship, the elderly, the infirm and the great majority of people in our world. At worst, it can lead to the death, physical and spiritual, of many people, if not of all.

But pacifists aren’t the only ones questioning an armed response to the Russian invasion. The just war theory has never supported fighting a war, even a defensive war, if there is no chance of winning.

“Given the vastly greater strength of the Russian military, it seems inevitable that Russia will eventually take military control of Ukraine,” argued John Sniegocki, director of Peace and Justice Studies at Xavier University in Cincinnati.

“The use of violence may slightly delay the Russian takeover,” he added, “but it will not prevent it. It will cost many lives in the process, both the lives of Ukrainians who could have potentially played major roles in subsequent mass nonviolent civil resistance and the lives of Russian soldiers, most of whom are conscripts, don’t want to be there and are themselves victims of this unjust situation.”

Ukrainian civilians receive weapons training, in the outskirts of Lviv, western Ukraine, Monday, March 7, 2022. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has entered its 12th day following what Ukrainian authorities described as increased shelling of encircled cities and another failed attempt to evacuate civilians from the port of Mariupol. Russia announced yet another cease-fire and humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee Ukraine on Monday but nothing has happened so far. Two previous cease-fire attempts failed. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Ukrainian civilians receive weapons training, in the outskirts of Lviv, western Ukraine, Monday, March 7, 2022. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has entered its 12th day following what Ukrainian authorities described as increased shelling of encircled cities and another failed attempt to evacuate civilians from the port of Mariupol. Russia announced yet another cease-fire and humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee Ukraine on Monday but nothing has happened so far. Two previous cease-fire attempts failed. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Arming civilians in a fight to the death, just war advocates agreed, can’t be justified morally, as many will die without much hope of success.

“I think the alternative of civilian defense/resistance, combined with serious economic sanctions, needs to be considered as a realistic, ethical option,” said Ron Pagnucco, a self-proclaimed just war advocate and professor of peace studies at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota. “Costs can be imposed by nonviolent means, making Russian rule difficult.”

Others, however, do not want to close the door absolutely to any act of violence.

“What is so interesting about this conflict and makes the unselfish dedication of the Ukrainian patriots so inspiring,” said Lisa Sowle Cahill, an ethicist at Boston College, “is that they are not even debating what is the best course in light of probable numbers of lives lost. They are simply saying NO WAY! to the Russians, and in the absence of adequate weapons, using every scrap of ingenuity to foil the invaders’ advance. 

“They are using nonviolent resistance because they don’t have any choice,” Cahill said, “but also because they were not looking for bloodshed but just to get rid of the rampaging Russians.”

A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. Russia has concentrated more than 100,000 troops with tanks and other heavy weapons near Ukraine in what the West fears could be a prelude to an invasion. (AP Photo)

A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. (AP Photo)

She notes that “President Zelensky keeps proclaiming versions of ‘Our weapon is our truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our children and our country!’ They feel they have no choice but to resist. They’ll take weapons if they get them, but otherwise they will face down tanks and throw sand in the road. It is amazingly working — so far.”

Likewise, David DeCosse of Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics is “moved by the examples of non-violence happening now in Ukraine and persuaded by the wisdom and promise of the just peace framework.”

But DeCosse hesitates to say “how far we take the assumption that violence breeds more violence.” He thinks “that is usually the case. But I wonder, too, if there are some situations in which the only way out of the cycle of the violence is violence for the sake of justice.”

Gerald Beyer, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Villanova University, agreed that the nonviolent resistance has been remarkable, that economic sanctions are crucial and that military action will “entail horrific loss of life,” he said by email. “But if Russia achieves its aims — and I believe it will without military resistance along with other measures — an entire nation will disappear from the heart of Europe (once again).”

He quotes Russia experts who expect that Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely not stop at Ukraine.


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Beyer calls for “more military aid from NATO and the EU (which they already are moving forward) to help the courageous and determined Ukrainians.”

Even those preaching nonviolence recognize that the challenges Ukrainians face don’t offer many Ukrainians a choice. “I realize that those facing this horrendous situation may feel that violence is their only option, and I would not judge them for that,” said Sniegocki. “However, I do think it important that these broader issues be raised, and that both the power of nonviolent action and the centrality of nonviolence to the teachings of Jesus be reflected upon.

“I think it crucial also,” he added, “that each of us seek to discern what concrete steps we can take to assist the Ukrainian people in this tragic time.”