19. Fratelli Tutti Audiobook - Chapter 7, Part 3

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Fratelli Tutti

The Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis


Chapter Seven, Part Three

The injustice of war

256. “Deceit is in the mind of those who plan evil, but those who counsel peace have joy” (Prov 12:20). Yet there are those who seek solutions in war, frequently fueled by a breakdown in relations, hegemonic ambitions, abuses of power, fear of others and a tendency to see diversity as an obstacle.[237] War is not a ghost from the past but a constant threat. Our world is encountering growing difficulties on the slow path to peace upon which it had embarked and which had already begun to bear good fruit.

257. Since conditions that favour the outbreak of wars are once again increasing, I can only reiterate that “war is the negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment. If we want true integral human development for all, we must work tirelessly to avoid war between nations and peoples. To this end, there is a need to ensure the uncontested rule of law and tireless recourse to negotiation, mediation and arbitration, as proposed by the Charter of the United Nations, which constitutes truly a fundamental juridical norm”.[238] The seventy-five years since the establishment of the United Nations and the experience of the first twenty years of this millennium have shown that the full application of international norms proves truly effective, and that failure to comply with them is detrimental. The Charter of the United Nations, when observed and applied with transparency and sincerity, is an obligatory reference point of justice and a channel of peace. Here there can be no room for disguising false intentions or placing the partisan interests of one country or group above the global common good. If rules are considered simply as means to be used whenever it proves advantageous, and to be ignored when it is not, uncontrollable forces are unleashed that cause grave harm to societies, to the poor and vulnerable, to fraternal relations, to the environment and to cultural treasures, with irretrievable losses for the global community.

258. War can easily be chosen by invoking all sorts of allegedly humanitarian, defensive or precautionary excuses, and even resorting to the manipulation of information. In recent decades, every single war has been ostensibly “justified”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the possibility of legitimate defence by means of military force, which involves demonstrating that certain “rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy”[239] have been met. Yet it is easy to fall into an overly broad interpretation of this potential right. In this way, some would also wrongly justify even “preventive” attacks or acts of war that can hardly avoid entailing “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated”.[240] At issue is whether the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and the enormous and growing possibilities offered by new technologies, have granted war an uncontrollable destructive power over great numbers of innocent civilians. The truth is that “never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely”.[241] We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a “just war”. Never again war![242]

259. It should be added that, with increased globalization, what might appear as an immediate or practical solution for one part of the world initiates a chain of violent and often latent effects that end up harming the entire planet and opening the way to new and worse wars in the future. In today’s world, there are no longer just isolated outbreaks of war in one country or another; instead, we are experiencing a “world war fought piecemeal”, since the destinies of countries are so closely interconnected on the global scene.

260. In the words of Saint John XXIII, “it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice”.[243] In making this point amid great international tension, he voiced the growing desire for peace emerging in the Cold War period. He supported the conviction that the arguments for peace are stronger than any calculation of particular interests and confidence in the use of weaponry. The opportunities offered by the end of the Cold War were not, however, adequately seized due to a lack of a vision for the future and a shared consciousness of our common destiny. Instead, it proved easier to pursue partisan interests without upholding the universal common good. The dread spectre of war thus began to gain new ground.

261. Every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil. Let us not remain mired in theoretical discussions, but touch the wounded flesh of the victims. Let us look once more at all those civilians whose killing was considered “collateral damage”. Let us ask the victims themselves. Let us think of the refugees and displaced, those who suffered the effects of atomic radiation or chemical attacks, the mothers who lost their children, and the boys and girls maimed or deprived of their childhood. Let us hear the true stories of these victims of violence, look at reality through their eyes, and listen with an open heart to the stories they tell. In this way, we will be able to grasp the abyss of evil at the heart of war. Nor will it trouble us to be deemed naive for choosing peace.

262. Rules by themselves will not suffice if we continue to think that the solution to current problems is deterrence through fear or the threat of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Indeed, “if we take into consideration the principal threats to peace and security with their many dimensions in this multipolar world of the twenty-first century as, for example, terrorism, asymmetrical conflicts, cybersecurity, environmental problems, poverty, not a few doubts arise regarding the inadequacy of nuclear deterrence as an effective response to such challenges. These concerns are even greater when we consider the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences that would follow from any use of nuclear weapons, with devastating, indiscriminate and uncontainable effects, over time and space… We need also to ask ourselves how sustainable is a stability based on fear, when it actually increases fear and undermines relationships of trust between peoples. International peace and stability cannot be based on a false sense of security, on the threat of mutual destruction or total annihilation, or on simply maintaining a balance of power… In this context, the ultimate goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons becomes both a challenge and a moral and humanitarian imperative… Growing interdependence and globalization mean that any response to the threat of nuclear weapons should be collective and concerted, based on mutual trust. This trust can be built only through dialogue that is truly directed to the common good and not to the protection of veiled or particular interests”.[244] With the money spent on weapons and other military expenditures, let us establish a global fund[245] that can finally put an end to hunger and favour development in the most impoverished countries, so that their citizens will not resort to violent or illusory solutions, or have to leave their countries in order to seek a more dignified life.

The death penalty

263. There is yet another way to eliminate others, one aimed not at countries but at individuals. It is the death penalty. Saint John Paul II stated clearly and firmly that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice.[246] There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that “the death penalty is inadmissible”[247] and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.[248]

264. In the New Testament, while individuals are asked not to take justice into their own hands (cf. Rom 12:17.19), there is also a recognition of the need for authorities to impose penalties on evildoers (cf. Rom 13:4; 1 Pet 2:14). Indeed, “civic life, structured around an organized community, needs rules of coexistence, the wilful violation of which demands appropriate redress”.[249] This means that legitimate public authority can and must “inflict punishments according to the seriousness of the crimes”[250] and that judicial power be guaranteed a “necessary independence in the realm of law”.[251]

265. From the earliest centuries of the Church, some were clearly opposed to capital punishment. Lactantius, for example, held that “there ought to be no exception at all; that it is always unlawful to put a man to death”.[252] Pope Nicholas I urged that efforts be made “to free from the punishment of death not only each of the innocent, but all the guilty as well”.[253] During the trial of the murderers of two priests, Saint Augustine asked the judge not to take the life of the assassins with this argument: “We do not object to your depriving these wicked men of the freedom to commit further crimes. Our desire is rather that justice be satisfied without the taking of their lives or the maiming of their bodies in any part. And, at the same time, that by the coercive measures provided by the law, they be turned from their irrational fury to the calmness of men of sound mind, and from their evil deeds to some useful employment. This too is considered a condemnation, but who does not see that, when savage violence is restrained and remedies meant to produce repentance are provided, it should be considered a benefit rather than a mere punitive measure… Do not let the atrocity of their sins feed a desire for vengeance, but desire instead to heal the wounds which those deeds have inflicted on their souls”.[254]

266. Fear and resentment can easily lead to viewing punishment in a vindictive and even cruel way, rather than as part of a process of healing and reintegration into society. Nowadays, “in some political sectors and certain media, public and private violence and revenge are incited, not only against those responsible for committing crimes, but also against those suspected, whether proven or not, of breaking the law… There is at times a tendency to deliberately fabricate enemies: stereotyped figures who represent all the characteristics that society perceives or interprets as threatening. The mechanisms that form these images are the same that allowed the spread of racist ideas in their time”.[255] This has made all the more dangerous the growing practice in some countries of resorting to preventive custody, imprisonment without trial and especially the death penalty.

267. Here I would stress that “it is impossible to imagine that states today have no other means than capital punishment to protect the lives of other people from the unjust aggressor”. Particularly serious in this regard are so-called extrajudicial or extralegal executions, which are “homicides deliberately committed by certain states and by their agents, often passed off as clashes with criminals or presented as the unintended consequences of the reasonable, necessary and proportionate use of force in applying the law”.[256]

268. “The arguments against the death penalty are numerous and well-known. The Church has rightly called attention to several of these, such as the possibility of judicial error and the use made of such punishment by totalitarian and dictatorial regimes as a means of suppressing political dissidence or persecuting religious and cultural minorities, all victims whom the legislation of those regimes consider ‘delinquents’. All Christians and people of good will are today called to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, legal or illegal, in all its forms, but also to work for the improvement of prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their freedom. I would link this to life imprisonment… A life sentence is a secret death penalty”.[257]

269. Let us keep in mind that “not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this”.[258] The firm rejection of the death penalty shows to what extent it is possible to recognize the inalienable dignity of every human being and to accept that he or she has a place in this universe. If I do not deny that dignity to the worst of criminals, I will not deny it to anyone. I will give everyone the possibility of sharing this planet with me, despite all our differences.

270. I ask Christians who remain hesitant on this point, and those tempted to yield to violence in any form, to keep in mind the words of the book of Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares” (2:4). For us, this prophecy took flesh in Christ Jesus who, seeing a disciple tempted to violence, said firmly: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52). These words echoed the ancient warning: “I will require a reckoning for human life. Whoever sheds the blood of a man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen 9:5-6). Jesus’ reaction, which sprang from his heart, bridges the gap of the centuries and reaches the present as an enduring appeal.


[237] Cf. Message for the 2020 World Day of Peace (8 December 2019), 1: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 December 2019, p. 8.
[238] Address to the Members of the General Assembly of the United Nations, New York (25 September 2015): AAS 107 (2015), 1041.
[239] No. 2309.
[240] Ibid.
[241] Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ (24 May 2015), 104: AAS 107 (2015), 888.
[242] Saint Augustine, who forged a concept of “just war” that we no longer uphold in our own day, also said that “it is a higher glory still to stay war itself with a word, than to slay men with the sword, and to procure or maintain peace by peace, not by war” (Epistola 229, 2: PL 33, 1020).
[243] Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris (11 April 1963): AAS 55 (1963), 291.
[244] Message to the United Nations Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons (23 March 2017): AAS 109 (2017), 394-396.
[245] Cf. SAINT PAUL VI, Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio (26 March 1967): AAS 59 (1967), 282.
[246] Cf. Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae (25 March 1995), 56: AAS 87 (1995), 463-464.
[247] Address on the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (11 October 2017): AAS 109 (2017), 1196.
[248] Cf. CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Letter to the Bishops Regarding the Revision of No. 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Death Penalty (1 August 2018): L’Osservatore Romano, 3 August 2018, p. 8.
[249] Address to Delegates of the International Association of Penal Law (23 October 2014): AAS 106 (2014), 840.
[250] PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 402.
[251] SAINT JOHN PAUL II, Address to the National Association of Magistrates (31 March 2000), 4: AAS 92 (2000), 633.
[252] Divinae Institutiones VI, 20, 17: PL 6, 708.
[253] Epistola 97 (Responsa ad consulta Bulgarorum), 25: PL 119, 991. “ipsi (Christo) non solum innoxios quosque, verum etiam et noxios a mortis exitio satagite cunctos eruere…”.
[254] Epistola ad Marcellinum 133, 1.2: PL 33, 509.
[255] Address to Delegates of the International Association of Penal Law (23 October 2014): AAS 106 (2014), 840-841.
[256] Ibid., 842.
[257] Ibid.
[258] SAINT JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae (25 March 1995), 9: AAS 87 (1995), 411.

03 October 2022