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Ukrainian human rights advocate calls for synod on ‘just defense’

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Myroslav Marynovych, former vice rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, speaks at a conference on “Truth, Justice and Liberty in a Pluri-Anthropological World” organized by the Acton Institute and the Pontifical Gregorian University held at the university in Rome March 12, 2024. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

The Catholic Church should hold a Synod of Bishops devoted exclusively to defining just war, just defense and just peace, said the president of the Institute of Religion and Society at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.

Myroslav Marynovych, who is a human rights advocate from Ukraine and a former Soviet political prisoner, said the conflict in Ukraine demonstrates “the insufficiency” of current discussions about “just war and just peace and just defense.”

“It is not correct to speak about just war, and I agree with Pope Francis that to justify war is not a good solution,” he said during a conference at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University March 12.

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However, he said, the argument of “just defense is legitimate. But I am afraid that in this modern discussion on social doctrine of the church, there is an idealistic attempt to avoid all such words and speak exclusively about just peace.”

“If it is the case, if it [just defense] is legitimate, then the social doctrine of the church has to explain what is going on in Ukraine” and how its ongoing military action against Russian aggression may be too complex to “fit into this idealistic vision of just peace,” he said.

The Ukrainian Catholic University, he said, has urged “Pope Francis and other institutions to convene a Synod of Bishops that would be devoted exclusively to this theme: just war, just defense or just peace. I do hope that the church will find the possibility to convene such a synod.”

Pope Francis told an Argentinian news station in June 2022, “I believe it is time to rethink the concept of a ‘just war.’ A war may be just, there is the right to defend oneself. But we need to rethink the way that the concept is used nowadays.”

While just war theory aims to limit violence and insists force should be a last resort, the just peace approach aims to prevent war, to de-escalate conflict or to mediate conflicts underway as a way to protect life and human dignity, rebuild relationships and communities, and create sustainable peace.

Just war theory maintains it would be morally licit to fight in cases when evil must be opposed with force if one uses “proportionate means” and protects civilians. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, while everyone must safeguard peace and avoid war, “legitimate defense by military force” may be justified in some cases.

Another speaker, Jesuit Father João Vila-Chã, professor of social and political philosophy at the Gregorian University, said there is “a severe undermining of the role of Christianity and the Christian faith to come to positions of any kind that justify a war that is unreasonable, unprovoked, unjust and totally illegitimate.”

“Let’s have a high-level reflection on the conditions of possibility of a theory of just defense. Just war in the nuclear age is impossible. No nuclear state can be justified to start a war because the danger of any war is to bring us to nuclear destruction,” he said. “We need to have strong criteria to define what is justifiable in terms of resistance.”

Father Vila-Chã and Marynovych were among four featured speakers at a conference on “Truth, Justice and Liberty in a Pluri-Anthropological World” jointly organized by the Acton Institute and the Gregorian University’s department of philosophy.

Marynovych spent a total of 10 years in Soviet labor camps and in exile in Kazakhstan before being able to return to Ukraine. He had been arrested and jailed in 1977 for refusing to stop flagging violations by the Soviets in Ukraine of human rights guaranteed in the 1975 Helsinki Accords. He rediscovered his Christian faith during detention and became an Eastern-rite Catholic.

A member of the audience asked Marynovych about the Russian Orthodox Church and the rise of the “traditional values doctrine inside Putin’s Russia,” saying Putin has justified the war against Ukraine in terms of the defense of traditional values and has used religious figures, like the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, to justify the war.

Marynovych said, “It’s really painful” to hear these kinds of statements by Russian Orthodox Church leaders “because my typical reaction … is does truth belong to traditional values? Does justice belong to traditional values? Does mercy belong? And so on.”

“This church canceled all moral basis of Christianity and used this rhetoric of traditional values just to hide the anti-Christian position that has developed in this church,” he said.

Because of this, he said, “the people in Russia do not hear the voice of God, they hear the voice of a tyrant,” and they gave to “Caesar” what belongs to God. “This is a crime against Christianity. This is a total violation of Christian doctrine.”

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