In mid-January, the team at A Faith That Does Justice had the opportunity to host a fireside chat between Father Peter Gyves and Rev. Bryan Hehir, Secretary for Health and Social Services in the Cardinal’s Cabinet in the Archdiocese of Boston. Rev. Hehir is a recently retired faculty member at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the discussion featured his perspective on the two major wars that fill our daily news outlets: the war in Eastern Europe and the war in the Middle East. Before diving into the content, Fr. Peter noted that in the time since Hamas’ attack on October 7th, and even further back from then, many people have come to him feeling “distraught.” Many members of our local and national communities feel upset, hurt, and confused by the state of our world. This discussion aimed to at least add some moral perspective to these tragedies and the ongoing suffering that they are bringing across each region and here at home.  

Fr. Hehir introduced the Catholic Church’s “Just War Theory” (JWT), and explained how he would analyze and compare each conflict through that lens. This theory was heavily influenced by St. Augustine of Hippo, and it’s generally viewed as one of three main frameworks for making a moral analysis of a war, alongside Pacifism and Political Realism. The goal of JWT is to make war a “rule governed activity” and to give leaders and nations moral pillars for why, when, and how to use force. The main pillars are whether the war has a just cause, is being carried out with the right intention, contains a degree of force that’s not more violent than necessary, and is carried out by just means. Fr. Hehir began his analysis by reviewing the approach of each of the four main adversaries, Ukraine, Russia, Israel and Hamas, based on these four moral pillars.

The conversation provided many insights that would fascinate both people who closely follow the news cycle and those who choose to turn off media outlets. Rev. Hehir noted how the wars both have deep history, both involve invasions, both have brought in outside support, and both could escalate to larger regional conflicts. He highlighted how both Ukraine and Israel have a just cause to defend themselves against the invasions by Russia and Hamas, but also dove into some more difficult questions, such as whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is acting in a proportionate manner in trying to gain all territory back, and whether Israel has maintained proportionality in its response to Hamas, given that over 29,000 bombs have been dropped in the Gaza Strip. The conversation also dove into the response in the US, which has varied between the two conflicts. When Russia first conducted its invasion, Ukraine had almost unilateral support across America. That support has waned and fractured as the conflict has continued. The conflict in the Middle East tends to be more of a generational war, as older Americans seem to generally side with Israel, whereas Americans in the 18-35 age range tend to sympathize with Palestine. Rev. Hehir did add some historical context to the conversation; He noted how each conflict has wrestled with the question of civilian casualties. Both wars have sparked public outcry for the targeting of civilians as a military strategy, whereas the obliteration bombing campaigns in World War II did not cause the same protest and outrage. Readers are encouraged to watch the recording to learn more and should remember that the conversation grapples with tough and uncomfortable questions.  

The conversation ended by touching on the role of the Catholic Church, questions on what US foreign and domestic policy should be, and how each conflict has highlighted the relationship between major religions. Pope Francis came out early in favor of a ceasefire in the Middle East, and many nations across the world have come to a similar opinion. Rev. Hehir also noted how the church highly values its relationship with the Jewish and Muslim faiths, and that impacts its view of the conflict in the Middle East. It’s worth noting that the church similarly values its relationship with the Eastern Orthodox traditions, which have played roles in the conflict in Eastern Europe. This closure gave the audience additional topics and questions for reflection. 

Overall, the conversation provided many valuable insights. A Faith That Does Justice thanks Fr. Hehir for his time and reflection, and we hope that it has helped audience members find some clarity in the face of these tragic realities.