restricted access The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective by Matthew A. Shadle (review)
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The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective Matthew A. Shadle Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011.246pp. $29.95

Matthew A. Shadle’s The Origins of War, in Georgetown University Press’s Moral Traditions series, makes a genuinely fresh contribution to contemporary scholarship on Christianity and war. This is not a work on the morality of war, just war theory, or alternatives to that theory. Instead, Shadle directs our attention to Christian understandings of war’s origins. Through a rich and careful analysis of the early tradition’s treatment of the origin of war in light of its overall understanding of human existence, Shadle sets the stage for his examination of the decentering of Christianity in modernity and the implication of this for assumptions about humanity and human possibilities that became encoded in both political theory and Catholic writings on war. In the process, Shadle offers us not only a primer on international theory but also an account of the transition of fundamental liberal assumptions from their beginnings as anti-Christian to their twentieth-century embrace by Catholic theologians and a thoughtful new approach to understanding the causes of war today.

Making his case serially, Shadle moves from biblical and early Christian thought on the origins of war to the Middle Ages and onward. He argues that the overriding context for a Christian understanding of the origins of war is the Christian worldview that sees human life in a theological framework (25), and he locates the impulse to war in the human struggle between sin and grace (5). With modernity, however, war has come to be seen as a result not of sin but of unresolved conflicts, clashes of interest and power—all viewed in materialist rather than transcendent terms. Moving into the twentieth century, he demonstrates that Roman Catholic writings on war, including church writings, have adopted a liberal framework for articulating positions on the causes of war. This liberal framework has in turn supported the hope that international institutions will be able to resolve the conflicts of interests that lead to war by fostering dialogue across divides but at the same time have also led away from the more fundamental Christian view that sees war as the result of sin.

Shadle criticizes the liberal optimism that has infused Catholic writings with the hope that international structures will succeed at preventing war. Linking [End Page 215] that optimism to dominant versions of international relations theory, he argues instead for a new version of international relations theory known as “constructivism.” This theory challenges presumptions of earlier versions of international relations theory and sees war as the result of “a clash of the identities, interests, and norms of states . . . all of which are socially constructed by both domestic and international factors” (86). In Shadle’s view, constructivism is a theory that is more compatible with traditional Christian views on the origin of war as well as contemporary Catholic theology because it focuses on clashes in socially constructed (though not entirely relativistic) identities and values as causes of war. Avoiding war on this view will take more than relying on international structures such as the United Nations to resolve conflicts by translating conflicting interests into terms erroneously presumed to be accessible to all.

The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective deserves serious study. From its careful account of the biblical and early Christian understanding of the origin of war to its analysis of the ways that liberal assumptions came to undergird Catholic writings on war, it sheds new light on how assumptions about the origins of war influence all aspects of our thinking about war. And it is in the end provocative. Shadle’s historicist orientation reminds us that the liberal optimism that undervalued the role of sin as a cause of war was itself tempting because of the challenges of the time and dominant political theories. Yet Shadle’s preference for constructivism is no less historically shaped. Liberalism’s fit with Catholic understanding of human existence has certainly been strained, but it remains to be seen whether a historicist, constructivist set of assumptions can do more to foster international relations in the hope of avoiding war...