Did The Pope Just Challenge The Church’s Position On War?

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"Did The Pope Just Challenge The Church’s Position On War?"

Pope Francis

CREDIT: Catholic Church of England and Wales

Pope Francis has a habit of saying things that are not necessarily in line with the established teaching of the Catholic Church, but his most recent appeal for peace in the Middle East may put him at odds with a centuries-old Catholic theology concerning the proper use of military force.

Speaking during his weekly Angelus address in Saint Peter’s Square on Sunday, the first Argentinean pope marked the 100th anniversary of World War I by breaking from his scripted remarks to make an impassioned plea for peace.

“Please stop!” he said, referring to war as his voice cracked with emotion. “I ask you with all my heart, it’s time to stop. Stop, please!”

His remarks appeared to be primarily directed at the escalating conflict in Israel and Palestine, with the pope speaking of how war injures, mutilates, and orphans children. He then made another bold proclamation: ”Brothers and sisters, never war, never war! Everything is lost with war, nothing is lost with peace. Never more war.”

The pope’s emotional remarks were no doubt moving for many Christians — especially those fighting to survive in the Holy Land — but few likely saw them as surprising. Appeals to pacifism and nonviolence are nothing new in Christianity, which is rooted in the biblical commandment “thou shalt not kill” and Jesus Christ’s instruction to “turn the other cheek” when confronted with violence. In fact, pacifism is cited as a foundational theological idea for entire Christian denominations, such as the Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish, groups whose devotees are regularly granted “conscientious objector” status during wartime because of their religious beliefs. For his part, Pope Francis has repeatedly prayed for peace in various war-torn regions, as has virtually every pope before him — including Pope Benedict XVI, his predecessor.

But Francis’ bold assertion of “never war” is a bit out-of-character for a sitting pope, because, technically speaking, the Catholic Church doesn’t actually think that people should “never” go to war. On the contrary, the Catholic Church has been an active participant in several violent conflicts, and pope Francis’ words appear to directly dispute an established — albeit controversial — Catholic theology known as “Just War Doctrine.”

At its core, Just War Doctrine — a distinctly Catholic subset of the larger conversation around Just War Theory — is essentially the belief that war can, in certain circumstances, be “just.” These circumstances are very specific, and the exact definition of what constitutes a “just war” has been disputed by various Catholic theologians over the centuries. The term itself originated with Saint Augustine of Hippo, a highly influential 4th and 5th century Christian leader who outlined a form of justifiable violence in his seminal work, “City of God.” In it, Augustine lamented the idea that violence should exist at all, but nonetheless argued that, “They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command…by no means violated the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’” This idea was expanded several centuries later by Saint Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican priest and theologian who lived in the 13th century. He discussed Just War in his Summa Theologica, outlining tests for gauging the morality of a conflict, a list that was nuanced and enhanced a few centuries later by various Spanish and Portuguese monks as part of the philosophical “School of Salamanca.

All of this culminated with the formal codification of a “Just War Doctrine” within Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1993, where paragraph 2309 outlines four “strict conditions” that must be met for lethal force to be categorized as “just” by the church. They are:

  • The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • There must be serious prospects of success;
  • The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

This theology has been claimed by the church on multiple occasions to justify war. The crusades are an obvious example of the church invoking several early forms of the Just War Doctrine, with Catholic leaders justifying the series of bloody engagements by arguing that Palestine needed to be freed from Muslim rule. Pope Francis called World War I a “useless massacre” this weekend, but during that conflict, prominent Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore issued a letter to U.S. Catholics that invoked Just War principles and implored all Catholics to support U.S. involvement in the war. The act lead to the creation of the U.S. Bishops’ “National Catholic War Council,” which was reportedly tasked with recruiting as many Catholics as possible for “war work.” The Catholic Church itself has been more hesitant to endorse a single war as “just” in recent decades, but that hasn’t stopped scores of Catholic theologians from sparring over whether or not intervention in conflicts such as the crisis in Syria constitute a justifiable use of military force.

And while the term was originally a religious idea, it has since been appropriated by various American political leaders. This is partially due to the influence of 20th century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who embraced just war and established the notion of “Christian realism” that multiple American politicians on both sides of the aisle still hold dear. Some have argued, for instance, that the War in Iraq was a just war, and the vast majority of Americans say the same about World War II. President Obama, who cites Niebuhr as his favorite theologian, discussed his own complex attitudes toward the idea when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. But as the sheer number of these so-called “just wars” have grown, more than a few have questioned whether the concept — even with its narrow definitions — has become little more than a rallying cry for anyone who engages in war, since virtually all warriors claim their cause is just.

Francis’ words on Sunday appear to echo these criticisms. By asserting “never war, never war” while lifting up the plight of dead or orphaned children, he hints the violence, however well-intentioned or sensibly executed, only leads to death and destruction, and thus cannot be moral. His remarks channel the frustration of millions caught up in conflicts in places like Syria, Ukraine, and Israel-Palestine, where thousands are killed or displaced simply for standing in the way of opposing forces.

Francis’ passionately anti-war stance may be catching on. Although his remarks are barely 24 hours old, writers already are using his words to make bold calls for radical peace.

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