Speaking to press on Monday, initial reports indicated that Pope Francis openly endorsed the use of military force against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a militant group currently marauding its way through Iraq. But closer examination of the pope’s comments reveals that while Francis does appear to support some form of intervention in the region, his position is actually far more complicated than it initially appears, and hints that the popular pontiff may be in the midst of confronting something akin to a theological crisis.
While chatting with reporters on his flight back to Rome from South Korea, the pope was asked how he felt about the recent decision by the U.S. to begin using targeted airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. But while Francis acknowledged that the notoriously brutal ISIS was an “unjust aggressor,” he stopped short of wholesale endorsing the use of lethal force to halt their advance.
“I can only say this: It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” the pontiff said in reference to ISIS, according to CNN. “I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means.”
“But we must also have memory,” he added. “How many times under this excuse of stopping an unjust aggressor the powers [that intervened] have taken control of peoples, and have made a true war of conquest.”
The pontiff’s comments, while somewhat vague, are garnering attention primarily because Francis has earned something of a reputation as a global peacemaker. He visited the infamously conflict-ridden Holy Land in May, for example, and later invited leaders from both Isreal and Palestine to the Vatican to participate in a “prayer summit” for peace. He has also been a firm critic of armed intervention: When the United States was considering mobilizing airstrikes in Syria last September, Francis asked his fellow Catholics to protest by participating in a day of fasting, declaring, “War begets war, violence begets violence.” He also spoke unequivocally about the horrors of military exchanges during a sermon in St. Peter’s Square last month, outlining a firm anti-war stance that appeared to contradict the Catholic church’s own support for “Just War Doctrine,” saying, “Brothers and sisters, never war, never war! Everything is lost with war, nothing is lost with peace. Never more war.”
But as reports pour in about ISIS brutally oppressing Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq, Francis’ abhorrence of bloodshed is being put to the test. On the one hand, Francis clearly loathes violence in all forms. But on the other hand, the pope is also tasked with protecting his fellow Christians, such as the thousands of people currently being harassed and killed by ISIS. This is a longstanding question that virtually every pope has confronted, including Pope John Paul II, who supported the “legitimate fight against terrorism” and a nation’s right to defend itself against terrorist attacks. But Francis is not John Paul, and hinted at his own internal struggle around the issue on Monday by asking reporters a rhetorical — but unanswered — question: ”Is there an unjust aggressor? It would seem there is. How do we stop him?”
The pope also seemed to acknowledge that the onus of responsibility for evil also falls on the aggressor themselves, saying, “To stop the unjust aggressor is a right that humanity has, but it is also a right that the aggressor has to be stopped so that he does not do evil.”
Yet even as the pope grapples with the ancient issue of how, when, or even if to resort to violence, he made a point to say that when responding to “unjust aggressors” — a specific theological designation that the pope is now applying to ISIS — the global community should collaborate, and that ”one nation alone cannot judge.” More specifically, the pope argued that the use of force should be a decision of a group such as the United Nations, according to a report from CNN.
In fact, the U.N. has been pondering the larger question of when to use military force for some time — including how to handle the situation with ISIS. True, while the United Nations Security Council is normally under international law the only body that can approve the use of force, the fight against ISIS has so far managed to mostly avoid it, at least as far as U.S. airstrikes are concerned. Given that the Iraqi government has invited in the United States to act in a case of self-defense against an aggressor, in the Pope’s language, the Council’s approval has been effectively sidestepped.
That isn’t to say that the U.N. has done nothing when it comes to ISIS. The Council on Friday approved a resolution placing international sanctions against members of ISIS, as well as others conducting terrorist operations in Syria and Iraq such as the Al Qaeda-allied group Jabhat al-Nusra. In all, the U.N. added six members of the two groups to their sanctions list, compelling countries to bar their entry and freeze all of their assets. The broader U.N. has also been helping ISIS’ victims in both Syria and Iraq as the humanitarian crisis the fighting in these two countries has caused continues to spiral. But it’s unlikely that these actions alone will stop ISIS, as Francis hoped in his statement to the press.
But regardless of how the U.N. responds, whether or not the global community supports the use of force in Iraq doesn’t erase the larger spiritual challenge that the pope must now confront. For Francis, the issue is more complicated than a firm yes-or-no endorsement of armed intervention, as the situation in Iraq is effectively a real-world example of an agonizing conundrum that has plagued Christian theologians for millennia. After all, when fellow Christians are literally staring down the barrel of a gun held by someone who fully intends to pull the trigger — such as ISIS — how does one respond while still living out Christ’s charge to “turn the other cheek”?