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opinion | Robert Emmet Meagher

Francis’ mixed message on war with the Islamic State

Pope Francis’ innocent words attempted to defy gravity, i.e., the gravitational pull towards war generated by the church’s traditional endorsement of “just war” theory.Associated Press/file

What could possibly be more harmless and perhaps even helpful than for the pope to offer his opinion that “the unjust aggressor [Islamic State fighters] must be stopped”? What began as a moral truism, however, soon proved problematic. When asked for clarification, specifically whether he approved of the US airstrikes on radical Islamist forces in northern Iraq, Pope Francis added these not exactly harmless or helpful words: “In these cases where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say this: It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means. With what means can they be stopped? These have to be evaluated. To stop the unjust aggressor is licit.”

The first result of these words would be confusion. What could he possibly mean by “stop” that would not involve lethal force? The Islamic State forces, we know all too well, possess advanced weaponry, including M1 tanks and surface-to-air missiles, and have shown no scruples in using them. They are not, in short, pacifists. Clearly, the “means” of stopping them must, in the pope’s words, “be evaluated.” But by whom? This the pope leaves to others, and there have been no shortage of them.

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First, from within the pope’s own circle, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva, went on record as saying “Maybe military action is necessary at this moment.” No mere paraphrase of the Holy Father’s views. “Necessary” is not the same as “licit” and “military action” sounds an awful lot like the “war” the pope ruled out. To complicate matters further, the Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq, Monsignor Giorgio Lingua, when asked about the US airstrikes, replied that “it’s good when you’re able to at the very least remove weapons from these people who have no scruples.” And exactly how is this to be accomplished? True enough, David was able to disarm Saul as he slept, but we cannot count on Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s being such a heavy sleeper.

The worn-out maxim of a once-imperial papacy — Roma locuta est, casa finite est (Rome has spoken, case closed) — hardly describes the present case, wherein Rome has spoken with more than one voice. Instead of closing the case, Pope Francis, undoubtedly with the best of intentions, has opened Pandora’s box. To interpret the elusiveness of the pope’s words, the media inevitably turned to other, less authorized voices within the church to provide needed exegesis. The Rev. James Bretzke, for example, a theologian at Boston College, offered this reading: “This is the most pronounced endorsement of the use of force of any pope .  .  . in the last 100 years.” And journalist Nicole Winfield, aboard the papal plane for the Associated Press, added what she saw as an obvious gloss on the pope’s statement: “Francis was thus essentially applying church teaching on the ‘just war’ doctrine to the Iraq situation.” From there it must have seemed a short step for ABC News to sum it all up like this: “Pope endorses efforts to protect Iraq minorities.” Casa finite est.


Pope Francis’ innocent words attempted to defy gravity, i.e., the gravitational pull towards war generated by the church’s traditional endorsement of “just war” theory — a doctrine that, from its inception 15 centuries ago, has unleashed far more wars than it has prevented or limited, the most notorious of which were unleashed against infidels. At the root of this doctrine is a lethal lie: that killing in wartime is morally different from murder in peacetime, and that the arguable “necessity” of some killing is enough to make it “licit.”


Returning to where we started, the pope was clear on this much: “I do not say bomb, make war.” If only he had followed his own cautions with the bold assertions of his predecessor, Pope Paul VI, to the United Nations: “No more war. War never again,” and then, once and for all, disowned the “just war” tradition. War needs no enabling and deserves no blessings. Next time, I hope that Pope Francis will decline to comment on whether to stop aggression and offer instead his thoughts on how we might build peace in our world, Pacem in Terris 2014.


Robert Emmet Meagher, professor of humanities at Hampshire College, is author of “Herakles Gone Mad: Rethinking Heroism in an Age of Endless War” and, coming in September, “Killing From the Inside Out: Moral Injury and Just War.”