In the face of the all-too easy tendency to justify the use of violence to resolve international conflicts, the Catholic Church has made a conscious and intentional return to Jesus' non-violent stance since the Second Vatican Council. From Paul VI's cry, "No more war, never again war!" and John Paul II's bold claim that he would have walked to Baghdad on his knees to prevent the first Iraq War, to Pope Francis' call for a day of prayer and fasting to prevent Western military interventions into war-torn Syria, the trend has been decidedly non-violent.
So how can we now make sense of the Vatican's position on intervening in Iraq? Is Pope Francis flip-flopping, or abandoning what some have called his position as Global Peacemaker-in-Chief? In recently calling the U.N.'s Secretary General and the entire international community to action in Iraq, was the Holy Father merely concerned for the countless Christians being driven from their homes and slaughtered by radical Islamists? Or is there something more going on here?
The interpretive key comes, I think, from the section of the Catechism which deals with "Safeguarding Peace" (CCC, nn. 2302-2317).
When commenting on the Fifth Commandment, "Thou shall not kill," the Catechism moves from discussion of respect for human life and for the dignity of persons to a discussion of what is entailed in actively promoting peace. The line of reasoning includes the following highlights:
- Denouncing murderous anger and hatred ("If anger reaches the point of a deliberated desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor, it is gravely against charity...Hatred of the neighbor is a grave sin when one deliberately desires him grave harm" [nn. 2302-2303]).
- Defining peace as not merely the absence of war but the "tranquility of order" ("Peace is the work of justice and the effect of charity" [n. 2304]).
- Praising those who renounce violence and bloodshed as bearing "witness to evangelical charity" (n. 2306).
- Imploring everyone to prayer and action in the face of "the evils and injustices that accompany all war...so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war" (n. 2307).
"Last resort" is the linchpin to the Church's traditional "just war" doctrine, which requires that each and every condition must be met in order for military force ever to be justifiable (n. 2309). In the face of crimes against humanity and in the name of defending innocent life, it might on rare occasion be necessary to disarm those who are attacking the innocent; or, as Pope Francis seems to be saying, it might be legitimate to halt the unjust aggressor. However, it must always and only be after all peace efforts have failed.
Of course, such a call does not justify using excessive force or indiscriminately bombing areas where non-combatants might be harmed. When confronting terrorists, governments ought to bring all political strategies, all international intelligence, and all humanitarian resources to bear. And they ought never to resort to the same tactics which the terrorists themselves might be using against innocent civilians.
If Pope Francis does indeed see the current situation in Iraq as one where it is necessary to use military interventions to stop the terrorizing advance of ISIS, let's not forget that even this call comes within the prior context of encouraging the peacemakers. Let's commit ourselves to becoming more prayerful persons of peace ourselves. Let’s pray for the conversion of radical Islam and for the gift of wisdom for civil authorities who are responsible for vast military machines. Let's pray for a renewed spirit of international solidarity which can help ensure that nonviolent solutions will truly be tried.
After all, the world needs more people whom Jesus himself will call "children of God" (Mt 5:9). Our Lady, Queen of All Nations, Pray for us!
P.S. During these octave days from the Solemnity of the Assumption to the Church’s celebration of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, maybe one Rosary--or even one heartfelt Hail Mary--will help spur on the peacemakers which our war-torn world so badly needs.