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What Pope Francis really said about the crisis in Iraq

Pope Francis attends the Mass of Assumption of Mary at World Cup soccer stadium on August 15, 2014 in Daejeon, South Korea.
Pope Francis attends the Mass of Assumption of Mary at World Cup soccer stadium on August 15, 2014 in Daejeon, South Korea.
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As my colleague Max Fisher noted yesterday, Pope Francis recently commented on US military actions against ISIS. The question put to Francis was straightforward: "do you approve [of] the American bombing?" This is obviously tricky for Francis to answer, given his continued commitment to peace and his condemnation of war and violence. But Francis' answer surprised people. Here's what he said:

Thanks for such a clear question. 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.

Francis said that stopping an aggressor who is acting unjustly is a licit, or lawful, thing to do. It's important to note that calling an activity lawful is not the same as endorsing that activity, or encouraging it. Saying something is lawful is simply to say it is permissible. It is not saying it is desirable. Notably, Pope Francis reiterated that the emphasis of his statement was on the word "stop" — which, as he clarified, need not be achieved by bombs or wars.

And certainly not by crusades, as Max jokingly alluded to. But even a half-serious assertion can miss some necessary context. With respect to my colleague, Francis' comments do not particularly suggest that he's positioning himself in a long line of violent Crusaders. For one thing, the context surrounding the current situation in the Middle East is quite different from the context of the Crusades.

According to Joseph E. Capizzi, Associate Professor of Moral Theology at Catholic University of America, the Crusades were "fought to displace Muslim communities from their 'occupation' of the Holy Land." But the intervention Francis is calling for "is not to retake any land, nor is it limited to [the] protection of Christians," notes Capizzi, who is also a Research Fellow at the US Naval Academy. Rather, he says, what Francis wants is "protection for all those threatened by ISIS" — a category that includes people of various faith traditions. As Francis said, "there are many martyrs. But [in Iraq] there are men and women, religious minorities, not all of them Christian, and they are all equal before God."

It's not like Francis' comments come out of left field. It's important to note that the context of Francis' remarks is the Catholic doctrine of "just war," which, according to paragraph 2309 of the Catechism, is one that is absolutely necessary when four "rigorous conditions" are met. Here's the exact wording:

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  • 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.
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the "just war" doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

The upshot, as Capizzi explains, is that the Church believes that it is lawful for "governments and international institutions recognized by law [to] use force in limited circumstances to protect those being threatened by unjust aggression," provided certain conditions are met. Once the aggressor is stopped, force is no longer necessary, and the intervention must cease.

The question, however, is whether the events happening in Iraq meet the four conditions of the Catechism. It would seem, in fact, that the violence ISIS is perpetrating satisfies the Catechism's requirements for military intervention. Says Capizzi, "The Yazidis, Christians, and other Muslims being persecuted, raped, forced into exile, tortured, and killed by ISIS are precisely the kinds of victims of aggression international law seeks to protect." In other words, to the extent that ISIS is currently a violent obstacle to peace, then temporary military intervention for the sole purpose of removing that obstacle seems, again, to quote the Pope, like a licit move.

Some Catholic thinkers even go further than Francis, alleging that "just war" is not only necessary, but can even be charitable. As the late Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic priest and editor-in-chief of First Things, has written: "Just war, aimed at establishing just peace, is the mandatory course of charity." It's not for nothing, notes Neuhaus, that St. Thomas Aquinas' defense of "just war" was presented in a treatise on love. In this light, then, what was interpreted as Francis' call for war could be seen as a call for peace.

After Francis affirmed the Church's doctrine of just war, he quickly noted how that doctrine has been abused many times in the past and can be abused again. "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?"

Francis recognizes the necessity of stopping an unjust aggressor, but he also recognizes that this same sort of logic has at times been abused as a justification for domination. (For instance, yes, the Crusades.) To prevent the principles of Catholic just war doctrine from being abused, Francis thinks the decision for when and how to engage in war must not be left up to one isolated power: "One nation alone cannot judge how to stop an unjust aggressor."

Given the speculation that Francis' comments have produced, the Vatican will almost certainly offer a clarification in the coming days. For now, it's important to note that, while the pope's comments about the lawfulness of bombing Iraq remain open to discussion, he was quite clear that he wasn't specifically endorsing the word "bomb," and he certainly wasn't hinting at a Crusade.

You can read the entire interview for yourself at America Magazine.

Update: The description of Richard John Neuhaus has been changed to clarify that the Catholic priest is deceased.