Ambiguity Clouds Pope Francis’ Guidance On Just War

At times it appeared America had found a new rock star. Pope Francis’ pastoral visit to the United States set off an extraordinary show of affectionate zeal – by both the enthusiastically faithful as well as those less-typically possessed by religious ardor. It shouldn’t surprise: by all accounts Francis is affable, humble, and infectiously joyful while neither affectatious nor saccharinely sentimental. His continual refrain that the church be both home and hospital to the spiritually wounded is well-received, as is his continued concern for life. He is, quite simply, likeable.

But the raucous applause is not entirely unanimous. On the other side are those who aren’t entirely sure whether to be enthusiastic or not. For progressive Catholics, secularists, and left-of-center Protestants, eager to believe that his pontificate marks a turning away from traditional Catholicism, Francis’ visits to, say, the Little Sisters of the Poor — with their lawsuit against Obamacare — or with Kentucky clerk Kim Davis — who was jailed for her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — creates the irritating suspicion that Francis might actually be serious about the whole Catholic thing. Of course, their progressive consternation is shared among many of their antipodal friends on the political and theological right, if for opposite reasons. Some conservatives, worried about Francis not being serious about the whole Catholic thing, wonder if his perceived tendency to be oblique regarding issues like abortion and marriage, especially in light of his more explicit opinions on the death penalty, immigration, income equality, and climate change, signal fuzzy, subterranean, leftist sympathies.

I’m not going to weigh in here as to where I think Pope Francis plots on the theological progressive-conservative spectrum; but I do want to suggest that this ambiguity is a problem. I originally wrote “perceived ambiguity” but just this morning it is being reported that the Vatican has insisted the pope’s meeting with Davis was not an endorsement. Seeking to clarify through equivocation they say the visit “should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.” This calls to mind comments Francis made last year regarding U.S. airstrikes against ISIS of which he stated, “The unjust aggressor must be stopped.” However, he continued, “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.” Obviously, the questions surrounding same-sex marriage and war are complex and to make specific policy recommendations is more complex still. But it seems to me that the role of a religious leader is to precisely to help the faithful render moral judgments. If the pope cannot, or will not, articulate the Catholic tradition’s perspective on matters of ethical complexity, I confess to not really seeing a clear purpose for a pope. While the pontiff is precisely that — a bridge to help us cross the chasm to the Divine — he surely is also to shepherd to guide his flock through history.

Consider the costs of this ambiguity as the faithful attempt to navigate the conceptual field I vocationally till — theological reflection on the ethics of war. In June, over at Juicy Ecumenism, following the Pope’s conference with students in Turin, Italy, I argued against his claim that weapons manufacturers who profess Christianity are, at best, hypocritical for claiming fidelity to Christ while yet participating in the sale of armaments. Contrary to Francis’ assertion that theirs is an “industry of death” run by “merchants of death”, I pointed out that the just war tradition, which is foundational to the Roman Catholic reflection on the use of military force, is rooted in the belief that the government’s fundamental responsibility is the preservation of justice, order, and peace. When beasts, armed with the power to enact their own will and hell-bent on annihilating this justice, order, and peace for others, cannot be compelled with non-violent means to stand-down then force is necessary to knock them down. If this is true than war must, at least sometimes, be about more than “hate, fratricide, and violence” as Francis suggested. If stopping the assault of the innocent is a good thing to do then those who have done it — and those who supply the tools to help them do it — have done, or abetted, good.

Does Francis endorse his tradition’s view? During his addresses at both the House of Representatives and the United Nations, he averred the fundamental purpose of the state is its “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” For Francis, importantly, this is not from just the cradle-to-the-grave but from those pre-cradle months of fetal life to natural, unassisted, death. But echoing his confused talk in Italy, where, hot on the heels of condemning war, he shamed the West for doing nothing to stop moral catastrophes such as the slaughter of Armenians in 1915, one wants to know precisely how the pope hopes to defend life against beasts with teeth if war, weapons, and the will to use them is not the business of Christians and the arms industry must be shut down? “War is irrational,” The pope has insisted, “its only plan is to bring destruction: it seeks to grow by destroying”. Again, while visiting Italy’s largest war memorial, Francis insisted that the motives for war are “Greed, intolerance, the lust for power. These motives underlie the decision to go to war.”

What can the faithful make of this? Against Francis’ contentions, the just war tradition insists war cannot be considered simply intrinsically evil. On the question of motive, the tradition weaves the law of love into questions of human belligerence as both a goad toward right duty and a fetter establishing limits. Against what appears to be Francis’ presumption against violence, the classic just war position carries a “presumption against injustice” or a presumption “to restrain evil and protect the innocent.” Because government cannot govern without power, the use of power is a part of the essence of what it means to govern. In its proper mode, power is the application of influence through love when possible and force, both legislative and martial, when necessary. Just war, therefore, properly manifest, is never the inaugurating source of violence; it is always only the responsive deployment of counter-hostility proportionate to a injustice already in motion. If this is the disposition of the classic just war tradition so, too, is it the disposition of the just warrior. In the classic understanding, the just warrior’s impetus for the use of force is imitative of a God who ordained the sword to maintain the goods of order, peace, and justice and to restrain the chaos and evil that make a hash of life where those goods are absent. This is a far cry indeed from the pontiff’s claims of intolerance, greed, and a lust to dominate.

My desire for papal clarity on war does not suggest the application of force is always, or ever, a simple affair. Problems in ethics are not comprised of straightforward choices between easy binaries like violence and non-violence in which either option provides equal remedy. Those scenarios are easy for any morally decent person to adjudicate. Instead, the real conundrums involve situations in which violence is a given and the only question left is whether counter-violence is morally necessary to stop it.

In congress, Francis was right to warn against the tendency, perhaps a particularly American one, to traffic in “simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.” But caution doesn’t mean moral assessment is never possible. Unashamedly, just war reckoning is biased in favor of the helpless. Just war “justice” means preferential care for the threatened innocent even if the only way to care effectively is to kill the one who threatens. What this suggests is that there are different kinds of violence, including that which is morally censured and that which is morally permitted. The pope might condemn abortion, capital punishment, and war in a single sentence but it is more difficult than that. The question has to always be: why is this violence happening? The just war tradition, endorsing this question, shepherds the prospect of unleashed-violence toward just expression precisely by leashing it. This it accomplishes through the imposition of limits: of right intention, the expression of violence for public goods; of right aims, violence for peace; of proportionality, limiting the scale of intended harm violently inflicted in balance to the harm already received or credibly threatened; and discrimination, limiting intentional violence only to those who mean to harm us. Intention and questions of the guilt or innocence of the violent agent and the target of the violence abound and make moral difference.

All this matters for those legions of papal fans, many of whom are morally beclouded by the confusing age in which we live. One of the invaluable resources that efforts like tothesource provides is to help bring ancient truth to speak into the problems of modern times. When the Western Christian academy and congregations are increasingly doubtful about the role of Christians in responding to political evil, we must rely on those with greater experience, wisdom, or training to shape our moral reflection. To someone drowning in a sea of moral uncertainty, ambiguity is a lead-weight.

Both Pope Francis and the ethical tradition that has shaped his Church’s reflection throughout history on the use of military force understand Christians, grounded in responsible love, cannot remain aloof as they await the eschaton. Against the malevolence, unrest, and injustice of the present age the security and peace necessary for human beings to enjoy basic human goods requires a basis upon which to reside and its preservation requires force, if in the last resort intractable human willfulness proves nothing else will rectify injustice, reestablish order, or punish evil. To be sure, both Christian love and the just war tradition are more than this but they are at least this. And Pope Francis ought to be the first to tell us so.