What the War Truly Is

Some ambiguity has arisen in the Vatican – and in the White House – as to what is to be done about the barbarity currently taking place in the Middle East, which has shocked the whole world. And what to call it.

It began with an article by Fr. Luciano Larivera, S.J. in La Civiltà Cattolica (a Jesuit publication in Rome regarded as an authoritative, if indirect, papal voice): “Obviously, to promote peace it is necessary to know what the war truly is, and not what one would like it to be. It is crucial to study and to comprehend why and how the Islamic State [i.e., ISIS] fights. Theirs is a war of religion and of annihilation.”

Clear Christian realism – and the plain truth about the current conflict, which our American leaders seem unwilling to accept. But after several misrepresentations in the media, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., Civiltà’s editor-in-chief, explained:“ISIS thinks its in a ‘war of religion,’ but WE must be on guard against thinking that way.”

Fair enough. Christianity long ago discarded the notion that using force to advance religion is legitimate – as Benedict XVI underscored in his prophetic Regensburg Address. But this still leaves us with the responsibility to tell the truth about what’s happening and with a question about how WE respond to an aggressive force that kills innocents, forces women into sexual slavery, publicly beheads Westerners, and declares its goal as the imposition, by armed force, of its religion on non-believers.

This enters always-contested terrain: where do we leave absolute moral principles – the Church’s primary competence – and arrive at the prudent application of those principles in complicated circumstances. Except in obvious cases of unjust aggressions, judgments about the just use of force are not the competence of popes or bishops, but secular leaders.

The secular world regularly fails to understand the distinction. On the plane returning from Korea in mid-August, the pope said: “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.”

The secular media – and even some Catholics – bridled at this: if not bombing, then what’s the pope’s strategy, as if the Roman Pontiff has to have a military strategy, like an American president. My best guess is that Francis was both affirming a need to act – doubtless employing force – and making clear that, despite his horror at ISIS violence, the pope is not in the business of endorsing U.S. bombing or any other nation’s practical judgments.

Last week, however, he said to the Sant’Egidio Community: “War is never a satisfactory way to right injustices. . . .War leads people into a spiral of violence which becomes difficult to control. It destroys what it has taken generations to establish and leads the way to even worse conflicts and injustices.”

My best guess is that, in the heat of the moment, as is his wont, Francis went a little farther than he meant to. Catholic moral thinking has long accepted that duly constituted authorities sometimes have a responsibility to resort to force. And we have examples of good wars, such as the Allied defeat of Nazism. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church formulates it:

2307. All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. Despite this admonition of the Church, it sometimes becomes necessary to use force to obtain the end of justice. This is the right, and the duty, of those who have responsibilities for others, such as civil leaders and police forces. While individuals may renounce all violence those who must preserve justice may not do so, though it should be the last resort, “once all peace efforts have failed.” [Bold added]

Of course, that’s hedged by conditions regarding the decision to go to war (ius in bellum) and behavior in combat (ius in bello). The prudential judgment of political leaders in such matters – rightly – gets careful scrutiny. In hindsight, many who thought Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs came to believe that President Bush’s decision to attack Iraq was an error. Similarly, many today believe President Obama erred in withdrawing troops from Iraq and, therefore, now faces limits on action against ISIS that may render his strategy useless. A big problem, since “reasonable chance of success,” which is to say a proportionate benefit from killing people and breaking things, is a central just-war criterion.

The pope clearly feels the tragedy of all wars and the sinfulness that lies behind them: “Greed, intolerance, the lust for power….These motives underlie the decision to go to war, and they are too often justified by an ideology; but first there is a distorted passion or impulse. Ideology is presented as a justification and when there is no ideology, there is the response of Cain: ‘What does it matter to me? Am I my brother’s keeper?’”

In other moods, however, he and the Church recognize that the just “use of force” – if you want to avoid the word “war,” as the White Housed does too – is in certain circumstances precisely to become “our brother’s keeper.” The Vatican may need another clarification about that. Christian brothers and sisters, Yazidis, Kurds, Muslims of various stripes, have been driven from their homes, killed, marked for genocide. The aggressors cannot be reasoned with. No quantity or quality of “dialogue” known to man would make the slightest difference to the carnage.

We may devoutly wish this were not so. We may lament the heritage of past violence and history. We may acknowledge our own sinfulness and ask God for a solution we are incapable of finding ourselves. But in the meantime, we have only the means at hand, and cannot shirk the responsibility to protect those suffering aggression.

Even if we can do nothing, at least we can speak truth because: “to promote peace it is necessary to know what the war truly is, and not what one would like it to be.”

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.