“Never war! Never war!”
Those were the words of Pope Francis very recently, marking the centennial of the outbreak of the cataclysmic First World War. “I think most of all about children, whose hopes for a dignified life, a future, are dashed.”
But sometimes, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, thinking about the children and other innocent victims means thinking about the use of warfare to protect them.
And a top Vatican diplomat and other church officials say that could be the case now in northern Iraq, with Christians and other religious minorities reportedly facing exile or violence by the extremist Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
In a rare departure from the Vatican’s fierce criticism of the U.S. military invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and its aborted threat of action in Syria last year, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Vatican envoy to the United Nations, said recently that the U.S. airstrikes that have slowed the ISIS advance may be necessary.
He cited the recently developed United Nations doctrine of the “responsibility to protect,” in which international forces can override local sovereignty to prevent mass slaughter.
Archbishop Tomasi told Vatican Radio that Iraq is a case that can justify not only economic sanctions but “all the force that is necessary to stop this evil and this tragedy.”
He said the international community may come to regret inaction in Iraq as much as it laments its paralysis during the Rwanda genocide of 1994.
His words shouldn’t be a surprise, said Anna Floerke Scheid, professor of theology at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, and a specialist in Catholic social ethics. Ancient Catholic doctrine authorizes a “just war” as a last resort.
“To suggest that military action might be a possible ethical response to the murder of civilians in a war situation or in any kind of conflict is very much in keeping with the just-war tradition,” she said. “It’s not really a switch.”
That ethic, she said, also led to Catholic opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — which, she said, failed to meet the just-war criteria that Iraq posed an imminent threat or that the United States had exhausted other means short of war to resolve the conflict. Pope John Paul II also opposed the U.S. action expelling Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 and its airstrikes against Serbs in Kosovo in 1999.
Pope Francis, who vociferously opposed the U.S. preparations to attack Syria in response to its chemical attacks on regime opponents in 2013, himself has not directly called for the use of force in Iraq now. But he wrote to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, calling for international action on behalf of minorities “forced to flee from their homes and witness the destruction of their places of worship and religious patrimony.” He cited the “the tears, the suffering and the heartfelt cries of despair of Christians and other religious minorities of the beloved land of Iraq.”
Similarly, Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter to President Barack Obama calling on the nation to “do all that it can to stop and to prevent further systematic violence against ethnic and religious minorities.”
His spokeswoman, Melissa Swearingen, said that although Archbishop Kurtz is not recommending a specific military policy, “the church has been pretty consistent that the use of force to obtain justice can be morally justified.”
U.S. airstrikes and Kurdish resistance helped liberate thousands of Yazidis, members of an Iraqi religious minority deemed heretics by ISIS, from a mountain siege. Christians have been systematically routed from Mosul and other ancient Christian sites.
Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik echoed the concern. “That would be the last option,” he said. “It’s a matter of doing everything you can to make sure there is not an annihilation of people.”
He has sent notices to all parishes in the Diocese of Pittsburgh to heed the call of Pope Francis to pray during Mass for those suffering in Iraq.
The nearly, but not entirely, pacifistic comments of recent popes contrast with the historic role of popes who for centuries commanded the armies of the Papal States.
Eleventh century Pope Urban II’s appeal to a crowd to launch the crusades to rout Muslims from the Holy Land was met with cries of “God wills it!”
Such history, say Vatican watchers, means Pope Francis needs to choose his words carefully.
“We don’t want to make the mistake of the past,” said the Rev. Rodolph Wakim, pastor of Our Lady of Victory Maronite Catholic Church in Carnegie, Pa. Both he and the congregation have roots in Lebanon.
The pope is “not calling on Christians to take arms and go fighting. That’s the fear that might be misinterpreted,” Father Wakim said. “He’s calling on those who have the military strength to do something to stop the violence.”
Father Wakim has been following the Arabic-language news of the warfare in Iraq, as well as in Gaza.
“It’s horrible. Somebody needs to speak up and tell them to stop this violence,” he said. “I’m glad the pope took a stand and sounded the alarm.”
The Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, said it’s relatively easy to justify isolated U.S. attacks on convoys of ISIS fighters. “Now, if they started using air power to bomb Mosul and take it back, you’d see a little more nervousness on the part of the Vatican,” he said, because such urban warfare would inevitably involve heavy civilian casualties.
“The last thing the Vatican would want to see happen is something that turns into a war against the Sunnis,” he added, endorsing efforts to support a unity government in Iraq that would pull mainstream Sunni support from ISIS toward a central government.