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“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is a useful starting place for discussion of the influence of Pope Francis, who is proving to be a remarkably active and activist leader of the Roman Catholic Church. To modern readers, the biblical quote (Exodus 21:24) may seem brutal, but the Old Testament sentiment actually meant revolutionary progress.

Ancient warfare involved unrestrained killing and pillaging. By contrast, this Hebrew law codified proportionality and restraint. Historically and currently, the Vatican has played an important role in restraining and restricting warfare.

The Roman Catholic Church historically also has given priority to humanitarian relief, an essential point often overlooked in the economically advanced economies and our increasingly secular societies. The inherent tension between the Vatican and modern capitalism tends to be downplayed by the media.

The essential Christian message emphasizes compassion, and the Catholic Church over centuries has played a vital role in relief of poverty and human misery, and in promotion of human rights. The cumulative positive impact is profound among the approximately one billion Roman Catholics currently on the planet, and well beyond.

Pope Francis’ April 8 letter on marriage and the family should be viewed in this context. Media commentary emphasizes Rome’s reiteration of commitment to traditional marriage, which is hardly news. The letter emphasizes tolerance for those who do not accept Catholic doctrine. That marks a change, important if overdue.

Both developed and developing economies are growing, but poverty and war have not been abolished. Last year, Francis celebrated a Catholic mass in Revolution Square in Havana Cuba. Long-term Vatican efforts to pressure Cuba could prove to be profound.

During the Cold War, Pope John Paul II provided historic leadership in foreign policy. He supported Solidarity, the successful trade union-based reform movement in his native Poland. That in turn contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and satellite states.

Today, hunger and poverty have been overcome for the great majority in industrialized nations, and political controversies there now generally focus on other topics. Francis is with political reformers on the left regarding the environment and capital punishment, with political conservatives in opposing gay marriage. Single-issue activists should take note.

Shocking criminal sexual abuse by priests is a principal contemporary challenge. Last year, a Vatican tribunal was established to review and judge cases of sexual abuse. Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI publicly acknowledged the criminal behavior, met with victims and apologized.

Catholic Church emphasis on restraint in war was reconfirmed by vast killing during the 20th century. German Pope Benedict, during a 2006 visit to Auschwitz, emphasized the grotesque horror of the Holocaust.

Contemporary analysis of ethics and military strategy is spearheaded by Catholic scholars such as J. Bryan Hehir, a senior priest and faculty member at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

During the Cold War, Father Hehir guided the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ influential report on use of nuclear weapons. Hehir also bluntly criticized his church for mishandling sex abuse crimes by priests.

On April 11, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited the memorial in Hiroshima, Japan, commemorating lives lost from the 1945 atomic bomb attack. He is the first holder of his office to do so, and appropriately described the experience as “gut-wrenching.” War has not been abolished, but global total war has not been repeated.

Relative security for Americans encourages self-preoccupation. Francis rightly pursues wider collective concerns.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”


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