Did Pope Francis really endorse airstrikes?

If you want to, you can read the full transcript of Pope Francis’ presser on the airplane as he returned to Rome from Korea. HERE

The issue of Iraq came up. American journalist Alan Holdren (Catholic News Agency/ACI PRENSA/EWTN): asked His Holiness about airstrikes.

Q: As you know, not long ago the U.S. military forces have started bombing terrorists in Iraq to prevent a genocide. To protect the future of the minorities, I think also of the Catholics under your guidance, do you approve of this American bombing (campaign)?

Pope Francis:

Thanks for such a clear question. In these cases where the is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underscore the verb “stop.” I don’t saying to bomb or make war, (but) stop it. The means with which it can be stopped should be evaluated. To stop the unjust aggressor is licit. But we also have to have memory, as well, eh. How many times under this excuse of stopping the unjust aggressor the powers have taken control of nations. And, they have made a true war of conquest. One single nation cannot judge how you stop this, how you stop an unjust aggressor. After the Second World War, there was the idea of the United Nations. It must be discussed there and said ‘there’s an unjust aggressor, it seems so “How do we stop it?” Only that, nothing more. Secondly, the minorities. Thanks for the word because they speak to me of the Christians, poor Christians – it is true, they suffer – and the martyrs – and yes, there are so many martyrs – but here there are men and women, religious minorities, and not all Christian and all are equal before God, no? Stopping the unjust aggressor is a right that humanity has but it is also a right of the aggressor to be stopped so he doesn’t do evil.

As I watch the news today, some claims are being made that Pope Francis “approves” of airstrikes.

This is what I initially heard.  My first reaction to his repetition of “stop”, was probably influence by my firearms training: you “stop” an aggressor.  You do not have the intention to kill but to stop the aggressor from doing harm.   In that light, I, too, thought for a moment that he was endorsing the use of military force.

Then I woke up.

Notice how he dodges to the “United Nations” solution.  Also, that phrase about an “excuse” to take control of nations.  That sounds to me to be more of a slam of these USA and Iraq than it is of Russia and Ukraine.

And what to make of that comment about the United Nations?

“After the Second World War, there was the idea of the United Nations. It must be discussed there and said ‘there’s an unjust aggressor, it seems so “How do we stop it?” Only that, nothing more.

I could be wrong, but that sounds very much like, “We have to talk to each other for a while and then, after talking, we all can go to the unjust aggressor to talk about stopping, but we can’t do more than talk.  We can’t use military force to ‘stop’ an unjust aggressor.”

Did I get that wrong?  The Pope’s answer is ambiguous, but I think that was the message.

What I find puzzling is that Pope Francis did not unambiguously back up something that his representatives said the other day.

Archbp. Giorgio Lingua, the Nuncio to Baghdad, told Vatican Radio that the American strikes are “something that had to be done, otherwise [the Islamic State forces] could not be stopped.”  That’s an endorsement of airstrikes.  Pretty clear.

Archbp. Silvano Tomasi, Nuncio to the United Nations in Geneva, told Vatican Radio that “military action in this moment is probably necessary.”  That’s fairly clear.

At this point I track back to what I posted the other day, HERE, from a Pope who grew up in war ravaged Europe, liberated by allies who defeated an unjust regime:

8. Here I wish to express gratitude to the international organizations and to all those who are daily engaged in the application of international humanitarian law. Nor can I fail to mention the many soldiers engaged in the delicate work of resolving conflicts and restoring the necessary conditions for peace. I wish to remind them of the words of the Second Vatican Council: ”All those who enter the military in service to their country should look upon themselves as guardians of the security and freedom of their fellow-countrymen, and, in carrying out this duty properly, they too contribute to the establishment of peace”.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Marissa says:

    I’m reading an excellent history of the Church from a unique perspective and there were quite a few popes who were so involved in the petty political squabbles and power-grabbing in Rome that they ignored their duty during the Crusades to protect Christendom. It’s just a given that popes will fail at their duties at some point. I’m a little resigned after reading how bad the faithful has had it over the centuries.

  2. I read the statement over several times, and I still am unsure of the meaning. Do you stop the aggressor or talk about stopping the aggressor or what? It just seems like a whole lot of words and not a whole lot of meaning.

    I really don’t get that part of the last sentence “… but it is also a right of the aggressor to be stopped so he doesn’t do evil.” I’d like to think that what that means is that the victim has a right to stop the aggressor and the aggressor deserves to be stopped, but that’s not really what it says.

    OTOH maybe it’s just a language issue, as the interview was in english – which as I recall he struggles with.

  3. Theodore says:

    Until the lion and the lamb lie down together I want to be the lion. The Soviets thought Reagan was a bit crazy but they went out of business trying to keep up.


    They now have a pretty good bead on the current leaders of the West and they are back as Russia. Bad nations are like bad people, they are either at your feet or at your throat. I prefer the former.

  4. jacobi says:

    Once again I wish the Holy Father would stop making “ad hoc” unclear, ambiguous, comments on aeroplanes.

    Christians and other groups are suffering and dying horribly in their hundreds, probably thousands, not just in the Middle East but in Africa. The current USA and UK response is correct and in line with established Catholic Traditional thinking on just war, albeit a bit late.

    I have suggested elsewhere we must also, in the longer term, train and suitably arm militias so that the young men of these communities can look after themselves until help arrives from or USA/NATO. That of course would still be dependent on military air support , but would reduce the interim slaughter, such as has occurred.

    As for the UN, well if in a tight spot, and threatened with massacre, I wouldn’t want to be in any way dependant on them!

  5. Uncle Miltie 615 says:

    I read the “How do we stop it?” Only that, nothing more.” as a reference back to the “taking control of nations.” The UN’s duty is find a solution to stop the unjust aggressor, not administer nations – which would follow nicely with the idea of subsidiarity.

  6. Unwilling says:

    The defensive principle says “it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor”. It is doctrinally analogous to self-defence (individual) and capital punishment (social). We are never right to strike back, for revenge. But we can protect ourselves — “stop” further harm. “The means [by] which it can be stopped should be evaluated.” If the murderer can be prevented from further murder by incarceration, then use that; if the only way for society to be safe is execution, it is licit. We don’t approve execution (bombing, warring, etc.) as such, but only as a last resort.
    “But… memory… How many times under this excuse of stopping the unjust aggressor the powers have taken control of nations[?]” This should be related to the history of war in general from the most ancient times onward. Using anything as a pretext, “policing” turns into “a true war of conquest” which is absolutely not licit since Christ. And it is not rare for (intern)national policing to turn into conquest. The illusions of self-righteousness make it almost impossible for “One single nation [to] judge how you stop this, how you [justly and licitly] stop an unjust aggressor” without ending up in a war of conquest.

    “the idea of the United Nations” is helpful. But, even there, the defensive principle must prevail. The nations should discuss “’How do we stop it?’ Only that, nothing more.” The UN cannot licitly authorize a war of conquest.

    “religious minorities, and not all Christian and all are equal before God, no?”

  7. Pingback: Pope Francis Saddened Over Relatives Killed - BigPulpit.com

  8. ppb says:

    I actually thought the Holy Father’s comments were pretty clear and sensible. He is not ruling out air strikes to stop the unjust aggressor, but is saying they should not be done unilaterally in order to have a better assurance that the means used are proportionate.

    I also thought the comment that “it is also a right of the aggressor to be stopped so he doesn’t do evil” was interesting. It reminded me of certain things in the Platonic dialogues, to the effect that a man should *want* to be stopped or punished if he commits evil, etc. Of course, that seems to presume that the person in question actually wants to be corrected, which seems a bit idealistic in this context! But even if not, I suppose you could still say that in various ways it is better for the agressor’s soul if he is stopped from doing evil.

  9. lelnet says:

    Ambiguous? Yeah, it is. But it sure beats what we usually hear from the hierarchy on military questions. (You know…the standard line where they completely ignore Just War doctrine, and stop just _barely_ shy of proclaiming that anyone who’s ever put on a military uniform is thereby irrevocably damned…a point which would be rather difficult to reconcile with the number of soldiers and former soldiers — not to mention monarchs who commanded in war — who are now canonized saints.)

    His reflexive need to play “on the other hand” by invoking historical parallels that are not actually parallel is a bit annoying, but I’m taking this statement as a ray of hope, that Pope Francis is actually living in the real world.

  10. DeGaulle says:

    I interpret Pope Francis as saying that it is licit to stop the aggression against Christians and other minorities by whatever means necessary, but that this should not be an excuse by any party to take advantage of such actions in order to absorb territory. It is imperative for the Pope not to be seen by the Islamic world as being associated with conquest by any party, and this does not necessarily imply this to be the United States-it could be the Shias or the Kurds-or he would fear further endangerment of vulnerable communities. Like Pius XIIth, he must use the utmost discretion. It is simply paranoid to read references to the Ukraine into this. I see no mention of it. This was not a considered encyclical, but an impromptu reply, and not a bad one at that, I believe. He has to continually walk a tight-rope.

  11. Salvelinus says:

    Ughh… the United Nations?
    The United Nations is antcatholic (unless by Catholic, you mean modernist aging hippies).
    In fact, didn’t the UN recently rip into the age long magesterium prior?

  12. Random Friar says:

    I don’t think the Holy Father would generally endorse a particular military solution; that’s not his realm. What I think he was trying to do was set general guidelines and limits to any military action, along the general requisites for a Just War.

    Once again, I caution never to trust the mass media when it comes to accurately reporting the Holy Father. Even if not intentional, they are always looking for a catchy “sound bite.” That can cut off critical parts of the message.

  13. Geoffrey says:

    “I actually thought the Holy Father’s comments were pretty clear and sensible”.

    I agree. His Holiness the Pope seemed to endorse military action without endorsing military action. Which, of course, should always be the last resort. The Holy See seems to know that while there are indeed tyrants you can talk to, ISIS is no such ordinary tyrant.

  14. jacobi says:

    If I may, we have here, yet again, the whole “what the Holy Father really meant” industry in operation rolling into action.

    I just wish he would keep quiet, or alternately, when he gets back to the Vatican, issue a suitable papal note or document, written, or agreed, in standard Latin, which could then be translated into any language, so that we all then know just exactly what he really meant.

  15. Knittycat says:

    I do not like this pope. I will obey him, I will pray for him, I will support him, but I really do not like him. He’s almost certainly a decent guy, but I can’t get past the feeling that he’s not a decent pope. He sows too much confusion, and spouts too much of what sounds like liberal claptrap. But like I said, I will obey, pray and support despite my dislike.

  16. Toan says:

    The way I read Pope Francis’ statement was, “Here are the principles I’d apply: X, Y, and Z. As for the actual bombing, I’d need to take a closer look at the details.” Sounds pretty fair to me, really.

  17. haskovez says:

    I actually completely disagree. I thought his statement was very clear. Think about it in a self defense with a firearm standpoint. You shoot to stop you don’t shoot to kill. If the aggressor gets shot in the arm and surrenders you aren’t justified in continuing to use force against him lest you become the aggressor. Likewise if you shoot someone twice in the chest and they are still coming to kill you, you are justified in shooting again to protect yourself or other innocents.

    Now consider what the Pope said. He said it is licit to stop the aggressor. I read that as an endorsement for using force to protect the innocent but opposing nation building. In the context of Afghanistan if we followed that principle it would have been licit to go in, take out the training camps and capture Bin Laden. Vs occupying the entire nation with no plan of ever really leaving. The US has a history of going into a country and never leaving. Interfering forever from that point forward, I Would argue that is what he was against. Why are we still in Germany or many of the other 150 nations that we are in. It doesn’t really make sense nor does it make sense to occupy Iraq and Syria either. On the other hand it would make sense in my mind to send in special forces to retake the cities from ISIS and return the people since it was our initial war that created the power vacuum there which allowed ISIS to rise to power to begin with which in my mind means we have a duty to help the people who are suffering as a result. Another thing to consider on the bombing comments is consider how many innocent women and children and wedding parties, we hear about all the time getting killed by our drone strikes. The problem with just bombing to deal with the problem is you end up killing many innocents in the process further adding to the problems.

  18. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    Kaiser Wilhelm needed to be stopped. On the other hand, Woodrow Wilson was hardly the man endorsed to do the job — because his interest was in something more than stopping an unjust aggressor.

    If Spain wished to stop the unjust persecution of Catholics in England, did that give Spain the authority to colonize England?

    The purpose of the military action is to stop an unjust aggressor, not become one.

    I don’t think His Holiness is unclear on THIS point, although I’m more perplexed on others.

    I don’t know much about firearms, but I think I take your point, Fr. Zuhlsdorf, that the goal of using a firearm is to STOP the aggressor, to turn him from his evil, unjust aggression, not to replace one kind of evil with another.

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