Several days ago, Pope Francis condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria and called for a negotiated settlement of that ferociously fought civil war, announcing that he would lead a worldwide day of fasting and prayer for peace on Sept. 7.
He also made it quite clear, at least to this author, that he decidedly disfavors resorting to arms as a solution — instead launching his moral suasion, personal witness and public and private diplomacy against U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposed intervention (also being entertained by France, although Great Britain has rejected it).
Intervening militarily, however “targeted” or “limited” that intervention is intended to be, can only cause more death and suffering for the people of Syria and quite possibly precipitate a much greater conflagration in the Middle East and beyond that is horrifying to contemplate.
Let us not forget the hundreds of thousands of deaths resulting from President George W. Bush’s rejection of John Paul II’s pleas not to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In recent days, it has been Pope Francis’ turn to plead for peace, with seeming inefficacy (“How many divisions does the Pope have?”). Francis’ “War brings on War! Violence brings on Violence!” echoes not only John Paul’s firmly voiced opposition to the American onset of hostilities following Sept. 11, 2001, but earlier papal voices such as Paul VI’s (“No more war. War never again” and “If you want peace, work for justice”) and John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris.
This kind of strong and urgent opposition to contemporary aggression between nations, voiced unanimously by the full complement of recent popes, joined by many other authoritative ecclesial and lay Catholic figures, tends to provoke cynical or world-weary smiles and shrugs of dismissal. What seemed obvious to baby boomers in their teens and 20s as they listened to the Fab Four voice their resistance to Vietnam-era killing in the cause of freedom and democracy (“All we are saying is give peace a chance!”) is now dismissed as utopian and simplistic, not even worthy of sustained attention or respectful disagreement.
Could this proposed intervention possibly be just? Pope Francis does not seem to believe so, and you have probably intuited my own stance. Readers interested in forming their own opinions according to the mind of the Church can take a look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church, dwelling especially on Paragraphs 2302-2317, and in particular perhaps on just-war requirements, that “there must be serious prospects of success,” and “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated” (2309).
It’s hard to see who could better judge the prospects for success and danger of graver harm than the Christian leaders who are on the ground in Syria — and who, like Christian leaders in pre-war Iraq, had strong reservations to war. (According to the statistics I found on Iraq Body Count, some 174,000 civilian and combat deaths have resulted from Bush’s mistaken pursuit of Weapons of Mass Destruction.) One can certainly understand why Pope Francis wants all parties in the civil war to “put down their arms,” attend to the voice of conscience, and, with courage, take up the way of negotiations.
Without veering too far into our own domestic sins, it must be admitted that our government’s standing to advance a moral argument to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries is at best compromised by permitting and in various ways funding millions of abortions yearly, promoting “gay marriage,” attempting to wrest from its own citizens their religious rights, and exhibiting yawning indifference to the shameful distribution, at home and abroad, of pornography that constitutes one of America’s most lucrative businesses.
If it were possible for Nero and Caligula to re-enter history through an National Institutes of Health- funded cloning of their DNA, who could doubt that they would settle on the United States for the site of their reinvigorated Pleasure Palace?
Perhaps I could conclude where I asked readers to begin: by considering a citation from the Catechism. We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Catechism’s publication — one of the anniversaries for which Pope Benedict XVI originally announced the now-waning Year of Faith.
If there can ever be true peace this side of the heavenly Jerusalem, it certainly will not come through either war or world government, but, rather, through cooperation and a human flourishing of the gifts that have been given to us by our Creator.
Various causes of religious, political and financial nature today give the “social question a worldwide dimension.” There must be a solidarity among nations that are already politically interdependent. It is even more essential when it is a question of dismantling “the perverse mechanisms” that impede the development of the less advanced countries. In place of abusive if not usurious financial systems, iniquitous commercial relations among nations and the arms race, there must be substituted a common effort to mobilize resources toward the objectives of moral, cultural and economic development, “redefining the priorities and hierarchies of values” (Catechism, 2438).
May it be so.
Opus Dei Father C. John McCloskey is a Church historian
and research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.