John Paul II gave a Jubilee address to police officers and members of armed services from around the world last November 19.
The talk was somewhat reminiscent of the rather affectionate way that Christ often spoke with centurions in the Roman army. What else would we expect from this Pope?
The meeting was held in Rome near the last Sundays of the liturgical cycle, with readings dealing with the end of the world. Christ would come, the Pope told the military and police before him, “in power and glory.” The Christ who comes “is the same son of man, merciful and compassionate, whom the disciples knew during his earthly journey.” The Holy Father did not hesitate to remind this audience of the unity and continuity of Christ's person. He spoke of profound things to ordinary soldiers and policemen. “When the moment comes for his manifestation in glory,” he said, “he (Christ) will come to give human history its definitive fulfillment.” Human history has a purpose; a completion is in store. We do not live in complete chaos.
Next, referring to Mark's Gospel, John Paul explained to these men and women how they directly relate to human and divine experience in their very vocations. God will pronounce his judgment and then end “a universe corrupted by falsehood and torn by violence and injustice.” Looking right at them, the Pope wondered who better than they can “testify to the violence and to the disruptive forces of evil present in the world"? These aberrant realities are things such men and women see every day. At this very point, the Pope explained why we have soldiers and police: “You are called to defend the weak, to protect the honest, to foster the peaceful coexistence of peoples.”
The Pope is not a naive utopian who thinks that, somehow, some day, the world will no longer need armies and security forces. Like an Augustinian who knows about the fallen nature of the world, he put things in proper order.
Standing before the Pope were members of many armies and military forces. He said something very remarkable to them: “You are the representatives of armies [that] have faced one another down through history.” His words were a stirring reminder of, for example, the trenches of World War I, in which thousands of one-time friends died at each others’ hands.
In this majestic setting, we could also call to mind Henry V at Agincourt, who told his men on the eve of battle that there is a difference between their own salvation, which is up to them, and the struggle for their country, for which the king is responsible. That day last November, the Pope recalled all of these fallen men of whatever unit, of whatever side. Salvation and military victory, he reminded all who would hear, are not the same thing.
The Pope often speaks of “peace” as a “right.” This is a somewhat odd notion. Usually, peace is considered to be the result of something, of establishing and living worthily in a right order. We do not seek “peace,” but what causes it. Probably what he had in mind is the noble idea, following Plato's insistence that the end of war is peace, that human flourishing is best achieved in peace, in right order, even though souls may be saved (or lost) in war or in line of duty.
Again, the Holy Father is not a wishful idealist. “At times this duty (to protect life and justice) … involves concrete initiatives to disarm the aggressor,” he said. “Here I wish to refer to the so-called humanitarian interference, which, after the failure of efforts by police and the instruments of nonviolent defense, is a last resort in order to stay the hand of the unjust aggressor.” Aggressors ought to be disarmed. Police can fail to contain large sources of violence. Nonviolence does not always work. In saying so, the Pope is not giving a license to run all over the world interfering with every rumble on this turbulent planet. Rather, he is explaining the perspective of a political realist.
The Pope can speak of Christ to armed men. Those who die in action can do so out of a sole motive of duty. Yet “many of them (fallen soldiers) believed in Christ, and his words illuminated their existence and gave an exemplary value to their sacrifice. They made the Gospel their code of conduct.” The Gospel is a “code” of conduct! And finally, the Holy Father tells these men and women, in the words of St. Paul: “Pray at all times.”
No doubt, soldiers and police can find themselves, through changes in regimes, in the service of ideologies or tyrants. When this happens, their lot is most poignant and most dangerous both to themselves and to the citizens of their or other nations or cities. But this Pope does not hesitate to reassure them that, in principle, soldiers and police have a noble, if dangerous, vocation — a vocation in which and through which, like the rest of us, they are to save their souls through their service of others and through their following of Christ.
Jesuit Father James Schall teaches political science at Georgetown University.