Part 2 in a three-part series

It began with the July 31 edition of the Weekly Standard — the same issue in which editor William Kristol called for a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear capability.

In that issue Joseph Bottum, the Catholic editor of the influential journal First Things wrote an article attacking the Vatican’s “stale” Middle East policy, which he caricatured as “everybody’s wrong, but Israel most of all.”

But Bottum got to the real issue when he charged that, since Vatican II, “a kind of functional pacifism gradually took hold among Roman theologians, as the traditional canons of Catholic just war theory were ratcheted up to a standard impossible for any military action to meet.”

Later, on Aug. 1, on the First Things blog (where Bottum reiterated the points made in his article), Robert Miller criticized the Pope’s call for a ceasefire. “Whether, in any particular conflict, an immediate cease-fire ultimately promotes justice and peace,” wrote Miller, “is, in important part, an empirical question on which popes are not well-qualified to pronounce.”

These concerns reached a climax the day of the failed London terrorist plot of Aug. 10.

On that day, Catholic author and blogger Amy Welborn — not a hawk, but  writing, she said, on behalf of faithful American Catholics “in the middle” who take the Pope’s application of Church teaching “seriously” — questioned whether the Pope’s statements showed “a sort of distance from the reality raging around us. There is no direct engagement with the fundamental issues: the commitment to cripple the West and impose the radical, fundamentalist Islamist ideal in its stead. A total contempt for freedom and the intrinsic value of human life. And the determination and will to do this, by any means necessary.” 

Columnist Rod Dreher, blogging for Beliefnet, seized on Welborn’s concern to criticize the Pope for “ignoring a rather large elephant in the room: the specific nature of the threat — that is, radical Islam and its agenda.”

And on Aug. 16, Miller chimed in again, taking issue this time with the Pope’s overarching statement that war is never a good solution. Citing World War II as the prototypical good or “just” war, Miller said:

“As it stands, this statement from Benedict is unsupportable. All serious people know that war is a terrible reality to be avoided whenever possible, and Benedict should certainly say this. But he is also a great theologian, well able to make moral distinctions. He ought not make statements that can so easily be understood as endorsing a dangerously naive pacifism that is incompatible with the Catholic moral tradition.”

What accounts for the large degree of misunderstanding between so many American Catholics — “hawks” or otherwise — and papal pronouncements about war?

Is the Pope underestimating the threats posed to Israel by Hezbollah, and to the United States and the world by Islamic terrorists and fundamentalists bent on violent jihad?

And is the Pope’s position — a “presumption against war” similar to the views of Pope John Paul II — an innovation that is outside the mainstream of Catholic moral tradition?

History gives an answer to all three questions:

For one thing, Pope Benedict XVI’s views on war — why they occur, what their effects are, why they should be avoided, and how conflicts should be resolved — are echoes of consistent papal teaching reaching back to Pope Leo XIII in the 19th century.

Before we begin to consider the role of the popes and the Church in the wars of the past 100 years, it’s important to revisit Pope Benedict’s Aug. 5 television interview, when he said: “War doesn’t bring any good for anybody, not even for the apparent victors. We know that well in Europe, following two world wars.”

Like John Paul II, Benedict XVI directly experienced World War II, the bloodiest war in the most savage century in human history. For these men, death and destruction are not abstractions, they are a reality that removes any sense of the “romance” of war that often creeps into pro-war rhetoric.

Listen to papal statements and you’ll hear the previous Pope Benedict, Benedict XV and Pius XI warning that, without reconciliation, World War I would lead to worse disaster. They were prophetic then, as they are now — but the world wouldn’t listen then, just as it refuses to now.

Which brings us to Pope Benedict XVI. While serving under Pope John Paul II, then-Cardinal Ratzinger made several strong statements that left no doubt where he stood on the issue of war. In an interview with Zenit May 2, 2003, he said: “There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that, given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a ‘just war.’”

On another occasion, Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the argument that because of modern weapons of mass destruction, it might sometimes be necessary to make pre-emptive attacks on rogue states.

“All I can do,” said Cardinal Ratzinger, “is invite you to read the Catechism, and the conclusion seems obvious to me. ...  The concept of preventive war does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

The “presumption against violence” attributed to John Paul II, and now Benedict XVI, is not an innovation, but is grounded in the clear witness of a continuous succession of modern Popes.

But what about Welborn’s point? What about modern realities of Islamic fundamentalist violence? We’ll have to leave that for next time.

Next: Peace Pope in a Time of Terror

Angelo Matera is

editor of