St. Augustine refuting a heretic
13th-century manuscript

Pope Francis’ “Call for War” was Actually a Call for Peace

Today, aboard the papal plane en route from South Korea back to Rome, Pope Francis I was asked about current US airstrikes in Iraq, in particular intended to protect minorities under threat there. In response, the pope “endorsed the use of force to stop Islamic militants from attacking religious minorities in Iraq.” The response to this statement, in certain circles, has been rather breathless. “News from 1096 AD” from Max Fisher at Vox.com. “Pope Francis, ISIS, and the Last Crusade” by Christopher Dickey at The Daily Beast. And Adam Chandler of The Atlantic Wire went with “Pope Francis is Cool with Killing ISIL.”

The common trope was the return to the medieval, the return to the Crusades. Here, it seems, we had a pope calling on secular warriors to march forth into the East to protect their fellow Christians against an Islamic threat.

But not really.

Jack Jenkins and Hayes Brown of Thinkprogress pointed out — and rightfully so — that it’s a bit more complicated than that. Look at what else Pope Francis said. He continued:

“‘In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,’ Francis said. ‘I underscore the verb “stop.” I’m not saying “bomb” or “make war,” just “stop.” And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated.” But, he said, in history, such ‘excuses’ to stop an unjust aggression have been used by world powers to justify a ‘war of conquest’ in which an entire people have been taken over. [But] ‘One nation alone cannot judge how you stop this, how you stop an unjust aggressor,’ he said, apparently referring to the United States.”

This is a fascinating move for a number of reasons. First, let me pair that above quotation with another:

“Given the dizzying pace of globalization, and the cultural leveling of modernity, it should come as no surprise that people fear the loss of what they cherish about their particular identities — their race, their tribe and, perhaps most powerfully, their religion. In some places, this fear has led to conflict…. Most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint — no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or even a person of one’s own faith.”

There’s not a lot of daylight between those 2 statements. Pope Francis in 2014 and Pres. Barack Obama accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 are both attempting to limit, not expand, the reasons that one should go to war. As I wrote at the time about Pres. Obama, and as I’d argue today in the case of Pope Francis, these men are rejecting the medieval notion of Holy War in favor of something older, something more idealized, something much more hopeful.

Both leaders are articulating a theory of “just war” deriving from St. Augustine of Hippo ca. 400 CE. In Book 19 of his mammoth work, The City of God, Augustine argued that war was never desirable but was sometimes necessary. We must protect those who suffer from unjust aggression. If that could be accomplished without war, so much the better, but force could be used by legitimate authorities as a last resort. The end goal, however, was always — and simply — lasting peace.

In 1095, when Pope Urban II called what would become the First Crusade, he may have evoked this Augustinian ideal. Some of the versions of his speech do convey that sense. The problem is that we can’t trust those versions. We don’t know what he said. We do, however, know what the crusaders did. They did just those things Francis and Obama warned about, the the things they’ve both explicitly rejected —the medieval Crusade turned a “defensive” war into one of conquest and butchered thousands in the process.

Francis seems to understand, in a way his medieval papal predecessors didn’t (and some of his modern journalistic interpreters don’t), that in this world there are shades of gray, complications that require sacrifice. Francis called for intervention, because as Francis has consistently said from early on in his pontificate, no one should simply stand by and watch others suffer. His famous kiss in St. Peter’s Square and his comments today are 2 sides of the same coin.