Sunday, March 23

Many thanks to an anonymous commenter below who points us to this 1999 article from America examining the Pope's teaching on war

The key international developments of Pope John Paul's pontificate came with the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe. It is therefore useful to reconsider his observations on nonviolence and the use of force in that context. Reflecting on those events in Centesimus Annus, the Pope proclaimed his belief that non-violence led to the fall of Communist governments in eastern Europe. "It seemed," he wrote in the 1991 encyclical, "that the European order resulting from the Second World War and sanctioned by the Yalta Agreement could only be overturned by another war." He continued, "Instead, it has been overcome by the nonviolent commitment of people who, while always refusing to yield to the force of power, succeeded time after time in finding effective ways of bearing witness to the truth."

In Evangelium Vitae (1995), the Pope claimed, "Among the signs of hope we should also count the spread, at many levels of public opinion, of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples, and increasingly oriented to finding effective but 'nonviolent' means to counter the armed aggressor" (emphasis in original). Beneath the Pope's expressed trust in nonviolence, one finds an esteem for those who show a willingness to suffer for the sake of justice rooted in the Christian faith. "It is by uniting his own sufferings for the sake of truth and freedom to the sufferings of Christ on the Cross," Pope John Paul wrote, "that man is able to accomplish the miracle of peace and is in a position to discern the often narrow path between the cowardice which gives in to evil and the violence, which under the illusion of fighting evil, only makes it worse."

This last point, namely, that there are forms of fighting evil that only worsen the evils suffered, is one that Pope John Paul II makes often. In his view, however, the avoidance of greater harm is more than a simple question of proportionality. Rather, the Pope affirms that those who are themselves willing to accept suffering acquire a heightened ability to discern properly how to fight against evil, whether with nonviolence or by the legitimate use of force. There is an implicit rejection of the notion that just-war thinking is simply an abstract "calculus" that can be applied independent of certain restrained, not to say pacific, moral dispositions. The Pope's antipathy to the use of force and his constant call for negotiation disclose a religious leader who is as much concerned about the means employed to overcome evil as he is committed to struggle against it.

Finally, Centesimus Annus, with echoes of earlier 20th-century popes, presents John Paul II's negative judgment about war as an instrument of policy:

"No, never again war, which destroys lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problems which provoked the war."

This passage has become almost a leitmotiv in the Vatican's response to the use of force, repeated again and again in papal statements and other Vatican declarations.

As a rule of thumb, I would suggest that here as elsewhere the Pope should be taken at his word. While the form is rhetorical, the substance is serious. The point is that the consequences of war are beyond calculation. We should consider soberly whether the use of force does, in fact, do what the Pope says. Above all, does it take the life of innocent people? Does it leave behind a trail of resentment and hatred? Does it make finding a just solution more difficult? These objections do not rule out resorting to force, especially in case of humanitarian intervention. They do imply that every effort must be taken to avoid the vastly unpredictable consequences of taking up arms.

I strongly recommend that you take the time to read this entire article. It is thorough, fair and realistic.


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