“I think it’s time to rethink the concept of ‘just war’. A war can be just, there is the right to defend oneself. But we need to rethink how this concept is used today. I said that the use and possession of nuclear weapons is immoral. Resolving conflicts through war means saying no to verbal reasoning, to being constructive. Verbal reasoning is very important. Now I am referring to our daily behavior. When you talk to some people, they cut you off before you’re done. We don’t know how to listen to each other. We don’t let people finish what they say. We must listen. Receive what they have to say. We declare war in advance, that is to say, we stop talking. War is essentially a lack of dialogue.
Pope Francis, Interview with Télam, June 20, 2022
In this remark in a recent maintenance, Pope Francis has provided much-needed clarification on his views on defensive warfare, which have sparked controversy in light of the ongoing Russian spoliation of Ukraine. I wrote a few years ago about being ‘pacifist’ versus being ‘anti-war’, the latter being the somewhat less absolute position I had; my colleague Dan Amiri wrote recently claiming that Pope Francis is a pacifist in the most absolute sense. This elaboration of Francis’ position comes close to pacifism, but does not quite get there; clarity on self-defense is appreciated in the context of what is happening in Ukraine, but the tone still indicates a refusal to erect the Holy See as a “Western power” among many others currently baptizing the effort of Ukrainian war.
The Pope’s position certainly made me a little uncomfortable. I agree with him on his fundamental points regarding the role of arms dealers and cowardly politicians who send others to die for them in modern warfare. Yet I am torn by the specific cases he talks about, including the Russian-Ukrainian war and the world wars. These conflicts seem to me morally quite clear as to what is at stake. I find it hard to accept that there were no evil forces in these wars that had to be faced directly. I suppose Pope Francis could say that, for example, the Second World War was a war that had to be fought, but that we also have to ask, so to speak, whose fault is it? By definition, dialogue has failed the moment a war begins. The failure of dialogue is itself a moral evil for which specific people or institutions presumably have some degree of culpability, or at least responsibility.
It is this situation in which Pope Francis says that “defending oneself” is justified. ‘Defending’ can of course mean many things, from a village banding together to expel thugs like in a western or a samurai movie to the liberal theories of collective security that are driving the current response. of NATO to Putin’s aggression. . In principle, the spectrum and the dimming lines on this spectrum between these two situations are quite clear. In real life, however, this image blurs almost immediately. Poland and Slovakia send almost all of their military arsenals to Kyiv where Joe Biden and Boris Johnson leading the charge for massive punitive sanctions against Russia serve the same international cause as Ukrainian farmers, office workers, pensioners — and, yes, the oligarchs — defending their hometowns from thermobaric bombardment and war rape. This makes any moral criticism from the “high” end of the spectrum difficult to interpret separately from a stench of throwing these people to the wolves.
For this reason, I respect the fact that the Ukrainians feel that the Pope has not been supportive enough and, to be honest, I think their argument deserves consideration. My strongly anti-Russian stance in current geopolitics is not despite but due to my love for Russian art and culture. My more than superficial familiarity with Russia allows me to see how deeply rooted violently autocratic rule over a demoralized body politic is in Russian history, and how terribly damaging it has been for Russia and neighboring countries. Personally, I would certainly not have advised to integrate NATO into it as François did another recent interview. (Even so, hostility to NATO coming from someone in South America must be understood in the context of this part of the world’s troubled history.)
That said, however, I think Pope Francis has now provided an answer to the objective moral question his approach to just war raised. One might still think it’s a strange thing for Francis of all popes to take a position unusually based on “ideas.” “Realities are more important than ideas”, even if ideas count too. Ukraine is a country about which Pope Francis seems to have most of the good ideas, but where many wonder if he fully understands the realities.
Nathan Turowsky is originally from New England and now lives in upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious rituals led him first to the Episcopal Church and then to the Catholic Church. An alumnus of the Boston University School of Theology and one of the few Catholic alumni of this primarily Wesleyan institution, he is single and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes to silicate siesta.