Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

In Iraq, the Pope has good reason to seek intervention, but fear unilateral US action

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 20, 2014

When Pope Francis said that armed intervention is justified to stop the slaughter of Christian refugees in Iraq, he made a distinction that is often missed, I’m afraid, in American discussions of warfare. After saying that “it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” the Holy Father continued: “I underline the verb: Stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means.”

As he elaborated on his point during his Monday press conference, the Pope declined to say exactly what means might properly be used to stop unjust aggression. (Catholic moral teaching traditionally leaves that judgment to civil authorities, who are best equipped to compare military options.) He simply stressed that military intervention should be designed to stop aggression, not to conquer nations or impose new forms of government.

A just war, according to the principles of Church teaching, is always, by definition, a limited war. Under extreme circumstances it is justifiable to take up arms, to use deadly force, in defense of one’s own nation or in defense of others who are subject to unjust aggression. The current situation in Iraq is a clear example of the latter case. But the goal of military intervention must be to stop the aggression: nothing more.

Students of just-war theory divide their moral calculations into two categories: There are ius ad bellum criteria, which seek to discern when it is morally justifiable to go to war. Then there are ius in bello criteria, which govern the conduct of a just war. It is quite possible to go to war for righteous reasons (ius ad bellum), but then fight the war by morally indefensible means (ius in bello). That is, it is possible to fight an unjust war for a just cause.

Thus the cautious distinction that the Pope made in his conversation with reporters on August 18. The brutal violence of the Islamic State against Christian and Yezidi refugees creates a just cause for military action, but not all forms of military action can be justified.

The ius ad bellum criteria demand, among other things, that a war be declared by the proper legal authority. Ordinarily, the proper authority would be a sovereign nation, defending itself against an aggressive neighbor. In this case, the refugees in northern Iraq have no defined political leadership, and the aggressor is a rogue state. The acknowledged local authority, the government of Iraq, lacks the capacity to protect the refugees. So the international community must act action. But under what circumstances can international leaders claim the moral right to intervene, inside the borders of a sovereign nation? Pope Francis showed his sensitivity to that question when he proposed a discussion at the UN, and said: “One nation alone cannot judge how to stop an unjust aggressor.”

Reading the Pope’s words, one hears the echoes of statements made by St. John Paul II in 1990, and Pope Benedict XVI in 2003, arguing against American intervention in Iraq. In each case the Vatican argued forcefully against unilateral action by the US, urging proper respect for the rules of international law. The Popes were not defending Saddam Hussein; they were defending the principle that a powerful nation should not act alone, ignoring the need for proper legal authority to undertake military action.

There were other reasons for the Popes’ repeated cautions against American intervention in Iraq, and those same reasons apply to the situation that faces us today. Along with the question of whether a “pre-emptive” war can be justified—a possibility that has not been contemplated in traditional just-war theory—the Vatican voiced keen anxiety about the likely consequences of a military campaign.

The ius in bello criteria stipulate that a military campaign must not target innocent civilians, must not involve violence disproportionate to the harm that is being addressed, and must have a reasonable prospect of success. A look at the situation in Iraq today shows that the Popes’ anxieties were justified. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of civilians have been killed. The country lies in devastation, and many Iraqis—including the oppressed members of the Christian minority—ruefully testify that they were better off under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. The government installed with American help has proven itself unable to rule a fractured country.

This isn’t what American policy-makers had in mind, of course. Our country’s leaders never intended to leave Iraq in chaos. But military action always brings unintended consequences; that is one of the many reasons to avoid war. In Iraq we fought the regime that the US had once tacitly supported, during its war with neighboring Iran. Today we face the militants of the Islamic State, who wield weapons that the US supplied to rebels in Syria. (And now there are suggestions that we provide arms to Kurdish separatists, with who-knows-what results in the long-term future.)

By the ius in bello criteria, it is difficult if not impossible to justify the US military involvement in Iraq, and easy to understand why Pope Francis would be eager to avoid another unilateral campaign.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Aug. 25, 2014 10:49 PM ET USA

    Excellent article. Sadly the halo has slipped nearly off temple head of lady USA. Now the question to ask is why did the USA destroy Iraq? Please don't say 9/11. When you answer my question you will understand what needs to be done.

  • Posted by: - Aug. 25, 2014 10:41 PM ET USA

    I agree with Defender about the UN promoting contraception & abortion and otherwise not caring about the Christians in Iraq. But they want to help the Yezidi tribe. What gives? Both groups deserve help & protection regardless of how they worship God.

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Aug. 22, 2014 11:23 PM ET USA

    Reading your somewhat dubious assertions about what the Popes said, Phil, puts me in mind of the majority of U S bishops' slightly tortured reasoning meant to give those who want to vote for Democrats an out to do so. BTW, there is no Catholic doctrine against unilateral action to stop an unjust aggressor. It's merely common sense, not doctrine, to want allies. The Holy Father would be the first to acknowledge that.

  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - Aug. 22, 2014 8:40 PM ET USA

    Most people, religious or irreligious look to the Pope for moral guidance on the major issues of the day. Unfortunately the militant Muslims of ISIS who advocate jihad against Christians have little regard for Pope Francis which is why the pope carefully pointed out that he is not advocating war (jihad on Muslims) but only licit means to stop them -the unjust aggressor - from killing innocent people simply because of their ethnic, religious and racial differences. Let us pray they listen.

  • Posted by: timothy.op - Aug. 22, 2014 1:24 PM ET USA

    Although I concur that previous US missions in Iraq were ill-advised, my question is: when the competent international authority shows itself actually to be quite INcompetent and unwilling to take any effective action, is it then licit to sit by and watch the atrocities go on w/o intervening, when you have the ability to stop it? It seems we have an obligation to help clean up a mess of our own making; and if the UN will not act, someone must.

  • Posted by: Defender - Aug. 21, 2014 1:58 AM ET USA

    The UN still hasn't done a thing, they are too busy promoting condoms and abortion across the globe - there isn't a more inept group. Of course this administration has no cogent foreign policy and, as you point out, never intended to leave Iraq in such a mess - but it did and it will with Afghanistan because they announced when we will leave (a la Vietnam). The US trained and equipped ISIS, no less. The US will leave, but the question is: Who will fill the vacuum? Terrorist groups abound.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Aug. 20, 2014 11:17 PM ET USA

    All fine and good, but how does one limit a campaign against an irrational and bloodthirsty enemy who has nothing but disdain for everyone who is not a Mohammedan? I too opposed Bush's insane war against Saddam, but now it's hardly possible to simply leave everyone there to the mercy of these ISIS murderers. What other means but "war" can "stop" people who behead babies, enslave women, and crucify their captives? It's my impression that Rome is rethinking its reflexive irenicism toward Islam.