Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

On Churchmen and foreign policy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 13, 2004

An interesting series of reports from Catholic World News raises a serious question of foreign policy. On September 7th, two Cardinals referred to the West’s involvement in warfare against terrorists as if it were both justified and inevitable. The next day, Pope John Paul II insisted that anti-terrorist action should not take a military form. Who is right?

Two Council Presidents Speak Out

The speeches in question took place at a conference in Milan sponsored by the St. Egidio community, an ecumenical group very active in promoting international understanding. On September 7th, Walter Cardinal Kasper, the head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, asserted that terrorism makes world peace a “total illusion”, that terrorists “denigrate all principles and all ideals of mankind”, and that democracies must “be ready to sacrifice human lives, if necessary, to defend freedom”.

On the same day, Renato Cardinal Martino, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, argued that with the struggle against terrorism “we have already entered into the Fourth World War” (following WWI, WWII and the Cold War). Although he stressed that “force alone will not be sufficient”, the context of his remarks suggests that military force is both necessary and inevitable.

Pope John Paul II Replies

The next day, a message from the Pope was delivered to the conference which emphasized that “peace is always possible”. John Paul reiterated earlier statements that “violence begets violence” and that “war must always be considered a defeat: a defeat of reason and of humanity”. He urged leaders “not to give in to the logic of violence, vendetta, and hatred” and expressed the hope that “men soon make a spiritual and cultural leap forward to outlaw war.”

All news must be carefully read. A brief summary of these statements makes them sound radically different. In reality, all three merely emphasized different aspects of the same message.

Principles and Prudence

It is doubtless unnecessary here to explain again that when the Pope speaks on the advisability or even the justice of this or that particular war, he is making a personal prudential judgment rather than teaching Catholic doctrine. His statements, however valuable, bind nobody. It is astonishing how many people still fail to understand this basic fact of Catholic thought. When it comes to doctrine, this same Pope has made the Church’s position eminently clear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

But the Catechism also points out the obligation to avoid war if at all possible. Under the heading Avoiding War in the subsection of Part III entitled Safeguarding Peace, the Catechism teaches, among other things, that “all citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.” (2308)

Different Emphases, Same Point

These are the guiding principles—the two sides of the doctrinal coin. In this light, even in news stories which seem to pit cardinals against Pope, it is obvious that all three were examining both sides of the coin with only slightly varying degrees of attention. Thus, the focus of Cardinal Kasper’s address was that religion cannot be used to justify terrorism. In that context, he argued that terrorists were utter nihilists who had destroyed the hope of peace, and emphasized that their religious mask should be stripped away. He also cautioned that in spite of military necessities, democratic nations must take care neither to resort to terrorist methods nor to show lack of respect for human rights.

Cardinal Martino’s focus was on terrorism as a major factor in the life of the world, because “warfare has lost its conventional appearance”. He acknowledged that warfare was going on, but cautioned that world leaders would have to patiently “use the instruments of diplomacy” and should seek to address the original causes of terrorism. This sounds very much like what the Pope said when he acknowledged both that new conflicts have arisen and that there was a need for firm action against terrorism, while urging leaders to root out its primary causes in “misery, desperation and the emptiness in hearts.”

A Question of Hope?

In fact, the main difference among the three seems to be simply that Cardinal Kasper has at present no hope that the problems of terrorism can be resolved in the long run without a certain amount of warfare in the short run, whereas John Paul II still hopes that this complex problem can be contained and ultimately eliminated without resort to war.

It is important to note that John Paul II has never taught that the decision to wage war is always necessarily wrong. Stating that war is always a defeat for humanity is not the same as saying it is never justified. Expressing the hope that war will one day be eliminated, and urging all toward that noble goal, is not the same as declaring that war will never be necessary. What we have here, at most, is a very slight difference in the assessment of what is realistically possible at the present time.

Not for Churchmen

When all is said and done, of course, the decision to go to war is not in the hands of Churchmen. In the end, it is laymen who must make this decision, based on the same principles which fuel the exhortations of their priests, bishops, cardinals and Pope. To borrow an earlier phrase, it is astonishing how many people fail also to grasp this principle of Catholic thought. Political leaders do not decide questions of war and peace because Churchmen aren’t willing to. They do so because it is their God-given responsibility.

The coin of Church teaching must be examined, turned, rubbed, and examined again. Both aspects must be implemented at their appropriate times. The question is not who is right, but why and how and above all when. About these matters, even the well-formed may disagree.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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