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Catholic Culture Solidarity

‘Popesplaining,’ just war, and calumny

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 04, 2022

Two weeks ago, when I complained that Pope Francis had “contradicted hundreds of years of Catholic teaching on justice and warfare,” several readers wrote to say that I had criticized the Pontiff unfairly. When he said, “There is no such thing as a just war,” these readers explained, what the Pope really meant was that every war is caused by injustice. Since warfare can be justified only to defend against a grave injustice, it follows that in any war, one side (at least) is guilty of injustice. Thus even if one side is fighting for a just cause, the other is not, and so the war in unjust.

Granted, by that line of reasoning, the Pope’s comments of March 18 could be reconciled with the Church’s venerable teaching on justice in war. In other words it is possible to read the Pope’s statement as consistent with the Catholic tradition. But Pope Francis made no effort to ensure that his statement would be read that way. Rather he made a sweeping generalization, which most readers would likely see as an absolute condemnation of warfare. If some earnest Catholics were anxious to assure us that he was not deviating from the traditional teaching, the Pope himself was not.

This sort of “Popesplaining” has become increasingly common during a pontificate marked by such sweeping statements. I confess that for many months I made the same sort of special efforts to interpret statements by Pope Francis as consistent with established Church teaching. When there was only one possible interpretation of a papal statement that was consistent with Catholic tradition, I assumed that interpretation was the proper one. Finally, after the release of Amoris Laetita, I concluded that I had been trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, and began to analyze this pontificate in a very different light—eventually producing the book Lost Shepherd.

The work of “Popesplaining” is bound to produce frustration, because Pope Francis rarely clarifies his problematical statements. (Dubia, anyone?) I admire the loyal Catholics who take it upon themselves to explain away difficulties, confident that the Supreme Pontiff would endorse their arguments. But he never does. On the contrary, when his subsequent statements shed more light on his true intentions, they usually underline the problems.

Take his most recent comments on justice in warfare, made during his in-flight exchange with reporters on the flight home from Malta. When asked what he would say to Vladimir Putin, the Pontiff replied:

I think in your question there is also doubt about just and unjust wars. Every war stems from an injustice, always, because that is the pattern of war. This is not a pattern for peace. For example, making investments to buy weapons. Some people say: “But we need them to defend ourselves.” That is the pattern of war.

If a country cannot buy weapons to defend itself against an aggressor, how can that country fight a just war? If spending on defense falls into the “pattern of war”—and there can be no doubt that the Pope was denouncing the “pattern of war”—then the conduct of a just war becomes impossible.

Just two weeks ago, in a telephone conversation with President Zelenskyy, the Pope (according to the Ukrainian leader’s account) acknowledged that “you must defend yourselves.” Maybe the quotation was inaccurate. Or maybe the Pope was contradicting himself. As I have observed in the past: “Confusion is the hallmark of this pontificate: not a bug but a feature.”

But even if “Popesplainers” can square the circle, and reconcile that trope on the “pattern of war” with prior Catholic teaching, I will still be appalled by another statement the Pope made in that same airborne interview. Arguing that world leaders are not deaf to appeals for peace and blind to the sufferings of war, he said:

When there was the commemoration of the Normandy landings, several heads of government came together to commemorate it. However, I don’t remember anyone talking about the 30,000 young boys who were left on the beaches.

What?! I have heard and read many speeches by government leaders, commemorating the D-Day landings. (Here is one very memorable example.) Never once did any speaker fail to pay tribute to the young men who died on the beaches. Is it possible that the Pope’s experience of rhetoric is so utterly different from mine, or that his memory of political speeches is so defective? Or do the “Popesplainers” now face the challenge of explaining away what looks, to me, like papal calumny?

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: padre3536 - Apr. 06, 2022 1:35 PM ET USA

    There is a moral and real difference between the cause of something and the thing itself, viz., the cause of the war being unjust but the defense against the evils obliged, just and Holy as God is Holy.

  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 06, 2022 12:39 PM ET USA

    I had been popesplaining Francis for the first three years of his pontificate. I blamed "the media" or "the translations." Then I stopped popesplaining when I learned that the only proper interpretations of Amoris Laetitia come from select bishops from select countries, while the four dubia cardinals were completely ignored. Finally, the Vatican-China agreement (to persecute Catholics) removed all doubts about this pope.

  • Posted by: padre3536 - Apr. 06, 2022 9:28 AM ET USA

    If it is just to fight evil, then there is just war; if it unjust to fight evil then there is no just war, only unjust war. Amazingly arrogant to correct the Living Lord and God...I am siding with Him

  • Posted by: padre3536 - Apr. 06, 2022 9:19 AM ET USA

    Well done, good and faithful servant. Logically, Biblically (Triune Revelationally) there is a just war... One might witness to all that the Beloved is the Par Excellent Model of Just War... Who is the King of Glory? He the Lord of armies, He is the King of Glory...the Lord mighty, the Lord Valiant in war... Psalm 24

  • Posted by: RoseMore - Apr. 06, 2022 9:16 AM ET USA

    Please continue your clarifying articles. They are a big help in dispelling the confusion coming from this pope.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Apr. 05, 2022 7:20 PM ET USA

    Francisplaining and Bidensplaining. Seems like our great leaders have a real problem splaining themselves. Once or twice is splainable but continually suggests foggy, unthought, and therefore unsplainable utterances.

  • Posted by: mhains8491 - Apr. 05, 2022 7:03 PM ET USA

    Pope Chaos and Confusion.

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Apr. 04, 2022 5:56 PM ET USA

    Who you gonna believe, them or your lyin' eyes?? You definitely have the better argument. The inadequacies of our Pontiff are truly sad.