No, he’s not Pope Rambo, even after the spin some people put on his remarks after a recent news conference.
Some took Pope Francis’ nuanced remarks about stopping “unjust aggressors,” in reference to aggression against a militant group in the Middle East, and turned them into an endorsement of war. Then, they used the remarks to place him in opposition to the positions of his predecessors — and in some cases to himself.
Pope Francis held a news conference on the plane returning from a visit to South Korea in August. A reporter asked if he approved of the airstrikes by the U.S. against the Islamic State, a militant group in Iraq.
President Barack Obama ordered the airstrikes to delay an advance of the militants in order to protect U.S. forces and to help thousands escape.
The pope’s response was: “In these cases where there is unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underscore the verb ‘stop’; I don’t say bomb, make war — stop him.
“The means by which he may be stopped should be evaluated. To stop the unjust aggressor is licit, but we nevertheless need to remember how many times, using this excuse of stopping an unjust aggressor, the powerful nations have dominated other peoples, made a real war of conquest.
“A single nation cannot judge how to stop this, how to stop an unjust aggressor. After the Second World War, there arose the idea of the United Nations. That is where we should discuss: ‘Is there an unjust aggressor? It seems there is. How do we stop him?’ But only that, nothing more.”
That statement does not reflect the headlines that said the pope endorses military action. It is interesting to note the pope’s insistence on defining what he means by “stop.” He said “unjust aggressors” should be stopped, not by war, not by bomb, but by a means that should be evaluated by a multinational group.
The Islamic State is not a state. It is not a territory with a government recognized by other nations. It is a large band of extremist terrorists using violence to enforce their version of Islam on parts of Iraq and Syria.
It is not a government with ambassadors that we can come together with on a negotiating table. It is not a nation on which war can be declared. It is a criminal force of fanatical militants freely using crimes against humanity to gain an objective.
As criminals, they are subject to police action. They can be arrested by a legitimate authority, such as the United Nations or another body, and dealt with using justice.
“We nevertheless need to remember how many times, using this excuse of stopping an unjust aggressor, the powerful nations have dominated other peoples, made a real war of conquest,” the pope said.
There is a lot of sad history brought to mind by this answer from the pope.
The spin is another example of some portraying a pope as a person who doesn’t mean what he says. We saw a similar tactic during St. John Paul II’s economic critique that set capitalists’ teeth on edge.
There is little evidence that Pope Francis is rethinking the “just war” doctrine. He seemed to have been commenting on an unjust aggressor. The pope was not talking about a traditional war between nations but about addressing a contemporary problem of dealing with stateless aggressors.
Kent is the retired editor of two archdiocesan newspapers and has a master’s degree in spirituality. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.