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What makes a Pope say yes to war?

Pope Francis attends a prayer calling for peace in Syria, in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican September 7, 2013. Pope Francis has invited people of all faiths to join a day of fasting and prayer to call for an end to the conflict in Syria on Saturday.
Reuters/Tony Gentile
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  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

That statement from Pope Francis, the current head of the Roman Catholic Church, offers a contrast with that of then-Pope John Paul II at the time of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq:

War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity….[F]aced with the constant degeneration of the crisis in the Middle East, that the solution will never be imposed by recourse to terrorism or armed conflict, as if military victories could be the solution. And what are we to say of the threat of a war which could strike the people of Iraq, the land of the Prophets, a people already sorely tried by more than twelve years of embargo? War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations.

What’s changed? Turns out that, eternal truths or no, context is everything. As John Paul II noted in 2003,

As the Charter of the United Nations Organization and international law itself remind us, war cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations.

Apparently, we’ve got to the very last option. In 2003, the US invasion of Iraq was sold as the necessary work of taking weapons of mass destruction away from an oppressive regime, and other options—”the noble exercise of diplomacy”—seemed more appropriate under Catholicism’s theory of just war.

Today, the US’s renewed military incursions in Iraq are about protecting vulnerable populations from the murderous fanatics of ISIL, and fears of genocide help to justify war. But the pope did caution that stopping an unjust war is no excuse for escalation into broader conflict, and that “one nation alone cannot judge how you stop this,” a reference to the unilateral US strikes.

Of course, Saddam Hussein’s regime was involved in actions that could be termed ethnic cleansing against minority Shia and Kurds before the 2003 invasion. Francis has also been criticized for not being more vocal about crimes against humanity in other theaters of conflict, notably Syria; many argue that a faster response to the civil war there might have forestalled ISIL’s successes in Iraq. But it’s hard to pick good wars from bad, even if you’re sitting at the right hand of God.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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