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Pope splits hairs on whether U.S. should bomb Islamic State

The day before the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley became a catalytic event in the Obama administration’s response to the Islamic State, Pope Francis spoke in carefully calibrated terms about the deteriorating situation in Iraq with reporters on the return flight from South Korea to Rome.

A reporter asked if he approved of the American bombing in Iraq.

The pope replied: “In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I’m not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ just ‘stop.’ And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated.”

The US has intensified air strikes this week as former U.S. military leaders and diplomats pushed for a greater military force in Iraq — a strategy that would reverse the president’s policy of winding down the long war.

Amid United Nations and Human Rights Watch reports of the Islamic State’s “widespread and systematic civilian killing” in Iraq and Syria, as well as unconfirmed messages from relief and missionary workers in Iraq’s largest Christian city of Qaraqosh that children are being decapitated by Islamic militants, a pendulum shift in public opinion for Western involvement is underway.

Pope Francis played a role in that momentum, though there is disagreement about the meaning of his statement.

The transcript of Francis’s comments on Aug. 18, released by the Jesuit magazine America, shows his hair-splitting reluctance to endorse military strategy, even as he was in essence doing just that:

But we must also have memory. How many times under this excuse of stopping an unjust aggressor the powers [that intervened] have taken control of peoples, and have made a true war of conquest.

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One nation alone cannot judge how to stop an unjust aggressor. After the Second World War there was the idea of the United Nations. It is there that this should be discussed. Is there an unjust aggressor? It would seem there is. How do we stop him? Only that, nothing more.

Secondly, you mentioned the minorities. Thanks for that word because they talk to me about the Christians, the poor Christians. It’s true, they suffer. The martyrs, there are many martyrs. But here there are men and women, religious minorities, not all of them Christian, and they are all equal before God.

To stop the unjust aggressor is a right that humanity has, but it is also a right that the aggressor has to be stopped so that he does not do evil.

Why did Francis refuse to justify armed intervention to stop the slaughter of innocent people? How else to stop the unjust aggressor?

Within hours, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican ambassador to the UN in Geneva said pointedly: “Maybe military action is necessary at this moment.”

A chorus of Catholic commentators praised Francis for embrace of ‘just war,’ a theory dating to the 4th century.

“He thinks the efforts undertaken are moral and necessary,” John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, told The Washington Post. “He said in this case, you need to disarm the aggressor and that should be the goal. Halt, not bomb. I think he doesn’t see this as a war. He sees it as action to protect the innocent.”

But the military effort to stop the Islamic State is undoubtedly a war. What else can you call it? Amid slaughter of civilians, the question of how to halt aggressors without waging war seems to beg a just war rationalization.

“The wise man will wage just wars,” wrote St. Augustine (354-430 AD) in The City of God. “For if they were not just, he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars.” 

The dignity shown by the Foley family in New Hampshire in their interviews and media events cut an eloquent contrast with the continuing reports about Islamic State atrocities.

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Pope Francis called the Foleys last week. He spoke through an interpreter for 20 minutes, conveying his condolences even as he grieved for his own family members killed in an automobile accident in Argentina earlier this month.

The war in Iraq and Syria is sure to intensify as America widens its ring of allies for intervention.

"As ISIS has advanced, more than 400,000 Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with roots in Muslim and Zoroastrian traditions, have been forced to flee their enclaves,” the New York Times reports.

Referring to a scope of regional warfare, UN human rights official Navi Pillay said, “They are systematically targeting men, women and children based on their ethnic, religious or sectarian affiliation and are ruthlessly carrying out widespread ethnic and religious cleansing in the areas under their control."

A different moral issue concerns Robert Emmet Meagher, professor of humanities at Hampshire College and author of "Killing from the Inside Out: Moral Reasoning and Just War," coming next month from Cascade Books. Meagher recoils from the moral logic for military intervention. He sees it as flawed historically, and worsened by a political myopia on the traumatic after shocks to soldiers long into their civilian lives, trailed by guilt over those they have killed.

“I’m not arguing that the pope introduced the just war argument,” Meagher said. "The problem is that the pope made a statement against unjust aggression and a call for something other than war – and then Vatican officials highjacked those words and turned them into a justification, but not a call for war.”

Such distinctions were lost in media coverage of a pope saying that “the unjust aggressor” should be stopped.

But in Catholic enclaves of Peoria, Queens; Cook County, Illinois; the Ninth Ward of New Orleans and Southie in Boston, the message was received as: “the pope says we should go in.”

“It seems contradictory to most people that something could be wrong and necessary at the same time,” Meagher continued. “The church in Augustine’s time was concerned with whether Christians could participate in war or civil service that involved capital punishment – whether there could be sinless killing. By ‘licit’ or ‘just,’ the church meant not incurring guilt. Augustine had to create a whole new species of killing.”

Meagher calls just war “a doctrine of convenience invented in a theological lab. The church had opposed Christians in military service, as sinful, and even if necessary, at the peril of their own souls. Once the Roman Empire began to embrace Christianity through the conversion of Constantine, a pacifist church changed. A pacifist empire was untenable. Constantine had responsibility for the empire. The Christian church as partner of the emperor had to provide protection and security in the exercise of law...and eventually concessions were made.”

Meagher has long experience working with American combat veterans and ex-combatants in Northern Ireland. In all of them, he said, he finds a common thread: “Over and over, I have heard the assertion that what they did was necessary but wrong, that it darkened their souls, left them morally and spiritually damaged.”

But does the critic of just war support the military air strikes against the Islamic State?

Meagher paused at the question, and spoke in a careful measure:

"I think it’s wrong but necessary. ‘Just’ is a word misused. Veterans coming back today regard the killing that they did as necessary but realize that they’re damaged by it for the rest of their lives.”

“We’ve altered the meaning of ‘justification’ and ‘just,’” he insists. “As I see it, there is no killing that does not do moral damage to the killer. Because killing is always wrong and can never be justified.”

Nor does killing fail to leave its deep moral damage on the survivors, the loved ones of those who have been killed, as the Foleys in New Hampshire bear strong and eloquent witness.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Jason Berry achieved prominence for his reporting on the Catholic Church crisis in Lead Us Not Into Temptation (1992), a book used in many newsrooms. He has been widely interviewed in the national media, with many appearances on Nightline, Oprah, ABC and CNN. USA Today called Berry “the rare investigative reporter whose scholarship, compassion and ability to write with the poetic power of Robert Penn Warren are in perfect balance.”

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