Pope Francis: Stop ISIS

by Matthew Sitman

Mark Shea passes along the full text from Pope Francis’ press conference yesterday, including this statement about U.S. efforts to stop ISIS from killing even more Iraqi minorities:

Q. You know that recently the U.S. forces have started bombing the terrorists in Iraq, to prevent a genocide, to protect minorities, including Catholics who are under your guidance. My question is this: do you approve the American bombing?

A. Thanks for such a clear question. In these cases where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say this: it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means. With what means can they be stopped? These have to be evaluated. To stop the unjust aggressor is licit.

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.

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.

Francis, it seems to me, is taking a measured position here. He supports involving the United Nations. He rejects any “war of conquest.” And he underscores, rather emphatically, that the purpose of intervention should be to stop the aggression of ISIS, with his language suggesting military force should be a last resort. For reasons I can’t explain, Max Fisher compares this to the crusades, claiming that Francis’ remarks “might make you wonder what millenia you’re in”:

During the Middle Ages, between 1096 and 1272 AD, popes also endorsed the use of Western military action to destroy Middle Eastern caliphates. Those were known as the crusades; there were nine, which means that this would be number 10. The historical record suggests, though, that prior crusades were usually not endorsed from the comfort of jet-propelled airplanes, nor were they announced via Twitter.

The ignorance involved here is stunning, with the casual use of that word “also” – as if there’s no real difference between the medieval crusades and today’s prevention of genocide – doing far too much work. You’ll notice what Fisher doesn’t say, which is how this comparison is analytically useful in any way. What do we learn about the present situation by referencing the crusades? I don’t know, because Fisher doesn’t explain. I suppose the takeaway is that the crusades were bad, therefore Pope Francis is wrong. But this isn’t analysis; it’s snark with a veneer of Voxsplaining. It’s wrenching historically charged events out of context to seem clever. Ed Morrissey has a more helpful take on Francis’ comments:

Francis seems to stop short of explicitly endorsing military force, but that’s only theoretically speaking. If anything short of military force could stop ISIS, Francis wouldn’t need to make this statement in the first place. The question will be — and actually is, in Francis’ statements — just what kind of force to apply.

In many wars, one can debate whether one side or the other, or both, have committed “unjust aggression.” In the case of ISIS, which is conducting genocides, ethno-religious cleansing, and wholesale massacres, as well as condemning women into sex slavery, there is no debate on the nature of the conflict. There is, however, debate on what it would take to put a stop to all of the above “unjust aggressions,” which is Francis’ first qualifier on his endorsement. According to the rough parameters of the just-war doctrine, there should be no more force than what is necessary to bring an end to the injustice being perpetrated. Pope Francis doesn’t want to offer any prescriptions for the specific methods but just the moral framework for the decision.

Jack Jenkins and Hayes Brown note the dilemma Francis faces:

For Francis, the issue is more complicated than a firm yes-or-no endorsement of armed intervention, as the situation in Iraq is effectively a real-world example of an agonizing conundrum that has plagued Christian theologians for millennia. After all, when fellow Christians are literally staring down the barrel of a gun held by someone who fully intends to pull the trigger — such as ISIS — how does one respond while still living out Christ’s charge to “turn the other cheek”?

And Jenna McLaughlin seems a bit suspicious that Francis approved intervention now that Christians are involved:

The Vatican’s support for the US intervention, which includes strikes by drones and piloted US fighter jets as well as humanitarian aid for the Yazidis, seems to be somewhat unusual. Just last September, Francis held a massive vigil urging the United States to refrain from engaging militarily in the conflict in Syria following massive chemical weapons attacks, which killed more than 1,300 people. Francis described war in 2013 as a “defeat for humanity,” echoing the words of Pope John Paul II. In 2003, the Vatican condemned the US invasion of Iraq as a “crime against peace.”

But, as the AP points out, “The Vatican has been increasingly showing support for military intervention in Iraq, given that Christians are being directly targeted because of their faith.”

What she seems to assume is that the only difference between Syria and Iraq is that one involves more Christians. I don’t think that’s the case at all, but pointing out that Francis might have a particular concern for the people of whom he is the spiritual leader says nothing about the cogency of his remarks yesterday.