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As the nation of Iraq boils over into violent chaos, the world should stop and remember the words of St. John Paul II at the brink of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He reminded the world’s leaders that the use of military force should always be "the very last option." On Jan. 13, 2003 he said the future of humanity “depends partly on the earth’s peoples and their leaders having the courage to say ‘no’ to war." He continued, "War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity. 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,"
The pope warned, “the U.N. charter and international law “remind us war cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military options."
Now, just over ten years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq we see the fruits of that war. Trillions of dollars spent, tens of thousands of lives lost and more physically and psychologically maimed forever, and what do we have to show for it? Instead of peace and freedom the people of Iraq are plunged into further sectarian violence, bloody revenge and an endless cycle of mindless murder and mayhem.
Critics of Catholicism like to point out our own history of violence in the name of religion. It is true that in the past some Catholics have resorted to violent means to accomplish religious ends. Catholics have participated in what they thought was holy war and popes have called for great crusades. The fine points of those historical events and the subtle arguments for and against can be debated by historians and theologians. The fact of the matter is that while Catholics have fought in the name of religion, persecuted other Christians and even participated in torture and executions. St. John Paul II led the whole church in a public act of repentance and reparation on Ash Wednesday of the Jubilee Year 2000. Critics may say it was a meaningless public relations exercise, but even if it was no more than a camera call, it was more than any other religious leader has done.
Popes may have supported the crusades, but they should have supported the way of peace, and since the outbreak of the first world war a century ago, the papacy has been a stout critic of war. During the first world war Benedict XV tried to negotiate peace and was rejected. He turned his attention to humanitarian efforts to help the victims of war. Pius XI reigned during the troubled years between the two wars and attempted to build peace amidst the gathering clouds of war. Despite the slurs against his papacy, it is now clear that Pius XII did everything possible to counter the Nazi threat, rescue doomed Jews and lead the world in the ways of peace.
John XXIII helped resolve the Cuban missile crisis and Paul VI called for an end to the Vietnam war and pleaded passionately for peace in the United Nations in 1965. John Paul II and Benedict XVI followed in their footsteps always insisting on the way of peace.
Now it is Pope Francis who takes up the baton of the world’s chief peacemaker. Can Pope Francis help resolve the most difficult conflict the world has ever seen — the volatile and violent morass in the Middle East? If Islam really is the “religion of peace” can the pope somehow find a way to connect with Islamic leaders who might just be able to call off the jihadist dogs of war?
It seems unlikely. The way of the peacemaker is fraught with impossibilities. Nevertheless, we remember the amazing peaceful downfall of the communist empire partially brought about by St. John Paul II. We remember the fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines and the peaceful overthrow of Eastern European dictators. Could the murderous jihadists of ISIS and the Boko Haram be overcome by prayer, sacrifices, and peaceful resistance?
With God all things are possible. Stalin once mocked the papacy by saying, “How many divisions has the pope?” In time Stalin’s proud empire fell into dust and the papacy not only still stands, but it is more powerful and has a greater global reach than ever before. In the long view of things it just may be that in another hundred years the terror threat of the Muslim fanatics will have caved in on itself.
And after the war is over, the man in the white soutane will still stand on the balcony of St. Peter’s wishing the world no more and no less than the blessing of peace.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the author of The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.