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Does Pope Francis Really Want to Go to War Against ISIS?

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HO / OSSERVATORE ROMANO / AFP

Gerard Powers - published on 03/29/15 - updated on 06/08/17

And how is this in keeping with the Catechism?

Much is being made of the Vatican’s uncharacteristic statements lending support for limited use of force against ISIS. The most recent came from Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Holy See’s representative to the UN agencies in Geneva and Vienna. In an interview with Crux, Archbishop Tomasi said, “We have to stop this kind of genocide. Otherwise we’ll be crying out in the future about why we didn’t do something, why we allowed such a terrible tragedy to happen.”

Archbishop Tomasi’s recent statement is consistent with statements by Pope Francis, who said last August, in response to questions about the U.S. bombing campaign, that, “In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor.”

Is the Vatican position on ISIS a sharp departure from recent Church teaching and action on the use of military force? It certainly seems so at first glance, if one considers the Church’s opposition to the Iraq interventions in 1991 and 2003, an increasingly strong emphasis on nonviolence in Church statements, and numerous papal warnings that “war is not the answer.”

But, in fact, the statements on ISIS are not charting a new, more militant position for the Church. The Catechism retains the Church’s traditional embrace of a highly restrictive interpretation of the just war tradition. Moreover, the statements on ISIS are very similar to earlier statements on the use of force against Al Qaeda and the right and duty of humanitarian intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other cases of genocide. The Church has long said and continues to say that there is just cause for the limited use of military force in exceptional circumstances. Specifically, it supports the Responsibility to Protect: the duty of the international community to intervene to protect civilians against mass killings and other egregious human rights violations when the government is unable or unwilling to do so.

None of this suggests the Vatican is abandoning its healthy skepticism about the ability of military interventions to meet strict just war norms. Two issues are of special concern, especially for those concerned about the implications for U.S. policy.

First is legitimate authority. Consistent with its strong support for strengthening international law and international institutions, the Vatican has called for the UN Security Council to determine what means are necessary to deal with cases like ISIS. As the pope said last August, “One nation alone cannot judge how you stop this, how you stop an unjust aggressor.” Archbishop Tomasi reiterated this point: “It will be up the United Nations and its member states, especially the Security Council, to determine the exact form of intervention necessary, but some responsibility [to act] is clear.”

Why insist on UN Security Council authorization? After all, at least in Iraq, U.S. (and Iranian) intervention at the invitation of the Iraqi government may be justified as collective defense under article 51 of the UN Charter. The problem is that the Iraqi government’s moral and political legitimacy is in question. While the government has taken some positive steps to include Sunnis and Kurds in recent months, it remains largely sectarian and its efforts to combat ISIS risk exacerbating that sectarianism. Its reliance on Iranian and Shiite militias to retake Tikrit is the latest example.

In Syria, the need for UN Security Council authorization is even more clear, but less possible. It is more clear because there is a failed government and an anarchic situation with hundreds of rebel groups of various stripes. It is a classic case for invocation of the Responsibility to Protect. But it is less possible to get Security Council authorization due to differences among the Permanent 5. Unilateral intervention might be justified because the UN Security Council has proven itself incapable of acting in a responsible way in response to the crisis in Syria. But unilateral intervention doesn’t solve the problem that there is no legitimate and credible government or opposition group to support.

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Tags:
Islamist MilitantsPope FrancisUnited NationsVatican
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