“I believe it is time to rethink the concept of a ‘just war.’ A war may be just, there is the right to defend oneself. But we need to rethink the way that concept is used nowadays. I have said that the use and possession of nuclear weapons are immoral. Resolving conflicts through war is saying no to verbal reasoning, to being constructive. Verbal reasoning is very important. Now I am referring to our daily behavior. When you are talking to some people, they interrupt you before you have finished. We don’t know how to listen to one another. We don’t let people finish what they are saying. We must listen. Receive what they have to say. We declare war in advance, that is, we stop dialoguing. War is essentially a lack of dialogue.”
Pope Francis, Interview with Télam, June 20, 2022
In this remark in a recent interview, Pope Francis provided some much-needed clarification of his views on defensive war, which have caused controversy in light of the ongoing Russian despoilation of Ukraine. I wrote a couple of years ago about being “a pacifist” versus being “antiwar,” the latter being the somewhat less absolute position that I had; my colleague Dan Amiri wrote recently arguing that Pope Francis is a pacifist in the more absolute sense. This elaboration of Francis’s position approaches pacifism, but doesn’t quite make it there; the clarity on self-defense is appreciated in the context of what’s happening in Ukraine, but the tone still indicates a refusal to set up the Holy See as “Western power” among so many others that are currently baptizing the Ukrainian war effort.
The pope’s position has, admittedly, made me a bit uncomfortable. I agree with him on his fundamental points about the roles of arms dealers and of cowardly politicians who send others to die for them in modern war. Yet I am torn about the cases in point that he discusses, including both the Russo-Ukrainian War and the World Wars. These conflicts seem morally clear-cut enough to me in terms of what was at stake. I have difficulty accepting that there weren’t evil forces in these wars that needed to be directly confronted. I suppose Pope Francis might say, that, for example, World War II was a war that had to be fought, but that we also have to ask, so to speak, whose fault is that? By definition, dialogue has failed by the point at which a war starts. The failure of dialogue is itself a moral evil for which presumably specific persons or institutions have some degree of guilt, or at least responsibility.
It’s this situation in which Pope Francis says that “defending oneself” is justified. “Defending oneself” can of course mean a lot of things, from a village banding together to throw out ruffians like in a Western or samurai film all the way up to the liberal theories of collective security that are driving the current NATO response to Putin’s aggression. In principle the spectrum, and gradating lines on that spectrum, between these two situations is fairly clear. In real life, however, that picture becomes blurred almost immediately. Poland and Slovakia sending almost their entire military arsenals to Kyiv or Joe Biden and Boris Johnson leading the charge for massive punitive sanctions against Russia serve the same international cause as Ukrainian farmers, office workers, pensioners–and, yes, oligarchs–defending their hometowns from thermobaric bombardment and war rape. This makes any moral criticism of the “high” end of the spectrum difficult to interpret separately from a stench of throwing those people to the wolves.
For this reason, I respect that people in Ukraine feel that the Pope has been insufficiently supportive, and, to be honest, I think theirs is an argument worth considering. My strongly anti-Russian position in current geopolitics is not in spite of but because of my love for Russian art and culture. My more-than-cursory familiarity with Russia allows me to see how violently autocratic governance over a demoralized body politic is deeply rooted in Russian history, and how terribly damaging this has been to both Russia and neighboring countries. Personally, I certainly wouldn’t have advised bringing NATO into it the way Francis did in another recent interview. (Even so, hostility to NATO coming from someone from South America has to be understood in the context of that part of the world’s own troubled history.)
Having said all of that, however, I do think that Pope Francis has now provided an answer to the objective moral question his approach to just war was raising. One might still think it is an odd thing for Francis of all Popes to take an unusually “ideas”-based stance on. “Realities are more important than ideas,” even though ideas matter too. Ukraine is a country on whose cause Pope Francis seems to have most of the right ideas, but where many wonder whether he fully understands the realities.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.