I have made some satisfactory progress in my other writing, and I see that the Morality Clarity Brigades are on their usual tour of Pope-bashing, so I am returning rather soon to write a lengthy post.  What horrible thing did the Pope say this time that would draw down the ire of the wise men of First Things?  First, Pope Benedict said the following:

We do want to appeal to all Christians and to all those who feel touched by the words of the Holy See, to help mobilize all the forces that recognize how war is the worst solution for all sides. It brings no good to anyone, not even to the apparent victors. We understand this very well in Europe, after the two world wars.

Oh, no, he said something against War!  Quick, we have to put a stop to this!  Now, as I read my copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (and, yes, as an informed Orthodox Christian, I do have one) on war, it says:

The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life.  Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.

All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. (CCC, 2307-2308)

Notice how it doesn’t make nifty provisos that excuse the “good” wars from these ”evils and injustices”?  Notice how it doesn’t engage in all the moral shilly-shallying of war supporters?  Following these sections are those sections that list those circumstances under which war may be legitimately waged as a means of defense.  Now what did the Pope say that contradicts the statements cited above?  What possible objection could anyone have to a bishop counselling peace and condemning war as evil?  Well, of course, you already know what objections the usual suspects will have.  Here, first, is Robert Miller with his anti-pacifist-cum-Holocaust red herring:

I find it difficult to understand how the pope says this. Along with many others, I often invoke the Second World War as the paradigm example of a just war, of a case where morality not only permitted but required the use of armed force in order to combat evil. But here Benedict, expressly mentioning the world wars, says that they brought no good to anyone. No good to Elie Wiesel, and all the other prisoners liberated from Buchenwald? No good to the peoples of France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and others saved from Nazi domination? No good to the Poles and other Slavs, destined to slavery to support the Third Reich? No good to the young Joseph Ratzinger, who, freed from service in the Wehrmacht, was able to enter seminary, study theology, become a priest and a professor, and live to become pope?


As it stands, this statement from Benedict is unsupportable. All serious people know that war is a terrible reality to be avoided whenever possible, and Benedict should certainly say this. But he is also a great theologian, well able to make moral distinctions. He ought not make statements that can so easily be understood as endorsing a dangerously naive pacifism that is incompatible with the Catholic moral tradition.

Of course, conceiving of WWII as a “paradigm” of just war doesn’t really start you out on the right foot, but let us suppose that it is.  I feel compelled to ask why certain Christians constantly feel obliged to find fault with exhortations to peace or why they must see in the clear expression of the fundamental moral truth that “war is the worst solution for all sides” some kind of potential endorsement of “naive pacifism.”  Surely one of the evils of the world is that men are only too happy to resort to the use of arms and only too willing to shed blood and find all sorts of convenient reasons why they have done so–none more so than the old playground excuse of “he started it!” 

The great problem of our time is not Pope Benedict stating the obvious truth–which should be all the more obvious in the wake of the tragedies of Lebanon and Iraq–that war is the last resort because it is “the worst solution” and those who treat it as a last resort acknowledge as much.  The great spiritual problem, the great danger to which people who live in powerful nations are most prone, is the belief that war is good.  Not justified by certain circumstances, not necessary and unavoidable in certain cases, but good and the bringer of good

For someone who wants to take the Pope to task for a failure to make moral distinctions, Mr. Miller’s objection is unfortunate.  Of course the deliverance of innocent victims from brutality and violent death was good.  Of course the restoration of peace was good.  You have to really want to find a flaw in Pope Benedict’s position to assume that he does not know this or meant to ignore these things.  Surely the point of the statement was to emphasise that, on the whole, war truly profits no one because of the evils and injustices inherent in it.  If see WWI and WWII as one gigantic orgy of violence, we see an entire train of events starting in 1914 and leading to incalculable human loss and misery stemming from the belief that war is not the worst solution but, for many of the belligerents, the most expedient and the best.  How many tens of millions had to die for the “good” Mr. Miller describes?  How many hundreds of thousands of innocents were indifferently slaughtered in pursuit of that “good” by the Allies alone?  War may be a means to limit evil, and is therefore justified under strict definitions (which, strictly speaking, WWII did not meet) but it does not accomplish anything good.  Pope Benedict is telling us that we cannot valorise war itself, that war is always “the worst solution,” and we cannot make it into anything better than that. 

Deliverance from the excesses of war and the good things that come after the cessation of war are the products of ceasing hostilities and resuming peaceful, civilised life.  Why is there such a need, at First Things and elsewhere, to pretend that the problem of our age is not a tendency to go to war too quickly and rashly and without just cause and to wage war excessively, but a tendency to refrain from it when we are obliged to fight for our community and our people?  Why is it that some Christians think that the just war tradition is not a high standard of justice to be rigorously applied to the use of force but a loophole that means, “war is OK for Christians”? 

Three years into a war of aggression in Iraq, a week after the devastation of Lebanon, are some people really so inured to war that the simple truth that it is “the worst solution” and brings no good to anyone sounds offensive and contrary to Christianity?  Because it does bring no good to anyone, and we should not pretend otherwise.  By resisting aggression or redressing injustices, it may restore peace and create the circumstances in which men can pursue and cultivate the Good, but it does not do anything good in itself. 

Even the victors suffer spiritual and moral costs, particularly in total war where charity and justice are not to be found, and heretofore decent men are sometimes called to do reprehensible things.  War is evil.  It is something that is a necessary evil in certain cases, but evil nonetheless.  We ignore or minimise this truth at our own peril.  Indeed, some Christians in this country must seriously consider why they have been only too happy to go along blithely with every and any war of the last few years and whether that is really in keeping with their moral tradition.  For starters, they might hold off from belittling a prominent Christian authority when he says something that, by the standards of official Catholic doctrine and more generally by the common witness of Christianity, seems not only undeniable but essential for our present moment.