ISIS, Just War, and the Words of Pope Francis

Christians have a complicated relationship with violence. Our founder (Christ) died by violence in absolute meekness—living out to the extreme his teaching that when confronted with violence we must “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). Jesus taught us “Blessed are the Peace Makers” (Matthew 5:9) and we hail him as the Prince of Peace (cf. Isaiah 9:5).

He also said, “I have come to bring fire on the earth. . . . Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division” (Luke 12:49-51).

It may surprise you to learn, but on the whole Christians have not been the most peaceful of people. Despite hailing our Lord as Prince of Peace, we Christians have continued to engage in barroom fist-fights and world-wide wars. If Christ told us to turn the other cheek, why are we so busy punching out our opponents?

Some things—some people, some truths—are worth fighting for.

The Just War Theory

The Catholic Church officially teaches that war should be avoided: “It is our clear duty…to strain every muscle in working for the time when all war can be completely outlawed by international consent” (Gaudium et Spes, 81). The Church also officially teaches that in our current broken world, war is sometimes necessary in cases of “lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed” (Gaudium et Spes, 79).

The paradigm used to navigate when exactly war is an appropriate alternative to peaceful methods of resistance/intervention is called the Just War Theory, beautifully articulated by Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas. If you have never read up on the Just War Theory, the Catechism provides a nice succinct description (2309), or you could check out Dr. Anthony Becker’s easy-to-read diagram.

For the purposes of this article, the important things to know about what Catholics think about war are as follows:

1)    Killing people is wrong.

2)    War involves killing people.

3)    War is wrong.

4)    Sometimes, people kill people outside the context of war (i.e., they are unjust aggressors).

5)    When that happens, it is the duty of Christians to protest the killing by any and all peaceful means.

6)    Sometimes peaceful means don’t work.

7)    If peaceful means fail to stop the unjust aggressors from killing people, violent means may be necessary.

8)    Violence (i.e., a Just War) might be necessary to restore peace / stop the unjust aggressors from killing people.

9)    Once peace is restored, the Just War MUST end, because…

10)  War involves killing, and killing is wrong.

Is Fighting ISIS a Just War?

When the atrocities committed by ISIS first drifted into Western media, Pope Francis urged the international community to find a peaceful, political solution to the evils perpetrated by ISIS: see here and here.

On August 18, Pope Francis changed his tune in response to the increasing and unrepentant actions of ISIS. In a very carefully worded statement, he asserted:

“In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I’m not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ just ‘stop.’ And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated.”

Pope Francis also appealed to the need for an international body to intervene in Iraq—tacitly frowning upon the U.S.’s unilateral decision to bomb ISIS, and re-affirmed the importance of attempting peaceful resolutions to violent problems.

In other words, Pope Francis exactly re-stated the most important aspects of the Just War Theory:

1)    Peace is better than war.

2)    War is acceptable to establish peace.

3)    Once peace is achieved, war must end.

Siobhan Benitez

Siobhan Benitez

After growing up near Kennett Square, PA, the Mushroom Capitol of the World, Siobhan knew she would always live in a bustling capitol city. She earned a B.A. in Theology, History, and Classics at Mount St. Mary's University and an M.A. in Theology (specializing in Systematics) at Villanova University. Now she lives in Washington, D.C. with her wonderful husband where she is still getting used to living with a boy, right down to playing video games and watching football. When she's not hanging out with him or reading novels, she uses her spare time to earn a PhD in Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America.

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2 thoughts on “ISIS, Just War, and the Words of Pope Francis”

  1. I had the Jesuits for 8 years and I love their minds but had we followed Pope Francis on no bombing, hundreds of Kurds would have lost their lives doing what the bombs do quicker. The Pope in context just saw a summer of Israeli bombing killing a high percentage of civilians compared to Hamas fighters….after he and an Israeli and a Palestinian prayed for peace in the Vatican on June 8th. In that context of failed prayer and questionable example of double effect, he brought out his “I do not say bomb” when asked about ISIS on his return plane from Korea. The U.S. acts fast when that is called for; the UN does not. Thousands of Yazidis that week were starving on Sinjar mountain with ISIS forces at the base of the mountain. The US acted and bombed the ISIS forces at the base of the mountain and saved thousands of Yazidis as did armed Pesh Merga on top of the mountain who then escorted thousands of Yazidis out into Syria and back into Kurdish Iraq. The UN would still be discussing what to do three weeks later. A UN high officer the following week did not share the papal recourse to the UN; she declared somebody has to save the people of Amirli who are running out of food after a three month seige by ISIS. The US again bombed and the new life was building in Kurd and Iraqi armies with that help from bombs making the difference. In three weeks we have bombed 150 times saving thousands of Yazidi, saving the Mosul dam, the city of Irbil, the city of Amirli…and their thousands of citizens. But we were late and so was the Pope. No one saved Mosul, Tirkrit, and many small villages and hundreds of men slaughtered in Sinjar City whose wives are now the carnal property of ISIS murderers of their husbands. It was CNN on the Sinjar mountain plight that forced both the Pope and Obama to get off their duffs….too late for the hundreds of Yazidi women being raped right now as we intellectualize just war theory which having started with Augustine, can never be universal ordinary magisterium anyway….missing three centuries for that. If one wishes it to be infallible, it will have to be the topic of either ex cathedra or as was done to abortion in sect. 62 of Evangelium Vitae…the consensus of all Bishops under the Pope…both of those the extraordinary magisterium.

  2. Perhaps the following idea could be passed on through the internet and the “question” eventually improved enough to help ISIS members select new leaders and or strategy. I believe that if this improved and the questions are asked of the ISIS leaders by ISIS members and they expect a public answer, this will put the leaders between a rock and a hard place and they will either change or they will loose followers because they cannot give a good public answer.

    Will you pass this along in your circles of influence and help bring about public discussion of this idea so others can help make it better and therefore try to cooperate with God in converting ISIS members from the inside?

    I have a question for reporters and all peace loving individuals to give to all ISIS members in the hope they will ask their ISIS leaders to answer publicly. Will any leader opposed to ISIS actions publicly ask this question, along with the starting verifiable fact below, of ISIS LEADERS?

    Starting verifiable fact:
    ISIS members believe (or at least claim) that they believe they are doing the “will of Allah” in what they are doing. I, along with many others, believe God IS so infinitely good, merciful, and powerful that He Wills to, and therefore must be, turning the whole world right side up to the one Faith He wants all to have by His peaceful means, without violating anyone’s free will, by His grace, through verifiable evidence and His questions that He wants to give His answers to.

    The Question:
    Do you, as a leader, believe God is infinitely good and powerful enough to convert the whole world to the one faith He wants all to accept, by His peaceful means of verifiable evidence and His questions that He wants to give His answers to, without violating anyone’s free will?

    Are ISIS leaders and their religious mentors going to publicly say all who agree with me are wrong and publicly say that God cannot be so infinitely good, merciful, and powerful so as to turn the whole world right side up to the one Faith He wants all to have by His peaceful means, without violating anyone’s free will, through the verifiable evidence and His questions that He wants to give His answers to,


    are they going to admit that God is doing what we say He is doing, turning the whole world right side up by His peaceful means to the one Faith He wants all to have without violating anyone’s free will, through verifiable evidence and His questions that He wants to give His answers to, but they still want their followers to resort to violence, hate and murder in the name of “cooperating” with God’s plan of peace?


    Is it possible God will convince some to reject the violence they have previously resorted to, rejecting the violence in favor of converting the world through God’s grace working through God’s questions and verifiable evidence, God’s peaceful plan?

    What will ISIS members think of their leaders who do not choose option three? That perhaps those leaders do not believe their faith is the one faith God is leading all to, by His grace, through his questions and verifiable evidence? If the members start to question their leaders, where might it go?

    Should not all laity of all faiths do all they can to “help” all ministers of all faiths to publicly proclaim their belief that God is so infinitely good, merciful and powerful that He is turning the whole world right side up to the one Faith He wants all to accept and profess by peaceful means without violating anyone’s free will and therefore all should publicly renounce violent aggression and terrorism as a tactic in doing God’s Will?

    Should all laity expect all ministers of all faiths to find and provide the verifiable evidence and related questions they believe God is using, with His grace, to bring all people to the one Faith God wants all to accept and believe by His peaceful means?

    Should all laity find the best verifiable evidence and related questions they can, post them on electronic media, and carry them on slips of paper in their wallets and purses to be handed to others whom they dialogue with, all in an effort to help people, in the security of their homes and hearts, to seek God’s answer and the one Faith He wants all to have without having to argue with or convince the person giving them the slip of paper?

    I have a few starter questions on my blog under the title, “some questions… Aug. 18” and I have, there, a more detailed outline of a possible program under which all ministers of all faiths would be expected to provide what they have found to be the best questions, coupled with verifiable evidence, for helping people come to the one faith God wants all to accept and this is under the title, “Shortened version, June 7, poster idea”.
    Do you see any good reasons (other than english and style) why this should not be passed around so others can improve upon it and eventually a good question is presented to the members of ISIS to ask their leaders?

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