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.