Pope Francis again has surprised me.
Pope Francis on Monday said efforts to stop Islamic militants from attacking religious minorities in Iraq are legitimate but said the international community — and not just one country — should decide how to intervene.
Francis was asked if he approved of the unilateral U.S. airstrikes on militants of the Islamic State group, who have captured swaths of northern and western Iraq and northeastern Syria and have forced minority Christians and others to either convert to Islam or flee their homes.
“In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” Francis said. “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.”
The recent Popes have all generally spoken out against war and for peace. That is, the doctrine of a just war has been weakened by recent popes, at least up until the statement above by Pope Francis. For instance, Pope Benedict XVI said in 2003:
“… we must begin asking ourselves whether as things stand, with new weapons that cause destruction that goes well beyond the groups involved in the fight, it is still licit to allow that a ‘just war’ might exist.”
Pope John Paul II said before the Iraq War:
“When war, as in these days in Iraq, threatens the fate of humanity, it is ever more urgent to proclaim, with a strong and decisive voice, that only peace is the road to follow to construct a more just and united society. … Violence and arms can never resolve the problems of man.”
But, in the face of the ISIS invasions, Pope Francis has said that it is, “… licit to stop the unjust aggressor.” In other words, Pope Francis has brought back into play the idea of Augustinian Just War theory. The two prior popes had concluded that, given the damage that current weaponry can do, just war was probably near an impossibility. This pope, seeing the horrors perpetuated by ISIS, has said that just war is most certainly a possibility. I am sure that he would say that peace efforts should come first, but he makes it clear that it is “licit” to stop ISIS.
Given that Pope Francis is well known for his peaceful ways, given that he is known for his outreach to the outcast, given his many former statements, this statement stands out. For this pope to say that it is “licit” to stop ISIS is a declaration that is made all the more believable by his previous peaceful and loving statements. But, as the British would say, it does leave one gobsmacked.