Since Vladimir Putin’s renewed war of conquest in Ukraine in late February, Pope Francis has offered perfunctory condemnations of the “violent aggression against Ukraine.” It will surprise nobody that the pope has protested against an unjust war. Alas, it’s more surprising—or, better put, shocking—to find that he’s also protesting against a just one.
Consider that while Ukraine is engaged in a terrible struggle against Russian imperialism, the Roman pontiff has deep misgivings about whether Ukraine has the right to defend itself with armed force. He has said repeatedly that weapons aren’t the solution. He has denounced the “madness” of those democracies increasing their military spending—and imposing sanctions—in response to Russia’s naked belligerence. He has laid the blame for the war not with the savage Kremlin despot who has long nursed dreams of annexing Ukraine into a Greater Russia, but with NATO for “barking” at Russia’s door. And in an unfailing sign of moral confusion, Francis has cited Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of nonviolent resistance, insisting that there’s no such thing as a “just war.”
In recent weeks Western weapons, including NATO-standard 155-mm howitzers supplied by the U.S. and its allies, have allowed Ukraine to seize the strategic initiative. Armed and trained by the West, Ukrainian forces have managed to rout Russian forces in Ukraine’s heartland, and even hold the line in the contested region of Donbas. The continuation of this progress on the battlefield represents the best hope for the restoration of a durable peace off the battlefield. In a better world, there would be no need for concepts such as “just war” and armed forces to keep the peace. But Russia’s brutal war has exposed, yet again, as an appalling fantasy the hope, whether in secular or spiritual guise, of permanent peace arising spontaneously out of either history or human nature.
In the context of the Catholic tradition, the pope’s utopianism diverges from centuries of rigorous thinking about, to say nothing of the bloody demonstration of, the fallen nature of man and the place of warfare in earthly affairs. It should be noted that Francis is not unaware of the Catholic teaching known as just war theory, which holds that nations may under certain conditions legitimately employ armed force. But he has subjected it to a radical critique, sharply circumscribing that theory to the point of negating and repudiating it.
During his tenure, Francis has taken special umbrage at the use of force by the U.S. and its allies. In 2013, when President Obama weighed launching airstrikes in Syria to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against civilians, Francis led 100,000 people in a prayer vigil for peace in St. Peter’s Square. In 2014, when asked about the U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State forces in Iraq, the pope argued that “it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor” before issuing the cumbersome caveat that this did not apply to the unilateral exercise of power. “One nation alone cannot determine how to stop an unjust aggressor,” he said.
Writing in his 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti (“Brothers, all”), Francis declared that “it is easy to fall into an overly broad interpretation of this potential right” to armed self-defense, especially given the threat posed to civilians by modern weapons of mass destruction. “It is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war,’” he wrote.
Perhaps he should tell this to the survivors of Bucha.
Francis clarified in this encyclical that “the Charter of the United Nations, when observed and applied with transparency and sincerity, is an obligatory reference point of justice and a channel of peace.” But the idea that the U.N. charter has been a channel of peace, let alone a bulwark for justice, is a pious fiction. This is the same charter that gives equal standing to democracies and autocracies, which permits grave violations of human rights so long as international frontiers are respected, and regards humanitarian interventions or policing operations across frontiers as gross breaches of international law.
Francis helpfully indicated that, since the Second World War, “there was the idea of the United Nations: that is where discussion was to take place.” Nowhere in this paean to the U.N. is there any recognition of the signal importance that the world organization arose from victory in war, and not a moment before that victory.
The facts of history and human nature haven’t stopped the pope from claiming that “every war leaves our world worse than it was before,” as if war can only be measured by its consequences—namely, death and destruction—as opposed to the outcomes which it prevents. Before Nazi Germany invaded Poland, there was no war raging in Europe, and consequently no mass death resulting from war. But a lethal machinery was already operating, and would soon be operating on a massive and terrifying scale, that extinguished many millions of lives on and off the battlefield. In Francis’ vision, August 1939 was a sublime time for the world since the allies had yet to marshal the will, let alone the arsenal, to resist the Nazis’ monstrous tyranny.
The Vatican’s official position on the subjection of Ukraine is a scandal. It recalls St. Paul VI’s 1965 words to the United Nations General Assembly: “Never again war!” This piece of idle sentimentality is fit for the nursery. It has no place in serious discussion of how to protect Europe at a moment of acute danger from a bellicose Russia seeking to resurrect its old empire.
Until the Holy Father and the Church of Rome can emphatically agree that military resistance to unprovoked aggression is right and just, the Vicar of Christ will deserve the scorn of the free world. Because it is the free world which understands that peace is not simply the absence of war, but a more robust and arduous condition of hostility toward tyranny and its depredations.