THE BLOG

The Modern Papacy and War

04/13/2015 04:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

It did not receive nearly the attention it should have. In the last five weeks, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, who is the Holy See's chief diplomatic representative to the United Nations, has issued calls for organized military responses against Boko Haram and against ISIS. In both cases, he spoke of the need to show compassion to the victims of these groups, insisting that mercy requires the protection of innocent life.

Thus in talking of Boko Haram, he denounced the group's "merciless acts." They are committing "war crimes and crimes against humanity." It is the responsibility of the "involved States" to act decisively against this threat and it is a duty of "the international community" to show "solidarity" against this criminal enterprise.

In early March, Archbishop Tomasi spoke with similar force against ISIS and called, once again, on the world community to halt the encroaching expansion of this group. He described the actions of ISIS as "genocide" and emphasized that it was the world's responsibility "to stop this kind of genocide." He insisted, moreover, that it was not the West's duty alone to act against ISIS and indicated that the Muslim nations of the Middle East should also become involved. And, he stated, any armed response must finally be taken "under the aegis of the United Nations."

Archbishop Tomasi is an experienced diplomat, holding a high-level appointment. He would not speak in this way without a clear mandate that extends to the Pope or at least to the papal Secretary of State. The Archbishop's warnings, however, raise an important question: Should the papacy encourage the use of force, no matter how compelling the morality of the cause?

There is good reason for the papacy to be very careful when making this case. We might begin with the Crusades. The Crusades were, after all, launched in the year 1095 in a sermon of Pope Urban II, who called on the Christian knights of Europe to "liberate" the Holy Land from Muslims. The Pope assured his listeners: He was not the one actually calling for the Crusade. It was Christ, speaking through him, who issued the summons.

Pope Urban's call was met with a rush of enthusiasm. But even before the crusading armies descended on the Middle East, they committed their share of crimes and depredations, including pogroms against Jewish communities in Europe. Between 1095 and 1291, an estimated seven to nine crusades were put in motion with the object of establishing Christian rule in the Middle East (historians differ on what military actions counted as crusades).

In the end, the Crusades not only failed in permanently establishing Christian rule in Palestine, but the whole idea of crusade was hijacked for truly tawdry political ends. In the early 13th century, Pope Innocent III launched a crusade against the Albigensian religious movement of southern France. In the 1240's, Pope Innocent IV declared a crusade against his political rival, Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor.

Popes also regularly fought wars in defense of the papal state. The papal state received its first territorial definition in the eighth century and encompassed, at its greatest extent, a substantial part of northern and central Italy.

Some of these papal conflicts are the stuff of legend. One thinks, for example, of Pope Julius II (1503-1513), who organized a military campaign against the Republic of Venice while simultaneously commencing the construction of St. Peter's Basilica.

One also thinks of Pope Pius IX (pope 1846 to 1878). He was driven from Rome in 1848, during that year of European upheaval, and restored to the papal throne thanks to French military intervention. At its height, in the 1860's, the papal army under Pius' command might have numbered as many as 15,000 troops. And in 1870, it all came undone as Giuseppe Garibaldi's army defeated the papal forces and brought all of the Italian peninsula under secular rule.

I personally consider the loss of the papal states one of the great blessings to befall the Holy See, and the Catholic Church at large. It freed the popes from the messiness of day-to-day politics and allowed them to develop their modern role as voice of the world's conscience.

The papacy, acting as the world's conscience, has spoken out with particular force against war in the years since World War II. When Pope Paul VI visited the United Nations in 1965, he issued his famous call, "No more war, war never again!" Pope John Paul II was similarly outspoken in his opposition to war. He opposed the 1991 Gulf War, waged against Iraq to free Kuwait. John Paul II genuinely believed that diplomacy and non-violent concerted action against Saddam Hussein's regime could have averted the bloodshed of war.

And 12 years later, in 2003, John Paul II brought the whole prestige of the papal office to bear against George W. Bush in the lead-up to that President's decision to invade Iraq. The Pope's diplomatic efforts even included sending a special emissary to meet with the President and encourage him not to follow through with the attack. John Paul II's efforts regrettably failed, George Bush launched his war, and catastrophe followed.

Pope Francis' early statements on war were consistent with those of his predecessors. In 2013, he opposed an American-led attack on Syria and even called for a world day of fasting and prayer in an effort to prevent bloodshed. This was a noble effort that did, in fact, succeed. War was averted and lives were saved.

I can understand the impulse behind Archbishop Tomasi's summons to the world community. Boko Haram and ISIS are truly nihilistic and blood-thirsty groups. And action against them is not like a war among states, which always poses the risk of recourse to disproportionate means and methods. Action against Boko Haram and ISIS would be more on the order of a police action, an effort to shut down bloody-minded bands of killers operating in a lawless corner of the world.

But even if action against these two groups does not rise to the level of a war among states, it is still a call to arms. Even if Archbishop Tomasi did not directly call for armed intervention, his well-crafted circumlocutions did the job nicely. His statements about ISIS appear under the headline "Vatican Backs Military Force to Stop ISIS." His call to move against Boko Haram bears a similar headline: "Holy See Calls For Swift Action Against Violent Extremism In Africa." These are not headlines which the Vatican has repudiated.

This development leaves me very uneasy. On the one hand, Boko Haram and ISIS are committing horrible crimes. They are burning people alive, selling persons into slavery, and killing groups of people -- Christians and Yazidis -- merely for their religious beliefs. These are outrageous deeds that must be stopped. But how should the Vatican state the case against these groups? I believe that it should confine itself to detailing the crimes these organizations are committing. That alone should be sufficient to arouse the conscience of the world. But that is as far as the summons should go. Leave it to the world to take the next step.