Christopher Hitchens used to say that in modern culture a person’s character is judged by their reputation rather than the other way around. He further noted that this odd phenomenon was particularly acute when considering figures in religious garb. The leniency of the public is never in greater supply than when a witless remark is uttered by a prominent man—or woman—of faith. This may help to explain why Pope Francis enjoys a reputation as a man of peace. Any doubts about whether or not he truly merits that honorific will not be allayed by his useless response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On the contrary, his utterances on the subject make nonsense of the idea that the Church of Rome has any special expertise—much less unique moral standing—on matters of war and peace.
Scrutiny of the papacy’s position on the place of power in international relations would reveal that the pristine reputation Roman Catholic authorities enjoy on this critical subject is thoroughly undeserved. Pacifists who abjure any recourse to violence are, by definition, dismayed by the aggressor and the victim as long as both are fighting. Those concerned with peace, on the other hand, are careful to draw moral distinctions between various applications of force, investigating both the means employed and the ends sought. They also care deeply about the natural competition for power because, as Clausewitz taught us, war is simply the resort to arms in that competition.
Many seem to have been unduly impressed by the pope’s perfunctory condemnations of Vladimir Putin’s renewed war of conquest in Ukraine. But how much moral credit does the pope warrant merely for protesting an unjustified resort to arms? However one answers that question, it must be weighed against the staggering offense of protesting Ukraine’s justified resort to arms.
More than once in recent months, the pope has approvingly cited Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of nonviolent resistance. Many will agree that this is a noble example to invoke, but it is seldom recalled that Gandhi failed the straightforward test of moral clarity offered by the Second World War. Not only did he declare in 1939 that Jewish non-compliance with Nazi decrees might be enough to “melt Hitler’s heart,” but in a 1940 letter addressed “To Every Briton,” he offered this abject example of moral equivalence and appeasement:
I appeal for cessation of hostilities, not because you are too exhausted to fight, but because war is bad in essence. You want to kill Nazism. You will never kill it by its indifferent adoption. Your soldiers are doing the same work of destruction as the Germans. The only difference is that perhaps yours are not as thorough as the Germans. ... I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.
The Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr dissected the immorality of the pacifist position nearly a century ago, but Pope Francis shows no sign of having profited from his wisdom. In Niebuhr’s time as in ours, pacifists claimed that war was the supreme evil. But they neglected to explain how a measure of justice in the world might be secured when peaceful methods had been exhausted. In effect, Niebuhr argued, their answer was to abdicate responsibility and surrender to injustice, leaving countless multitudes to endure the horrors of tyranny and oppression.
In Niebuhr’s view, the “political” pacifism of a great many Christians was a ghastly distortion of the Christian ethic. It failed to recognize the tragic elements of the human condition: the persistence of power and self-interest, the imperfectability of man, and the contested and contradictory nature of moral and material progress. In short, anyone responding to the premeditated mass violence of a brigand empire by invoking this wretched school of thought has forsaken all credibility before the profound responsibilities of power in a fallen world.
This much has been demonstrated by the pope’s pronouncements on Ukraine. As a European democracy defends its territory and population from the lethal onslaught of Russian imperialism, the pontiff intones that weapons aren’t the solution. (Every time I encounter this non-proposal, I imagine how much more pathetic it would sound if the pope spelled out the precise nature of the problem.) He has denounced the “madness” of the West funneling military aid to an embattled democracy. He has chastised NATO for “barking” at Russia’s door. And he has refused President Zelensky’s invitation to visit Ukraine in a show of support, at least until he has had a chance to meet with Putin in Moscow (an audience the Russian autocrat has so far refused to grant).
This is not the place for a prolonged exegesis on the complex roots of Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine or the terrible war it has chosen to prosecute there, let alone about the nature of war itself. Suffice it to say that Putin has long denied Ukraine’s status as an independent state, and that his decision to go to war was not “perhaps facilitated” (in the pontiff’s words) by the eastward march of the Atlantic alliance. In its long history, Russia has rarely enjoyed greater security on its western flank than it has since the end of the Cold War, which is probably why Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has greeted news that Finland and Sweden will join NATO with a shrug.
Utopian masochism appears in both secular and religious form, and needs to be resisted in both. It is detached not only from history but from human nature itself. The notion that some things are worth fighting and dying for has dominated human relations and the order of states since antiquity, and the defense of hearth and home from brutal conquest and despotism has always been foremost among the justifications. Since the outbreak of this latest round of hostilities, Ukrainian forces have been armed and trained by the West, and these advantages have helped them to inflict grievous losses on Russia’s invading forces. They understand what the pope in his transcendent wisdom evidently does not—that the best chance of a viable peace lies not in surrender but in the continued refinement and demonstration of military prowess. Only that can teach Putin and the Russian elite a lesson in deterrence they will not soon forget.
One might have thought that the head of the Catholic Church wouldn’t require patient instruction in this matter. After all, Catholic “just war” doctrine holds that nations may legitimately employ armed force under certain conditions. But Francis has heaped calumny on that option throughout his tenure, especially as it pertains to the defense of Pax Americana. In 2013, as President Obama weighed launching airstrikes to punish the Syrian regime for murdering civilians with chemical weapons, the pope led 100,000 people in a prayer vigil for peace in St. Peter’s Square. Asked about the US-led campaign against Islamic State in Iraq in 2014, the pope argued that “it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor” before unhelpfully adding that “one nation alone cannot determine how to stop an unjust aggressor.”
In his 2020 encyclical, “Fratelli tutti” (“Brothers, all”), Francis asserted 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 this is why he has not dared to set foot in Ukraine since the siege of Mariupol and the slaughter of Bucha.
For Francis, like the Corbynite Left, salvation lies in the UN, an institution he appears to regard with mystical reverence. “The Charter of the United Nations,” he wrote, “when observed and applied with transparency and sincerity, is an obligatory reference point of justice and a channel of peace.” This is the same charter that grants rogue regimes free rein to violate human rights with impunity so long as they do so within their own borders. He did not pause to consider that, without Allied power, the United Nations would never have been established in the first place. Nor did he mention the UN’s uniformly dismal record in preventing armed conflict—in Ukraine and innumerable other places.
None of this represents a sophisticated rendition of just war theory, to put it mildly. One can scarcely imagine this litany of puerile bromides being recognized, let alone extolled, by the likes of Augustine or Aquinas. Papal support for military aggression was once commonplace. Medieval pontiffs called for crusades against Muslims and (invariably) Jews in the Holy Land, Pope Julius II led knights into battle against rival Italian rulers, and the Vatican retained its own armed forces until the late 19th century. Rome’s last full-throated endorsement of a war was when it sanctified General Franco’s invasion of Spain, an enterprise armed and aided by Hitler and Mussolini.
This vicious chauvinism is plainly no longer the danger at a time when the Holy See exhibits a reflexive and near-absolute renunciation of violence. But that the Vatican has ceased to be dangerous doesn’t mean that it has ceased to be deplorable. Writing for the website of the Italian daily, il Fatto Quotidano, Marco Politi, a Vatican expert, distinguished this approach from that adopted by Pope Pius XII in the early years of the Cold War. Unlike the staunch Cold Warrior of yesteryear, Francis does not aspire to be “the military chaplain of the West.” To be mistaken for the military chaplain of the Kremlin, however, is evidently a separate matter.
The 19th-century historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay once said that the Roman Catholic Church deserved credit for its ability to contain the “enthusiasm” that so often flowered in its ranks. Today, the church’s problem is no longer violent zealotry (which is progress of a kind) but an astonishing unseriousness and moral vacuity about earthly affairs. The only organized violence that Francis seems unable to condemn unambiguously is that of religious fanatics whose prophet has been pilloried. Taking up arms in defense of one’s native soil is intolerable, but murdering civilians on behalf of an impugned icon is somewhat mitigated by the principle that “one cannot make fun of faith.”
In his 1949 essay on Gandhi, George Orwell advised that “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.” The reverence with which Pope Francis’s pronouncements on the war in Ukraine are reported and discussed indicates the opposite—that his reputation as a man of peace is not about to be capsized by the appalling vapidity of his ideas. The kind of pacifism he espouses will not bring peace, it will only inflame the confidence and appetite of aggressors. If Ukrainians are paying no more attention to the pope today than Britain paid to Gandhi in 1940, it is because they understand that peace is not capitulation and appeasement but the most legitimate object of war.