Pope Francis and Protecting People from “Unjust Aggression”
Toward the end of the process that resulted in the US Catholic Bishops publishing their 1983 Pastoral, The Challenge of Peace, a Bishop requested to the conference of Bishops that an alteration to particular paragraph be undertaken in order to make more palpable the non-violence of Jesus and of the original Christian community. Cardinal Joseph Bernadine, the chair of the committee chosen to compose the pastoral on which the Bishops’ Conference would vote, responded by asking the gathering of Bishops to reject the requested change because “it would undermine the planned ambiguity of the document.”
One of the practical difficulties of the Petrine ministry as it presently is structured and administered is that it is very often impossible to determine if the Successor to Peter is speaking to Catholics or to Christians in general or to humanity as a whole. It is very often equally difficult to determine if he is speaking as the Pope, as a Catholic or Christian or as a human being with a point of view. I am not referring here to an infallible proclamation, which must always be unequivocally and explicitly declared by the Pope to be such. There can be no ambiguity about a statement or writing being an ex cathedra infallible dogma in the area of faith or morals, e.g., the Dogmas of the Immaculate Conception (Pope Pius IX, 1854) and Assumption (Pope Pius XII, 1950). An ambiguity about whether a declaration by a Pope is infallible means it is not infallible. So infallible Papal statements are not the concern here.
The concern here is the thousand upon thousands of other ideas a Pope expresses publicly. From what principles is he speaking? To what audience is he speaking? What degree of spiritual, theological or moral authority, short of infallibility, do his utterances carry beyond that of any reasonable person—and for whom?
If the Pope is saying something simply as a reasonable person to other people, that carries no more authority than the self-evident truth-quality of his premises, the accuracy of his logic and the consistency of his conclusions with his premises and logic will permit. This is precisely the situation that exists for every human being who honestly communicates with another human being about some matter. The problem enters in when it cannot be ascertained whether the Pope is speaking from self-evident premises that can be known and validated or invalidated by any human being as self-evidently true. Or, whether he is speaking from premises that are derived from the authority of His faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, God and Saviour, which he is logically applying to some aspect or another of the human condition. If the latter is the case, the self-evident truth of these faith-based premises is not self-evident to someone outside the Pope’s faith consciousness, and therefore norms of behaviour that can be logically derived from them are not universally true for all people, and hence no person or group outside of the Pope’s faith is or can be expected to follow them—let alone be coerced into following them.
With the above in mind, examine Pope Francis’ statement to reporters on his flight back to Rome from Korea. “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.” Is Francis speaking here as just one human being communicating his reasonable understanding of what should be done to other human beings? Or, is he speaking here out of his faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord, God and Saviour, and as the definitive revealer of God and God’s will to humanity?
If it is the former I would suggest there would be no shortage of human beings who would have one or more bones to pick with him over the reasonableness of his statement in its premises and application. Depending on whose ox is being gored and what information people are allowed to know, they may see ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Israel, Hamas, the US, Britain or France as an unjust aggressor. However, within these groups they and their supporters see themselves as justified employers of violence. So by what reasonable standard is “unjust aggression” determine? If a group is firing a guns at people today, who have been firing guns at them for decades, does that mean that a violent response to such a history is unjust aggression? If a group is fighting to get back land it had lived on for the thousands of years and that was stolen by murderous violence from them, is that unjust aggression? If a group is trying to protect by violence its people from those who hate them and have killed them in the past, or if a religious faith is trying to preserve itself from having the perversities of those who don’t belong to it imposed upon them, is that unjust aggression? If massive financial investments that a group has made in a geographical area are on the verge of being taken or destroyed, is that groups violence unjust aggression? If a religious group is being decimated by another religious group who is sending hundreds of thousands of adherents thousands of miles to cross borders and kill and maim millions of the first groups people, is the first religious group’s violence unjust aggression? As a reasonable man making a reasonable proposal on stopping unjust aggression Francis cannot leave the term ‘unjust aggressor’ hanging out there without telling people what this term reasonably means to him. Without a definition of “unjust aggression,” how does one reasonably know whom to stop? Ambiguity here reduces such a statement to a banal platitude. Is voicing banal, reasonable platitudes what the Petrine Ministry was instituted by Jesus for?
Beyond this, why isn’t bombing and making war on unjust aggressors the right way of reasonably stopping them? And by what reasonable moral standard does one evaluate what are the moral means to stop an unjust aggression. Assuming Francis is speaking here as one reasonable person to another, if he were asked the question in a college class that the reporters on the plane asked him regarding cross border intervention, and he answered it the way he responded to reporters, I think he might be given an ‘F,’ because his reasonable answer is so full of reasonable loopholes that it amounts to a non-answer. It is a highly ambiguous Rorschach answer into which each person or group can project anything it wants to see into it or put anything it wants to do under its moral canopy. It functions in the human condition exactly as the perfidious Christian Just War Theory does. Its ambiguity serves as a moral carte blanche for doing what Jesus taught must not be done.
Therein lies the difficulty with the planned ambiguity that results in not knowing whether the Vicar of Christ and Vicar of St. Peter is only speaking as an intelligent, well meaning, reasonable human being, or is speaking as the Rock of faith, the Rock of the Church, adhering to the commission he and the other Apostles were explicitly given by Jesus, after His resurrection:“Teach them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19).