Over the weekend, Pope Francis made a statement that should be of deep interest to the many thousands of faithful Catholics who work in the American defense industry or to the countless more who’ve invested in American arms companies. Speaking Sunday, the pope said, “If you trust only men, you have lost.” He continued, “It makes me think of . . . people, managers, businessmen who call themselves Christian and they manufacture weapons. That leads to a bit of a distrust doesn’t it?”
Interestingly, in that same speech the pope wondered aloud why the Allies didn’t do more to stop the Holocaust: “The great powers had the pictures of the railway lines that brought the trains to the concentration camps like Auschwitz to kill Jews, Christians, homosexuals, everybody. Why didn’t they bomb [the railway lines]?” Presumably this desire for specific air strikes can be reconciled with his condemnations of arms makers so long as the bombs are manufactured by, say, Hindus. And are the weapons that his security detail carries made by Buddhists?
I respect the pope and appreciate his deep concern for the poor and vulnerable, but these comments, while admittedly off-the-cuff, were incoherent. Even worse, they reveal a mindset that affects all too many of the world’s most influential Christians — where their heartfelt desire for peace has exactly the wrong impact, often sending a message that the West is weak-willed, its nerve lost. There was a time when the world’s great conflicts were fought largely between its traditional Christian powers, including nations with large Catholic populations and Catholic leadership. And not all these wars were launched or conducted according to just-war principles. Thus, there was a crying need for a powerful and — just as important — influential Christian witness for peace.
We live in an era of Christian persecution not seen since the Roman Empire.
But there are other wars — wars launched and fought by those who have little use for just-war doctrine and no regard for Christian leadership. There was a time when the Catholic Church understood the distinction, when it refused to cry out “peace, peace” when there was no peace. Instead, it girded the people of Christ for just and necessary conflict — helping forge military alliances among fractious and often incompetent kingdoms, the alliances that helped save Christendom. Pope Pius V was indispensable to the creation and success of the Holy League at Lepanto, the miraculous naval victory that shattered jihadist-Muslim naval power in the Mediterranean. An explicitly Christian alliance defeated the Ottoman Empire at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Examples are simply too numerous to mention. In fact, Western civilization arguably owes its continued existence to the military resolve of the Church, not to its pleas for peace.
We live in an era of Christian persecution not seen since the Roman Empire. Christians face systematic beheadings, church burnings, slavery, religious cleansing, and, if they don’t flee fast enough, genocide. In the face of these realities, the Church’s plea for peace rings hollow. When the pope called for peace in the Middle East in his Christmas address, the only nations likely to heed his call were the very nations most well-positioned to defend the innocent and helpless members of the Body of Christ. The jihadists and Islamic radicals persecuting them care not for the pope’s words. Indeed, they are only too eager take advantage of moral doubt and confusion among their opponents.
We seem incapable of calling for courage and resistance, if courage and resistance mean taking up arms.
The days are long past when the pope or any other Christian leader could speak the word and cause the Christian world to take up arms. But that’s not to say that Christian leaders, or Christians in general, lack influence. All too often they use their influence to support a naïve but culturally popular yearning for peace and sometimes cultivate the destructive belief that Christians are in part responsible for the current wave of jihad. Guilt-ridden over sins committed in the thousand-year war that ultimately saved Christendom from expansionist Islam, we seem incapable of calling for courage and resistance, if courage and resistance mean taking up arms. Instead, all too many shake their heads at the mere thought of religiously motivated conflict, embarrassed by, for example, Chris Kyle’s cross tattoo in American Sniper — way too “Crusader-y” for modern tastes.
In a long war where the difference between military victory and defeat comes down to the will of the historically Christian West, it is incumbent on Christian leaders to strengthen our resolve, not plunge parishioners into self-doubt. The book of Ecclesiastes teaches us that there is a time for peace and a time for war. In the Middle East, with jihad on the march, now is the time for war. Pope Francis has, in the past, acknowledged this reality, calling for international action to stop ISIS. Yet wars are fought with weapons, and condemning their makers is hardly the clarion call the West so desperately needs. Now is not the time for mixed messages. If war is necessary, it requires moral leadership from people of faith. Popes have done it before. Can they do it again?