The Corner

The Pope Needs Ninjas

With the news that the Vatican is supportive of military strikes on ISIS, I return to a question I first raised around here almost 10 years ago (and which lives on in my occasional Twitter declarations of “The Pope Needs Ninjas”). I wrote in 2005:

Why shouldn’t the Catholic Church bring back its army?

Hold on, hold on. I’m serious — at least insofar as I’m seriously asking the question. I’m not saying they should use an army for crusades for new lands or for conversion or anything like that. But why shouldn’t the Catholic Church have peacekeepers of its own? The use of force isn’t forbidden by Catholic law, I know that much. And the Swiss Guards still have weapons even on Vatican property. Why couldn’t the Pope dispatch armed soldiers to restore order, open food supplies, secure humaintarian efforts etc? The benefits here are many. Normal nations have to answer to all sorts of political contituencies and considerations that would not apply to the Papal Peacekeepers. I’m sure unwanted and unwarranted violence would result at some point. But Church doctrine already covers this. Meanwhile the Church could do an immense amount of good in the world. It could establish clear-cut guidelines about how and when it would intervene and the soldiers would obvious be very motivated to behave in an ethical manner. Dishonorable discharges are one thing, excommunication is another.

Discuss amongst yourselves.

If memory serves, almost nobody really liked the idea — except for me — when I first raised it. There were plenty of valid objections. For starters, such a move would be interpreted by the Muslim world as validation of Jihadi’s paranoid rhetoric about crusades. I also recall a lot of talk about such a move would run counter to, well, a lot of what the Church wants to stand for. These are all perfectly valid and maybe dispositive objections. But I still like the idea.
Whenever I bring up the idea — and after people realize I’m not joking —  a lot of the negative reactions seem rather instinctive and knee-jerk. 
One obvious sort of discomfort, I think, stems from an understandable distaste for anything that smacks of mixing religion and violence.  This is a very rich topic (and for those of a philosophical and theological bent, I heartily recommend reading the work of William Cavanaugh, starting with his “Killing for the Telephone Company“). But let me just offer two points on this score. I no way, shape or form would want to see a Catholic version of Jihadi terror (nor do I think such a thing would be remotely plausible). But it’s worth keeping in mind that we are already in an era of armed transnational religious movements. The problem is that they are evil. What would be so terrible about leading by example? Papal peacekeepers could do incredibly valuable work in parts of Africa or South America, protecting persecuted populations, delivering aid etc. The teaching effect could be profound (and perhaps very good at getting people back in the pews). Democracies are often slow and reluctant to do such work. And, if present trends continue America is going to do less and less of such things. Papal armies could do the jobs Americans won’t do. 
Which brings me to a second reason I think people instinctively recoil at the idea. We take the Westphalian system of nation-states as not only a given, but a huge advance in human progress. Except when we don’t. Plenty of people want the United Nations to send peacekeepers into horrible places. The problems with this, off the top of my head, include: 1) The UN sucks 2) The UN has no peacekeepers. Frequently this means it needs rich countries to bribe poor countries to provide people to wear blue helmets. 3) The politics and structure of the UN lend themselves to all sorts of dysfunction and the capture of UN agencies by bad actors (See point #1). 
A transnational armed force would certainly run against the grain of the legal and political world order. But if international law says the Pope can’t send armed people in to stop mass murder or feed starving children held hostage by goons and terrorists then, to paraphrase Dickens, international law is an ass. 
There is one criticism of the idea that I think is very powerful. It’s never going to happen. But I think it’s worth noodling all the same. 

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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