The Christian does no harm even to his foe. — Tertullian

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In Christianity what is the appropriate response to aggression backed by force? There are, of course, the familiar precepts found in the gospels to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” but does this necessarily rule out the use of force to deter such an act of aggression? On August 18, 2014, Pope Francis addressed this question in commenting on attacks perpetrated by ISIS against ethnic and religious minorities in Syria and Iraq. He endorsed the prospect of a United Nations intervention, noting:

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. […] After World War II, the idea of the United Nations came about: It’s there that you must discuss, ‘Is there an unjust aggression? It seems so. How should we stop it?’ Just this. Nothing more.”(Business Insider)

The Vatican’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, clarified the Pope’s comment, stating, “Maybe military action is necessary at this moment.” (Business Insider) Is this standpoint consistent with Christian teachings?

That Pope Francis holds court at the Vatican in 2014 is due to the conciliatory course of action taken by one of his predecessors, Pope Pius XI, in the face of aggression backed by force. It was Pope Pius XI who reached an agreement with the Fascist government led by Benito Mussolini, the Lateran Treaty, in 1929. The Lateran Treaty created Vatican City and guaranteed full and independent sovereignty to the Holy See, ending a standoff that began between the papacy and the Italian government in 1870. This was no small feat as the standoff might well have ended with the papacy driven out of Italy into exile. Though Pope Pius XI reached an agreement with Mussolini, he did not approve of Fascism. Rather, he sought to protect the rights of Catholics living under Fascist rule in tempering his criticism of the Fascist Party. To this end, he published an encyclical letter Non Abbiamo Bisogno in 1931 in which he stated in part:

In everything that We have said up to the present, We have not said that We wished to condemn the [Fascist] party as such. Our aim has been to point out and to condemn all those things in the programme and in the activities of the party which have been found to be contrary to Catholic doctrine and Catholic practice, and therefore irreconcilable with the Catholic name and profession. And in doing this We have fulfilled a precise duty of Our episcopal ministry towards Our dear sons who are members of the party, so that their conscience may be at peace. (Non Abbiamo Bisogno)

When the Nazi Party came to power in Germany in 1933, Pius XI accepted Hitler’s appeal to negotiate an agreement between the German state and the Holy See that promised to guarantee the rights of the Catholic Church to continue its ministry in Germany. Behind Hitler’s appeal to Pius XI lay the threat of persecution of the Catholic Church in Germany should he refuse. The negotiations resulted in the signing of an agreement, the Concordat Between the Holy See and the German Reich, that states in part:

The German Reich guarantees freedom of profession and public practice of the Catholic religion.

It acknowledges the right of the Catholic Church, within the limit of those laws which are applicable to all, to manage and regulate her own affairs independently, and, within the framework of her own competence, to publish laws and ordinances binding on her members. (Concordat Between the Holy See and the German Reich)

However, it quickly became clear the Nazis had no intention of honouring the agreement. Once the Concordat was signed, the Nazis wasted no time in proceeding with their persecution of the Catholic Church in Germany. As noted in The Nazi Master Plan, a document originally compiled by the Office of Strategic Services, transcribed and annotated by Professor Richard Bonney:

During this period, relations between the Nazi state and the Catholic Church became progressively worse. Having gained the support of the Catholic hierarchy in the crucial early days of the regime by signing the Concordat, they took advantage of their subsequently increasing strength to violate every one of the Concordat’s provisions, gradually stripping the Church of all its more important rights. (The Nazi Master Plan)

This did not go unnoticed by Pius XI and in response he published his encyclical letter Mit Brennender Sorge in 1937 in which he unequivocally condemned the Nazis for breaking the Concordat’s provisions, asserting in part:

The experiences of these last years have fixed responsibilities and laid bare intrigues, which from the outset only aimed at a war of extermination. In the furrows, where We tried to sow the seed of a sincere peace, other men – the “enemy” of Holy Scripture – oversowed the cockle of distrust, unrest, hatred, defamation, of a determined hostility overt or veiled, fed from many sources and wielding many tools, against Christ and His Church. They, and they alone with their accomplices, silent or vociferous, are today responsible, should the storm of religious war, instead of the rainbow of peace, blacken the German skies. (Mit Brennender Sorge)

Pius XI passed away on February 10, 1939, months before World War II started on September 1, 1939. Perhaps is just as well he did not live to witness the horrors that ensued during the war as despite his efforts to negotiate a treaty with the Nazi regime, persecution of the Catholic clergy and laity in countries under Nazi occupation continued unabated. In the end it took the combined military might of the Allied Powers to defeat Nazism.

It is noteworthy that Pope Francis mentioned World War II in his comment concerning ISIS, in light of the experience of his predecessor, Pope Piux XI, and the outcome of his efforts to negotiate with the Nazi regime in Germany and the Fascist regime in Italy before the outbreak of World War II. There should be no doubt that the attacks perpetrated by ISIS against ethnic and religious minorities in Syria and Iraq will continue unabated unless, as Pope Francis indicates something is done to “stop the unjust aggressor.” While it is preferable for everyone, not just Christians, to employ diplomacy and negotiations in reaching agreements to deter an act of aggression backed by force, sadly, history shows there are occasions when this is not possible. That said, Pope Francis is consistent with Christian teachings in his thinking that force proportionate to meet the threat posed by ISIS should be employed to stop its unjust aggression.

Posted by Geoffrey

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