“Popesplaining”, just war and slander

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By Phil Lawler ( bio – articles – email ) | April 04, 2022

Two weeks ago, when I complained that Pope Francis had “contradicted hundreds of years of Catholic teaching on justice and war,” several readers wrote to say that I had unfairly criticized the Pontiff. When he said, “There is no just war,” these readers explained, what the pope really meant that all war is caused by injustice. Since war can only be justified to defend against gross injustice, it follows that in any war, one side (at least) is guilty of injustice. So even if one side is fighting for a just cause, the other is not, and therefore the war is unjust.

Certainly, by this reasoning, the Pope’s comments of March 18 could be reconciled with the venerable teaching of the Church on justice in time of war. In other words, it is possible to read the pope’s statement as conforming to Catholic tradition. But Pope Francis made no effort to ensure his statement would be read that way. Rather, he made a sweeping generalization, which most readers would probably see as an outright condemnation of war. If some serious Catholics insisted on assuring us that he did not deviate from traditional teaching, the pope himself did not.

This kind of “Popesplaining” has become increasingly common during a pontificate marked by such radical declarations. I confess that for many months I made the same kind of special effort to interpret the statements of Pope Francis as being in accordance with the established teaching of the Church. When there was only one possible interpretation of a papal statement that was consistent with Catholic traditions, I assumed that interpretation was the correct one. Finally, after the release of Amoris LaetitaI concluded that I had tried to reconcile the irreconcilable, and began to analyze this pontificate in a very different light – ultimately producing the book lost shepherd.

The work of “Popesplaining” is bound to produce frustration, as Pope Francis rarely clarifies his problematic statements. (Dubia, anyone?) I admire faithful Catholics who take it upon themselves to explain the difficulties, confident that the Supreme Pontiff would approve of their arguments. But he never does. On the contrary, when his later statements shed more light on his true intentions, they usually point out the issues.

Take his most recent comments on justice in war, made during his in-flight exchange with reporters on the flight home from Malta. When asked what he would say to Vladimir Putin, the Pontiff replied:

I think in your question there is also a doubt about just and unjust wars. Every war stems from an injustice, always, because that is the model of war. It is not a model for peace. For example, making investments to buy weapons. Some people say, “But we need them to defend us.” This is the model of war.

If a country cannot buy weapons to defend itself against an aggressor, how can that country wage a just war? If defense spending falls under the “war model” – and there is no doubt that the Pope was denouncing the “war model” – then waging a just war becomes impossible.

Just two weeks ago, in a phone conversation with President Zelenskyy, the pope (according to the Ukrainian leader’s account) acknowledged that “you have to defend yourself”. Maybe the quote is inaccurate. Or maybe the Pope was contradicting himself. As I have observed in the past: “Confusion is the hallmark of this pontificate: not a bug but a feature.”

But even if the “Popesplainers” can square the circle and reconcile this “war model” trope with prior Catholic teaching, I will still be appalled by another statement the Pope made in that same aerial interview. Affirming that world leaders are not deaf to calls for peace and blind to the suffering of war, he said:

When there was the commemoration of the Normandy landings, several heads of government came together to commemorate it. However, I don’t remember anyone talking about the 30,000 young boys left on the beaches.

What?! I have heard and read many speeches from heads of government, commemorating the D-Day landings. (Here is a very memorable example.) Not even once no speaker paid tribute to the young men who died on the beaches. Is it possible that the Pope’s rhetorical experience is so different from mine, or that his memory of political speeches is so defective? Or are the “Popesplainers” now faced with the challenge of explaining what, to me, looks like papal slander?

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for over 30 years. He edited several Catholic magazines and wrote eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is news director and senior analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full biography.

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