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Nobody expected the Church’s just war tradition to be a key part of the encyclical Fratelli Tutti, but another of Pope Francis’s footnotes has engaged the issue. At the same time, a recent argument over the decision to use the atomic bomb in Japan seventy-five years ago has revisited a similar question. 

Four years ago in Amoris Laetitia, the Holy Father dealt, by means of an ambiguous footnote, with the vexed question of whether those living in invalid marriages could be admitted to the sacraments. Later, aboard the papal plane, he said that he did not recall it. Now there is something similar in Fratelli Tutti: In note 242, he writes that “we no longer uphold” the teaching of St. Augustine on just war.

What that means is not developed, and there are no airborne press conferences now at which to ask the Holy Father about it. Yet the gist of the encyclical is clear enough. The conduct of modern warfare is such that just war criteria are difficult to meet. Thus it may be that war itself needs to be rejected as “inadmissible”—to borrow the language employed by Pope Francis for the death penalty. He does not say that war is inadmissible, but may be headed in that direction.

The just war tradition gives criteria for jus ad bellum (the decision to go to war) and jus in bello (the conduct of the war). The former deals with unjust aggression, last resort, likelihood of success, and declaration by the proper authority. The latter deals critically with the issue of distinguishing between combatant and non-combatants and the issue of targeting civilians. 

Here the decision by President Harry Truman to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is relevant. Writing seventy-five years after that decision, George Weigel said that while the mass killing of civilians is an intrinsically evil act that cannot be justified by the teaching in, for example, Veritatis Splendor, Truman’s decision was “correct” on strategic and political grounds, in that it created the conditions for the possibility of a just peace.

Is it possible for a military decision to be correct in practice but fail the moral test in principle? Weigel argues that it was in Truman’s case, given that all the viable military options involved the mass targeting of civilians. Early on in World War II the distinction between combatants and civilians had been abandoned by Axis and Allies alike. Edward Feser wrote that Weigel had “terrible arguments,” perhaps conflating Weigel’s judgment of military strategy with a judgment of moral theology.

The example of Japan in 1945 highlights the issue that Pope Francis explores in Fratelli Tutti. Traditional just war analysis would not only forbid the atomic bombing of Japanese cities, but also the fire-bombing of same, which was already underway. It would also forbid a blockade that would starve the non-combatant civilian population. 

Pope Francis proposes—but does not definitively teach—that given that the just war tradition of jus in bello is routinely violated, perhaps it is better to set aside the concept of just war. In 1945 Japan that would have meant negotiating a settlement with Imperial Japan rather than an unconditional surrender. Whether a surviving—and perhaps strengthened—Japanese regime would have produced a lasting peace is a hypothetical of history.

Fratelli Tutti appears to suggest that military defeat of tyranny should be replaced with diplomatic dialogue. Pope Francis thus goes beyond what St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, or Benedict XVI taught. All of them decried the indiscriminate nature of contemporary warfare. Yet St. John Paul praised the nobility of his countrymen in resisting the duplex invasion by Nazi Germany and communist Russia. And ten years ago in Birmingham, Benedict XVI saluted the British armed forces for defeating the Nazi Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

How then to deal with tyrannical regimes that may not be inclined to encounter and dialogue? In October Pope Francis hosted another discussion about the situation in Syria. His position in 2013 was that no military intervention in Syria could be justified, even after Bashar al-Assad had crossed Barack Obama's “red lines” and used chemical weapons on his own people. Pope Francis won that public argument, and the Syrian people were left to the tender mercies of Assad and Vladimir Putin. This led to immense suffering, including the great migration of the very refugees that Fratelli Tutti advocates for. Would an international military invasion in 2013 have made Syria worse off than it has been for the last seven years?

While the pope’s encyclical generally smiles on multilateral efforts, particular those of the United Nations, its hostility to the use of force opposes the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect,” a principle developed in recent decades after the horror of the Rwandan genocide took place with the world watching. “Responsibility to protect” encouraged an international effort to assist vulnerable peoples in extreme danger. It appears—as was the case in Syria—that Pope Francis opposes the “responsibility to protect.” It may be that Fratelli Tutti opposes the use of force in international relations altogether; it’s a question in need of further explication.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

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