Author: Tobias Winright

The Vatican on Military Intervention in Defense of the Innocent

A number of my friends and acquaintances on Facebook this week have expressed their surprise, given Pope Francis’s record of making statements very critical of war (as in connection with Syria a year ago), and given the Vatican’s criticism of the US-led war in Iraq over a decade ago, that senior Vatican Catholics are now saying that US military strikes against the Islamic State’s forces are necessary. Christians and other religious minorities in northern Iraq, such as the Yazidis, are being murdered and, as Adama Dieng and Jennifer Welsh, who are Special Advisers for the Secretary-General of the UN, warned yesterday, these acts “constitute grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.” They also indicated that these acts by the Islamic State may point to the risk of genocide. In the past, efforts to do something about such crimes were called “humanitarian intervention.” In recent years, it has come to be referred to as the “responsibility to protect” (R2P). It has gained traction at the UN and has been affirmed by the World Council of Churches. Pope Benedict XVI mentioned R2P in his address to the General Assembly of the UN on April 18, 2008, and he called for its implementation in his social encyclical Caritas in veritate, which was issued on June 29, 2009. I have written...

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On Gaza: If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

On July 24 at the Catholic Social Thought, Politics, and the Public Square page on Facebook, Jackie Turvey Tait asked if any Catholic moral theologians who are conversant with just war theory would comment on the current conflict in Gaza. What follows is a co-authored (Jackie and I) reflection resulting from that request. When Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in response to cross-border terrorist rocket-fire, European (see here and here) and US leaders endorsed their claim to have just cause. But were they right to do so? Do the on-going attacks conform to just war criteria? These are separate questions; both are important. We seek to address these issues from the perspectives of international law and Catholic theological ethics.  The just war tradition, which St Ambrose and St Augustine, drawing from Greek and Roman thought, introduced into Christianity, is the moral bedrock for a significant body of international law on the criteria for legitimate military action and for the moral conduct of armed hostilities. Its requirements are not carved in stone, it is a living, evolving tradition that continues to develop as theologians and legal scholars critique and explore its relevance to contemporary warfare. But the potential for escalation into unconscionable atrocity remains an ever-present spectre inherent in war, and the just war tradition—however flawed and fluid its marriage of pragmatism and principle—remains our best mechanism for reining in excessive...

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The Grace of Doing Something in Syria

On Sunday, September 1st, Pope Francis called for a Day of Prayer and Fasting on Saturday, September 7th, for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world. With “utmost firmness,” the pope condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria: “I tell you that those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart. There is a judgment of God and of history upon our actions which are inescapable!” Francis’s words echo those of Gaudium et spes from the Second Vatican Council in connection with total war: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at...

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Pacem in terris, the US Gun Legislation Debate, and Rights

April 11th is the 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s social encyclical Pacem in terris. Coincidentally, I reread it this week with graduate students taking my Social Ethics course, and it generated some thoughts and questions about the current debate on gun legislation in the United States. In Part I, John XXIII writes that every human being is a person; that is, [human] nature is endowed with intelligence and free will. Indeed, precisely because he is a person he has rights and obligations flowing directly and simultaneously from his very nature. And as these rights and obligations are universal and inviolable, so they cannot in any way be surrendered (#9). On this basis, the pope enumerates several human rights (e.g., the right to life, to bodily integrity, to a good reputation, to a basic education, to be able to practice religion privately and publicly, to establish a family, to assemble and associate with others, to emigrate and immigrate, and more), while also listing several human duties that correlate with these rights.  Pacem in terris maintains that rights and duties must go hand in hand. For example, the right of every [person] to life is correlative with the duty to preserve it; [the] right to a decent standard of living with the duty of living it becomingly; and [the] right to investigate the truth freely, with the duty of seeking it ever more completely and profoundly...

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Pope Francis, Saint Peter, and the Other

Pope Francis has made quite the impression in his first week of Petrine ministry. He has already become endeared to many with his gestures of humility, including his bowing and asking the crowd’s blessing on election night, his paying his own hotel bill, his declining papal regalia such as a gold pectoral cross, and his spontaneous acts of greeting the crowds and blessing children, the sick, and even a dog.  And he also announced his decision to celebrate the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper in a Rome juvenile detention facility and wash the feet of some of the young detainees, rather than celebrating this Mass at the usual St. Peter’s Basilica or the Basilica of St. John Lateran. In all of this, the Pope’s ministry reflects the spirit of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi. In a way, though, Pope Francis is also starting off his ministry in the spirit of St. Peter. In Acts 10, Peter traveled to Caesarea to visit a Roman centurion named Cornelius, who was not a Jew but a Gentile. Upon Peter’s arrival, Cornelius fell at his feet and worshiped him. “But Peter made him get up, saying, ‘Stand up; I am only a mortal'” (Acts 10:26, NRSV). When Pope Francis bowed to the crowd on election night, I was reminded of this humble line from St. Peter. In addition, although he...

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