Lost amid the clamor and praise over the his recent "freeing" of the Tridentine Mass and the Holy See's reiteration of the identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church, were Pope Benedict XVI's less sensational comments on peace.
In a July 22 Angelus address given in Lorenzago di Cadore, Italy, where he was vacationing, the pope delivered his thoughts on peace and war. Unfortunately, some commentators seem to treat any pope's statements on peace as so much pious twaddle.
And, in his Angelus address, Benedict does utter what seems a daisy-twisting truism – “if men lived in peace with God and with each other, the earth would truly resemble a ‘paradise.’”
Yet Benedict does not rest in the realms of hopeful piety but roots his truism in the dirty truth that because “sin ruined the divine project, generating divisions and bringing death into the world... men cede to the temptations of the evil one and make war against each other.
The result is that in this stupendous ‘garden’ that is the world, there open up circles of hell.”
Such an evocation of a moral ideal in light of an acknowledged morally fractured reality bespeaks a truly Catholic sense of proportion. Yet, it is a sense of proportion that differs from the response (often said with a resigned shaking of the head) that, “as long as men are sinful, there will be conflict.”
Benedict does not fall into such fatalism. He recalls, instead, his predecessor, Benedict XV, who on August 1, 1917 “– almost 90 years ago,” said the current pontiff, “published his celebrated ‘Nota Alla Potenze Belligeranti’ (Note to the Warring Powers), asking them to put an end to the First World War.”
Benedict XV’s “Nota,” said his successor, not only condemned war but called the First World War a “useless bloodbath.”
These words used to describe the “War to End All Wars,” however, are not applicable to it alone.
“Useless bloodbath,” said Benedict XVI, has “a larger, prophetic application to other conflicts that have destroyed countless human lives.” His predecessor’s “Nota”, said the reigning Benedict, “did not limit itself to condemning war” but “indicated, at a juridical level, the ways to construct an equitable and durable peace.”
These ways include: “the moral force of law, balanced and regulated disarmament, arbitration in disputes, freedom on the seas, the reciprocal remission of war debts, the restitution of occupied territories, fair negotiations to resolve problems.”
In other words, what Benedict XV was suggesting was an international authority of some kind to forestall war. And Benedict XV did propose to the leaders of the warring nations just such an authority – a body he called an “institution of arbitration,” which would have the power to level sanctions against any power that refused to submit international questions to it or would not accept its decisions.
In germ, this is what the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, were supposed to be.
Given the context of his speech, Benedict XVI’s “moral force of law” refers to international law. In the face of current wars troubling the world, he reiterates his predecessor’s call by exhorting the world to follow “the way of law, to firmly renounce the arms race, to reject in general the temptation to face new situations with old systems.”
Pope Benedict XV’s advocacy for an “institution of arbitration” in international affairs perhapsin explains, in part, the support more recent popes have given to the United Nations.
Benedict XVI himself, when he was merely Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said of the declaration of the current Iraq war, “decisions like this should be made by the community of nations, by the UN, and not by an individual power.”
In his angelus address, Benedict XVI’s indicates that his predecessor Benedict XV’s program has remained that of subsequent pontiffs. “It is the same program,” said the reigning pontiff, “that the Servants of God Paul VI and John Paul II followed in their memorable speeches at the United Nations, repeating in the name of the Church: ‘No more war!’”
This program parallels what some have noted as a shift in Catholic teaching on war itself. Whereas earlier just war teaching allowed as just causes for the waging of war the avenging of wrongs or the forcing of restitution of things unjustly seized, popes since Pius XII have of spoken as if mere defense were the only just cause for war.
One reason for this shift seems to be the destructive capabilities of modern weaponry which, even in these days of “smart bombs,” causes disproportionate harm to civilian populations.
Another reason is the ever lurking threat that a “conventional” war could escalate into a nuclear conflict. This shift does not represent a change in the Church’s teaching on war as much as a reassessment of some parts of traditional just war teaching in light of modern realities.
Cardinal Ratzinger said as much in 2003 in an interview printed in the magazine, Thirty Days. Speaking of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its planned Compendium, Ratzinger said he did not foresee any “radical changes” in the treatment of the just war.
In other words, the Church would not jettison just war teaching. Yet, insinuated into the end of a response where he was discussing why the Iraq war did not meet the criteria for a just war, the then-cardinal prefect opened a new avenue for the moral consideration of war.
The just war teaching remains valid, he was in effect saying – after all, he used it to evaluate the Iraq war, noting that “reasons sufficient for unleashing a war against Iraq did not exit” and “it was clear from the very beginning that proportion between the possible positive consequences and the negative effect of the conflict was not guaranteed..”
These statements would have been sufficient for Ratzinger to make his case, but he did not stop with them. Rather, he added the following: “We must begin asking ourselves whether as things stand, with new weapons that cause destruction that goes well beyond the groups involved in the fight, it is still licit to allow that a ‘just war’ might exist.”
In sum, it may be that Pope Benedict XVI’s call for peace given last Sunday was inspired not just by the compassion of one contemplating the horrors of war but by a growing conviction among some in the Church that, in the modern world, war is no longer a moral option.
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