New Pope A Strong Critic of War

CPF Staff, April 20, 2005

The election of Benedict XVI as pope brings hope for the continuation of peacemaking as central to the papacy. Just as John Paul II cried out again and again to the world, “War never again!” the new pope has taken the name of the one who first made that cry, Benedict XV, commonly known as “the peace pope.”
The name is no coincidence. In fact, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia said Tuesday that the new pope told the cardinals he was selecting Benedict because “he is desirous to continue the efforts of Benedict XV on behalf of peace … throughout the world.”

As a Cardinal, the new pope was a staunch critic of the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. On one occasion before the war, he was asked whether it would be just. “Certainly not,” he said, and explained that the situation led him to conclude that “the damage would be greater than the values one hopes to save.”

“All I can do is invite you to read the Catechism, and the conclusion seems obvious to me…” The conclusion is one he gave many times: “the concept of preventive war does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”

Even after the war, Ratzinger did not cease criticism of U.S. violence and imperialism: “it was right to resist the war and its threats of destruction…It should never be the responsibility of just one nation to make decisions for the world.”

Yet perhaps the most important insight of Ratzinger came during a press conference on May 2, 2003. After suggesting that perhaps it would be necessary to revise the Catechism section on just war (perhaps because it had been used by George Weigel and others to endorse a war the Church opposed), Ratzinger offered a deep insight that included but went beyond the issue of war Iraq:

“There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that, given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a ‘just war’.”

Along with his actual criticism of war, we take heart in the theological principle behind such criticism. While many Catholics, most notably Weigel, have advocated deference to the heads of state in determining issues such as war and peace, the new pope has consistently taught that the Church “cannot simply retreat into the private sphere.”

He is skeptical of the view that politics can be done without reference to the Gospel. Appeals to neutral language that does not refer to religion—popular as they are among many neo-conservative Catholics—forget some of the “hard sayings” of Jesus that don’t seem quite “rational” enough for public discourse. Sayings like “Love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” and “put away the sword,” these are dismissed as impractical at best, sectarian at worst.

Not by our new pope…He signals an invigorated contiuance of the Church speaking the truth to power. In a talk on “Church, Ecumenism, and Politics,” he insisted that “The Church must make claims and demands on public law….Where the Church itself becomes the state freedom becomes lost. But also when the Church is done away with as a public and publicly relevant authority, then too freedom is extinguished, because there the state once again claims completely for itself the jurisdiction of morality.”

He follows his namesake in refusing to let the Gospel become irrelevant to politics. Elected directly after the outbreak of WWI, Benedict XV sent a representative to each country to press for peace. On August 1, 1917, he delivered the Plea for Peace, which demanded a cessation of hostilities, a reduction of armaments, a guaranteed freedom of the seas, and international arbitration.

Interstingly, on August 15, 1917, the Vatican sent a note to James Cardinal Gibbons, leader of the Church in the U.S. The request was that Gibbons and the U.S. Church “exert influence” with President Wilson to endorse the papal peace plan to end the war. Cardinal Gibbons never contacted Wilson. (Nor does he seem to have lobbied on behalf of Benedict XV’s call for a boycott on any nation that had obligatory military conscription.) On August 27, President Wilson formally rejected Benedict’s plan.

But Gibbons and the U.S. Catholic archbishops were not about to reject Wilson’s war plans. They had promised the president “truest patriotic fervor and zeal” as well as manpower: “our people, as ever, will rise as one man to serve the nation.” And they exhorted young men to “be Americans always.” Cardinal Gibbons had even written when war was declared that “the duty of a citizen” is “absolute and unreserved obedience to his country’s call.”

Such unreserved obedience was not endorsed by Benedict XV, nor is it by Benedict XVI. This was perhaps what upset U.S. neoconservatives most, that John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger did not show more deference to the state. Perhaps because of their own experience with violent regimes, they seemed to grasp the biblical axiom from the Acts of the Apostles: “we must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)

Such a decision to not obey men nearly cost the young Jospeh Ratzinger his life. In 1945 he made the decision to desert his post in the German army. When he was spotted and stopped by SS troops, he could have been shot on the spot. They did not harm him, using his wound (his arm was in a sling) as an excuse. Yet in his memoir, Milestones, Ratzinger gives the deeper reason for his escape from death. Those soldiers, he wrote, “had enough of war and did not want to become murderers,”

Our world, Pope Benedict XVI knows well, has had enough of war. We join the chorus of hope that his ministry as pope will help put an end to war and hasten along God’s kingdom of peace.