Nor shall you stand by idly when your neighbor’s life is at stake (Lev 19:16b [NAB]).
“We simply cannot,” said Pope Francis. His interlocutor was puzzled, wondering what it is that we cannot do. The answer came swiftly and inexorably.
“Fight another war. The error came in the early Church when its fathers made a false peace with Rome and allowed Christians to serve in its legions. The only way to have peace is not have armed forces. The Quakers have been right all along on this. The Church must make pacifism an integral part of its moral teaching.”
The Holy Father’s interlocutor was stunned, perhaps understanding the ramifications of this declaration by Pope Francis, who continued: “How can it be moral for mass armies to kill each other as well as innocent civilians? Or for Christians to join those armies? Christ was a pacifist. He preached pacifism, and he practiced it in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Calvary. There is simply no way you can love your neighbor and then go about preparing to murder him.”
The interlocutor had to object. “Holiness,” he began, “what about our ancient Catholic moral and philosophical tradition of ‘just war’?”
Pope Francis responded: “How can there be “just murder’?” After a moment, the Pope continued: “We must not only condemn war but categorically forbid all Catholics – yes, all humans – to participate.”
But what would happen when the forces of evil saw all Catholics, and others, refuse military service? Would they then not conquer the world?
Pope Francis responded: “This is not the important thing. The inner life of faith and morality can remain, while the outer political order changes. What matters is that we love one another and practice that love.” Such noble practice might well change the world, said Pope Francis.
The conversation above, which is, of course, fiction, is taken from Chapter 33 of Walter F. Murphy’s novel, The Vicar of Christ.
Few, if any, commentators alluded to Murphy’s fiction when they analyzed Pope Francis’s logorrheic encyclical Fratelli Tutti (October 2020), which correctly informs us that the Christian attitude of forgiveness “does not entail allowing oppressors to keep trampling on their own dignity and that of others, or letting criminals continue their wrongdoing [#241]” and then, rather antithetically, that we must not “fuel anger [#242],” resolving tensions in hopeful dialogue (#244). The Pope adjures us never to forget the Shoah (#247), but he himself evidently overlooks the reality that Israeli military power and purpose have been instrumental in deterring their enemies. It is, indeed, as Churchill said, “better to jaw, jaw than to war, war.” But the Pope’s recognition of the evil in men’s hearts (cf. Gen 6:5, Jer 17:9, Jn 2:25, Gal 5:19-21) accommodates diplomatic discussion but not military might. There are times, though, when evil deeds must be redressed by force of arms. Already in Jeremiah, we were adjured to rescue the victim of robbery from the hand of his oppressor” (22:3; cf. Ps 82:4). If we are to save the oppressed from robbery, are we not all the more called upon to prevent the Shoah, if need be, by armed force? Or would amicable “dialogue” have accomplished that?
As Robert Royal has recently reminded us, the (just) use of force and (unjust) violence are not coincidental. To maintain that every use of force, or military power, is morally mistaken—to conflate just war with all, or any, war is both wrong and wrong-headed.
What of the “presumption against war”? James Turner Johnson, a very close student of morality and warfare, has taught that “the concept of just war does not begin with a ‘presumption against war’ focused on the harm which war may do, but with a presumption against injustice focused on the need for responsible use of force in response to wrongdoing. Force . . . is an instrumentality that may be good or evil. Depending on the use to which it is put” (Morality and Contemporary Warfare, p. 35). Sources and citations could be multiplied here, but two factors emerge in any serious study of the just war tradition: First, the employment of military power may and must be, to use Turner’s term, “responsible.” As there surely can be remorseless war, so can there be remorseless peace. Second, the moral education of all – but especially of our political and military leaders (one thinks of the moral vacuity of so many soi-disant Catholic leaders in the corridors of power) – is critical. (I know something about this because, for almost two decades I taught ethics to senior military leaders.)
Consider the testimony of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, prominent Protestant theologian, hanged in April 1945 by the Nazis for his resistance activities. Bonhoeffer railed against those who retreated into the “sanctuary of private virtuousness” when they met with grave injustice. “Anyone who does this must shut his mouth and his eyes to the injustice around him.” So responsible action means “dirty hands” when acting in the political world in a responsible way. (Quoted by Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War Against Terror, pp. 24-25).
To use force wisely is never easy, whether it is employed against a schoolyard bully or against a tyrannical state. Platitudes must never replace prudence; virtue signaling must never replace wise judgment; desire for personal probity must never replace the need for rightly reasoned political perception and practice. (See “Truman’s Decision,” in Crisis Magazine, 28 August 2017.) Noted philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe, who reviled Truman’s atomic bomb decision, nonetheless pointed out that refusal to use force—to “jaw, jaw” only”—teaches people “to make no distinction between the shedding of innocent blood and the shedding of any blood.” In embracing that position, as, evidently does Pope Francis, he leaves us in a state of ethical and political abulia; by not being able to choose, we choose. We thus abet aggressors, despite the warnings of Jeremiah, Johnson, Bonhoeffer, Elshtain, and Pope John Paul: “We are not pacifists. We don’t want peace at any price. Peace is always the work of justice.” But John Paul was formed in the nursery of resistance against both the Nazis and the Communists. Pope Francis was formed in a Peronist ambience. “The child is father of the man,” wrote Wordsworth.
The Panglossian proclivity is always with us. Reading the recent pastoral letter Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace (by Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe [11 January 2022]) reminds one of similar rhapsodic work forty years ago – e. g., The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response). Then, and now again, they are long on quixotic rhetoric and devoted to chimerical and tendentious works which “confirm” their vision of a world of peace, progress, and prosperity. That there are moral and military monsters out there seems never to disturb their vision of imminent harmony.
Consider the 1993 National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace (published on the tenth anniversary of their pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace). Whereas the earlier statement contained no major section on the use of armed force to promote justice, the subsequent letter specifically listed Haiti, Bosnia, Liberia, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, and Burundi as particular conflicts where intervention was an obligation of the international community. (One must add Rwanda to that list.) Indeed, Pope St. John Paul told us that humanitarian intervention is “obligatory where the survival of populations and entire ethnic groups is seriously compromised. This is a duty for nations and the international community.” It would, in fact, be wonderful to divest ourselves of all weapons, both conventional and nuclear—as in “Defund the Military!” But when the genocide starts, and the buildings collapse, and the bodies pile up by the millions because entrenched evil is resisted only by feckless words and bubbly gestures, we will rue our credulousness. Let us pray, then, that we have sufficient soldiers and weapons to love our threatened neighbors by defending them from rapacious enemies. In a manifestly fallen world, there are times we must marshal power to meet power, and we are to expect full and final peace only from Christ the King, not from politicians—and not from bishops.
If we can abolish the death penalty, or at least forbid Catholics from approving it, the current Pope, taking a cue from the fictional Francis, might well reason that, in time, we can also abolish war, or at least forbid Catholics from approving it or participating in it: no more Catholic soldiers.
Is it not now time to abolish capital punishment, life imprisonment—and war? One is reminded, after all, of the saying so often and fondly quoted by Senator Robert F. Kennedy: “Some men see things as they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not.”
But in George Bernard Shaw’s play Back to Methuselah, the speaker of that line was the devil. The call to a man-made utopia is the ancient and perennial heresy (Gen 3:5).
The abolition of the death penalty and the exaltation of pacifism are signs of a quixotic mentality which Monsignor Ronald Knox knew as “Enthusiasm.” Saint Thomas More called it “Utopianism.” Joachim of Flora preached it as the “Third Age.” A host of modern philosophers are associated with various strains of secular chiliasm. If we can dream a sufficiently revolutionary dream and thus change the political or economic structure in a way that is sufficiently modernized – so goes the Panglossian pipedream – there will be peace. And progress. And prosperity. And paradise.
What is always missing from the progressive agenda is the failure to recognize evil. “Without the knowledge Revelation gives of God we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure” (CCC 387; cf. 407-408). As the French writer Charles Peguy put it: “It will never be known what acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of not looking progressive enough.” Moreover, the New American Bible offers this translation of 2 John 9: “Anyone who is so ‘progressive’ that he does not remain rooted in the teaching of Christ does not possess God.” Or perhaps such people possess a false god.
Can it be that the death penalty deters murder and that its abolition will result in more violence (see Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, By Man Shall His Blood be Shed, Ch. 13)? Can it be that the U.S. armed forces help to deter terrorism and that pacifism may lead to more violence (see the late Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War Against Terror?, Ch. 3)?
Can it be that the root of the problem, once again, is failure to perceive evil? In his novel The Apostle, Brad Thor quotes George Orwell: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
That the decision to “work with determination” to abolish the death penalty is a Micawberish foray into secular politics; that it is ultra vires, beyond papal authority as custodian of doctrine, not its progenitor; that it ignores the traditional properties of punishment (the medicinal and the vindictive [see CCC #2266]); that it ignores and traduces settled Church and biblical teaching; and that it creates a precedent with conspicuously dangerous probabilities – all these matters, and others, again suggest that the Church is altogether too eager to please the liberal, progressive, and secular society to which it is supposed to be witnessing and preaching (John 12:43, Gal 1:10, 1 Thess 2:4).
As Feser and Bessette prophesy: the abolition of the death penalty “will tend to reflect, and to reinforce, a trajectory away from theological orthodoxy and traditional morality. Abolitionism thus inadvertently provides powerful ‘aid and comfort’ to ideas and movements that any Catholic must regard as morally and socially destructive” (207).
The abolition of the death penalty is based upon a metaphysically mistaken notion of human dignity which places man at the center of all human institutions. But “dignity” provided by human customs can be repealed by human institutions. The Church has always insisted, despite the trendy liberalism of the past half-century, that human dignity is grounded in our ensoulment and in our reflection of God’s image. When that truth is twisted to mean human exaltation, liberty becomes license; moral freedom (which means sinlessness [cf. John 8:34]) becomes moral autonomy; and moral agency can be socially detached from objective and universal norms. We begin, in short, to worship the creature and to forget the Creator (aversio a Deo, conversio ad creaturam; see CCC #49).
No one has improved upon the logic and language of Pope Leo XIII: “For, to reject the supreme authority of God, and to cast off all obedience to Him in public matters, or even in private and domestic affairs, is the greatest perversion of liberty and the worst kind of liberalism” (Libertas : #37).
It is, in short, not only heterodox theology – but it is also deranged politics – to mistake respect for the dignity of every human and the nature of our relationships with others as our highest duty and chief virtue, somehow more important than the duties and virtues which lead us and bind us to God. There is a reason, in short, that the First Commandment is first (Dt 6:5).
In pridefully exalting human dignity (cf. Jer 17:5), we fallaciously conclude that there can be no such thing as just war; that the moral law against sodomy is somehow an assault upon our prized human dignity; that civil laws forbidding same-sex marriage are demeaning; and that the time and circumstances of our deaths are to be matters of personal choice and of private convenience.
Considerations of space preclude lengthy rehearsal here of the many reasons which tell us clearly and cogently that pacifism and the abolition of the death penalty are more than merely Pollyannaish. We can, though, point out here that they are perilous, and they will result in moral and political catastrophe because they misjudge human nature. They are saccharine and sentimental, for they are, at heart, Pelagian, and they look forward to a time and place where no grace is necessary. They hope for peace and healing, but “terror came instead” (Jer 8:15, 14:19). And when murderers and aggressors do come, the Pelagian progressives can’t beat them; so, too often, they join them. It’s all right, they think, for the prevailing ideology determines the boundaries of right and wrong, and dignity comes from allegiance to the morals of the day. Taste matters, it seems; truth doesn’t.
The romance of the political left is always grounded in the belief that we can be as gods. If we have within us the seeds of our own magical flowering, surely we can dispense with reminders that we are inclined to evil thoughts and deeds. The days of the death penalty – for any offense – and the days of military service – and just war against aggressors – will finally be ended. We will have achieved harmony, and we will have done so ourselves. The Tower of Babel will finally be built, and there won’t be any need for police, soldiers, or weapons inside it for defense.
Criminals of every sort and stripe will listen to sweet reason; international aggressors will be deterred by the resurrection of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, in which nations pledged not to use force to resolve disputes; and the lion will lie down with the lamb—if only, as John Lennon taught us so well, we can just imagine:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today.
Imagine there’s no countries [or borders]
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace.
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
John Lennon was murdered on 8 December 1980. On that tragic night, when Lennon was shot in the back multiple times, there was present no rough man in a blue suit ready to do “violence,” if need be, to save the life of the singer/composer. John Lennon would be 81 today if vigilant, and armed, police had been able to deter his murderer.
Lennon’s woolly-headed imaginings clash, not only with history and politics, they deny – “and no religion too” – the biblical teaching which is at the heart of the ancient and ever-new faith, expressed most succinctly in Job: “I know that my Redeemer liveth” (19:25). I know I need a Redeemer, for I cannot save myself. As Jeremiah put it: “Who can understand the human heart? There is nothing else so deceitful; it is too sick to be healed” (17:9; cf. Judith 8:14, John 3:19; Romans 7:14-25; and Galatians 5:19-21). The Catechism teaches that “Sin is present in human history; any attempt to ignore it or to give this dark reality other names would be futile” (#386).
But the belief that we alone can conquer sin is more than “futile”; it is blasphemous and debauched. When we lose sight of the need for defense against criminals and aggressors or terrorists, abandoning the idea of protecting the innocent and of punishing the guilty, “the very idea of justice will go with it,” say Feser and Bessette, “[and it will be] replaced by a therapeutic or technocratic model that treats human beings as cases to be managed and socially engineered [rather] than as morally responsible persons” (p. 384).
Progressives – utopians – think that we stand at the threshold of a brave, new world. We are dreaming dreams and asking why not. We are soaring! “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High” (Is 14:14; cf. Ez 28:2, Dan 10:36). Like Icarus, however, we crash and burn when we seek self-exaltation, denying the objective truth of sin and our personal and institutional need always to guard against it.
The Church has always faithfully taught the need for repentance, for accountability, for daily conversion to Christ, and for working out our salvation in “fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). This is the call to redemption, not to social engineering. By the grace of God, it is not yet too late to restore our understanding of the divine mission of Holy Mother Church.
 For a short, non-fiction, allied view, see Dr. Michael Baxter’s interview here. When he was Father Baxter, he baptized one of my grandchildren in the log chapel at Notre Dame.
 Russell Hittinger, Gilbert Meilander, and I discussed these kinds of issues in a panel discussion at Notre Dame.
Deacon James H. Toner (M.A., William & Mary; Ph.D., Notre Dame) is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of numerous books, articles, reviews, and monographs. He has taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has contributed many columns to The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, One Peter Five, and the Wanderer, as well as myriad academic and military periodicals. He and his wife Rebecca have three sons and eleven grandchildren.