The Only Good War is a Good War … or Maybe Not


Amy links a First Things editorial noting the divide between a conservative Catholic approach to war and what the pope’s been saying. Pope Benedict, who spent his formative years in the crucible of war-torn Europe, might know a thing or two about the fruitlessness of violence.

Robert T. Miller is troubled. For starters, that’s a good thing. The conflict of faith values and life should be manifest in our lives from time to time. Good Christians should be wringing their hands over the war in the Middle East. If not for frustration over more violence, then by scratching their heads over why the pope we want to like is saying things that are said by people we don’t like.

On tv, the pope said:

We do want to appeal to all Christians and to all those who feel touched by the words of the Holy See, to help mobilize all the forces that recognize how war is the worst solution for all sides. It brings no good to anyone, not even to the apparent victors. We understand this very well in Europe, after the two world wars.

And Miller writes:

I find it difficult to understand how the pope says this. Along with many others, I often invoke the Second World War as the paradigm example of a just war, of a case where morality not only permitted but required the use of armed force in order to combat evil. But here Benedict, expressly mentioning the world wars, says that they brought no good to anyone.

The judgment of a moral imperative to wage war is always a matter of prudence. The Danish did not resist the Nazis with arms. They were unable to do so, certainly. But neither did they roll over and accept Nazi slavery, repaint their flag and give the salute. Thousands of Jews were saved because of Danish intervention. And as much as I admire the US President of that day, he turned them back to Europe. That does not seem to demonstrate the US began on a very just footing.

The sentiment to fight Hitler was a just and noble one. But by the end of the conflict, the “just side” had not only turned Jews back into the furnaces of Eastern Europe, but their armed forces had targeted civilians in Germany and Japan, and signed eleven nations over to slavery under Soviet Russia. We’re only human beings, after all. To sin is expected. Benedict is absolutely correct to suggest that war brings no good to apparent victors. And strictly speaking, the good that was done was the close alliance of support (not just in arms) between the US and Europe. The Arab nations in the Middle East were certainly more eager to buy into American friendship than mosque-to-museum transformations under the Soviets. Where did we lose these friends?

In fact, given the cyber and paper print devoted to the Culture of Death, I’m surprised Miller and First Things would take such a materialistic approach to the problem of war. Benedict should be grateful, Miller says, that a Nazi Empire didn’t swallow him up. Thank the US for becoming pope; thanks to us, he opines, young Joseph Ratzinger was “freed from service in the Wehrmacht, was able to enter seminary, study theology, become a priest and a professor, and live to become pope.”

Is that the goal of Christian life? To live and achieve greatness by a conservative or materialistic standard? Would young Ratzinger have been better off as a Christian martyr in 1950’s Germany? If our descendants are able to become clergy and academics, will they raise a toast to George W Bush in the year 2050? A more insightful person would trace the Israel-Hezbollah conflict prior to 2006, and Iraq-US before 1990.

The problem with Miller’s thin analysis of WWII as a just operation is that its roots are completely intertwined with the Great War. Benedict is wise enough to perceive the link, which is why he said that both world wars, not just the feel-good second, inform his theological and moral judgment. That’s what good theology does. We don’t stop when we’ve found the easy answer.

“Keep holy the Sabbath.”

Great; Sunday Mass works for me.

“Pick up your cross daily and follow me.”

Um … I liked the once-a-week thing better, Lord. Let’s rewind.

In light of accelerating conflict in the world, conflict piling on simmering resentments about violence and injustice, it is hard for me to see how long the pro-war front can hold together morally. Let’s take stock of Iraq:
– Deceptions (if not outright lies) were perpetrated to accelerate public opinion in favor of war
– A so-called just conflict quickly degenerated into abuse of prisoners and civilians
– The actual success of the operation is at present in serious doubt
– American soldiers are returning home seriously ill, and trust me: it’s not the peacemakers disrespecting their claims of injury and illness

As a pacifist, I’m pleased that public memory will probably prevent another line of WMD-bull from goading the American public and Congress into supporting a questionable war. I figure we’re good till 2030 or so on that. Mr Miller complains about a “dangerously naive pacifism,” but given the sell-job given by the Bush administration on the Iraq War, I think this is more of a matter of plank, speck, eye, than painting the pope and the anti-war folks as naive.

Pope Benedict knows what he’s talking about on this one, folks. I’m not bothered that FT Catholics are in a twist over this. It’s good for them.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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