The Spectacle Blog

Why the Vatican Backs Airstrikes in Iraq But Not Syria

By on 8.18.14 | 10:51AM

The Vatican, working off Catholic doctrine of just war, has announced that it condones American military intervention in Iraq, the Washington Times reported last week. The Holy See’s ambassador to the United Nations, Silvano Tomasi, is quoted as saying, “Military action might be necessary,” and calling for, “intervention now, before it is too late.”

The move to endorse American airstrikes against the militants of the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, diverges from Vatican policy in Syria. Last year when President Obama considered intervening with airstrikes in the Syrian civil war, the Vatican condemned the plan. It disapproved, too, of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Fear for the safety and freedom of Christians and other minority religious sects in Iraq today has altered the assessment.

Just war theory is perhaps best summarized in paragraph 2309 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It reads:

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the "just war" doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

Whereas Syrian Christians consider Assad an effective protector of their lives and freedoms—particularly in comparison to the largely fundamentalist Sunni rebels likely to take control of the country should Assad fall—and whereas Iraqi Christians found stability living under Saddam Hussein’s rule, there is no perceived safety in the tumultuous status quo.

Pope Francis has made numerous calls for peace, and this should hardly be read as a divergence from that goal. But in endorsing military attacks on the Islamic State, the Vatican has indicated that it considers the burgeoning Caliphate an existential threat to Christians and minority faiths, unable to be dealt with diplomatically. 

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