Pope Francis pleads for peace in Syria while prominent Catholic lawmakers support military action

Despite the pope’s plea to put down arms, many Catholic politicians are making a different argument about morality of warfare, particularly around the obligation to use force, when necessary, to protect innocent life.

As NPR’s breaking news blog noted today, Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif) support for President Obama’s planned strike on Syria in response to the Assad regime’s reported use of chemical weapons puts the two political adversaries on the same side of a contentious debate “for one of the few times in recent years.”

It also seems to put them at odds with Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church to which they both belong.

“War never again! Never again war!,” Francis declared Sunday in an Angelus address. Denouncing the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the pope referred to looming “dramatic developments” facing the country and said, “I appeal strongly for peace, an appeal which arises from deep within me.”

In his address, Francis also called for a global day of prayer and fasting Sept. 7, the vigil of the birth of Mary, the “queen of peace,” he remarked, to pray for Syria and the Middle East.

Without mentioning the United States, Francis said Sunday that he “exhort[s] the international community to make every effort to promote clear proposals for peace in that country without further delay, a peace based on dialogue and negotiation, for the good of the entire Syrian people.”

“Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake,” the pontiff added. “War begets war, violence begets violence.”

Francis added a plea to put down weapons: “I repeat forcefully: It is neither a culture of confrontation nor a culture of conflict which builds harmony within and between peoples, but rather a culture of encounter and a culture of dialogue; this is the only way to peace. May the plea for peace rise up and touch the heart of everyone so that they may lay down their weapons and be let themselves be led by the desire for peace.”

Many of America’s most prominent politicians are members of the church, Christianity’s largest denomination.

On the Democratic side, Vice President Biden, Pelosi and Secretary of State John Kerry are all Catholics.

Leading Catholic Republicans include Boehner, Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio.

All but Ryan and Rubio have spoken out in favor of military intervention in Syria; the two Republican leaders have indicated they want to convene a debate on the subject. On Tuesday, Rubio indicated in a Senate hearing that he was “skeptical” of President Obama’s ability to achieve his objectives through the planned military operation.

Despite the pope’s plea to put down arms, many of these Catholic politicians are making a different argument about morality of warfare, particularly around the obligation to use force, when necessary, to protect innocent life.

Kerry to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday: “This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter. Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence.”

“We have spoken up against unspeakable horror. Now we must stand up and act.”

Biden in a speech last week at the American Legion: “Those who use chemical weapons against defenseless men, women and children should and must be held accountable.”

Boehner“The use of chemical weapons is a barbarous act. It’s pretty clear to me that the United Nations is unable to take action, NATO unlikely to take action. The United States for our entire history has stood up for democracy and freedom for people around the world. The use of these weapons has to be responded to and only the United States has the capability and the capacity to warn others around the world that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated. This is something that the United States as a country needs to do. I’m going to support the president’s call for action. I believe my colleagues should support this type of action.”

Pelosi: ”The Syrian government’s horrific, wanton, and undeniable use of chemical weapons against its own people is a clear violation of any moral standard and places the Assad regime well outside the circle of respect for basic human rights.”

In a statement last week, she said she “expressed my appreciation for the measured, targeted and limited approach the president may be considering.”

During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Pope John Paul II condemned the United States, calling its actions “immoral, risky and a ‘crime against peace,’” according to an Associated Press report at the time.

Catholic leaders in the United States have routinely criticized American politicians for supporting legislation that violates church teachings on moral issues, particularly around abortion and gay marriage. Pelosi, Biden and Kerry are familiar targets of that criticism, with Kerry, now leading the charge for military action in Syria, gaining a particular focus of that attention during his 2004 run for president. Watch for how Catholic leaders in the U.S., who have joined Pope Francis in calling for Saturday’s peace vigil, respond to the pro-intervention arguments of some of the church’s most prominent members. The head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, is on stage tonight.

UPDATE, Sept 4, 3:27 p.m.:
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a letter to President Obama Wednesday which said that the administration “should not resort to military intervention, but instead work to end the violence in Syria through a political solution.”

“. . . A military attack will be counterproductive, will exacerbate an already deadly situation, and will have unintended negative consequences,” the letter read. Read the full statement here.

Image courtesy of Freedom House.


Elizabeth Tenety Elizabeth Tenety is the former editor of On Faith, where she produced "Divine Impulses," On Faith’s video interview series. She studied Theology and Government at Georgetown University and received her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A New York native, Elizabeth grew up in the home of Catholic news junkies where, somewhere in between watching the nightly news and participating in parish life, she learned to ponder both the superficial and the sacred.
  • dg00088


    Clarification the Catholic Church is not a denomination.

  • Rongoklunk

    Maybe the pope should have chat with God about this, and see what they can come up with. I’m sure God will have a lot of ideas to bounce around. After all he’s God. He can do anything. Problem solved.

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