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Like 159,000 other people, I follow Pope Francis (@Pontifex) on Twitter—in Latin. I enjoy the chance to refine my declensions and conjugations while pausing in reflection on the beautiful words of Franciscus.
But Monday’s first tweet offered no succor. “Numquam plus bellum! Numquam plus bellum!” shouted my Twitter feed, like a shrill alarm on a groggy holiday morning. The cry of “Never again war!” worked, at least on me. In fact, I was the target audience for this one. Over the past few days, this pope, whose namesake is a favored saint of peacemaking, has been trying to wake up complacent Americans.
To Catholics cognizant of their history, the tweet echoed the speech of Pope Paul VI before the United Nations General Assembly in 1965. On October 4, the Feast of St. Francis, Paul VI implored the assembly: “It is the word you are expecting from us and we cannot utter it without being conscious of its gravity and solemnity: never again one against another, never, never again! Is it not to this end above all that the United Nations was born: against war and for peace?”
Thus Pope Francis is not innovating by his prophetic denouncements of proposed military interventions, such as that contemplated by the United States in Syria. The substance of his remarks harmonizes with Pope John Paul II’s attempts to dissuade George H. W. Bush from invading Kuwait in 1991 and George W. Bush from invading Iraq in 2003.
The “just war” tradition of the Catholic Church focuses on principles such as just cause, proportionality, last resort, and serious prospect of success, among others. In recent years, some have developed the principle of “responsibility to protect” as a corollary to the received tradition. Some usually progressive American Catholic voices, such as Michael Sean Winters, have argued that military intervention in Syria does qualify as just.
But from Pope Francis’s statements and previous writings, he leans away from the “just war” discourse and toward the just peacemaking school of thought—or outright pacifism. Conflict has been present from the time of Cain and Abel, he said in On Heaven and Earth, but “I believe that war must never be the path to resolution.” The recurrent human attraction to war is exacerbated, he believes, by “the media’s way of putting things, in black and white,” which “is a sinful tendency that always favors conflict over unity.”
Many of those who oppose sending missiles toward Syria would concur with Francis’s analysis. In the particular situation of war-torn Syria, there are not two sides but many. Beyond his humanitarian concern, Francis is especially fearful because the Christian leaders “on the ground” in Syria and neighboring countries oppose a military action from abroad. Bishops both Catholic and Orthodox—the ones who have not been kidnapped—have spoken out against it.
Even a small group of Trappist nuns in Azeir, Syria penned a rueful open letter to President Obama. They await “A word from Obama? Will the Nobel Peace Prize winner drop his sentence of war onto us? Despite all justice, all common sense, all mercy, all humility, all wisdom?” While American commentators have been speaking of “credibility” and the need to “do something,” these nuns decry the passing off of “the need to appear [strong] and to wield power” as a “moral responsibility not to look away.”
Like these nuns, Pope Francis embodies prophecy and prayer. His call for a worldwide day of fasting and prayer for Syria on Saturday, September 7, struck a chord with even the Grand Mufti of Syria. Ahmad Badreddin Hassou, the spiritual leader of Sunni Islam in Syria, expressed fervent desire to join with the vigil in Rome.
While that joint prayer is not likely to happen, the sentiment was significant. And though prayer does not seem a realistic response for many in positions of power, it is the way being led by Pope Francis. Prayerful, prophetic denunciation of war is one papal tradition that the reform-minded Francis will not be changing. Numquam.
Michael Peppard is assistant professor of theology at Fordham University in New York. He is on Twitter (in English, usually) at @MichaelPeppard.