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With that tweet from earlier this week, Pope Francis has become the peace pope. The world needs to take notice. The pope’s leadership in world public opinion has been an inspiration for much of the opposition to President Barack Obama’s plans for military strikes against Syria’s regime. Signs are that the cause of peace may become a dominant one for this pontiff and, if so, the potential is there to redefine the world’s perception of the papacy, of the Vatican, and of the Catholic Church.
Today, Saturday, September 7, was called by Pope Francis to be a day of fasting and prayer for peace. Heeding that call, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, offered a Mass for peace at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Bishops and parish priests in nearly every American diocese hold similar worship services for peace. Ditto for most Catholic colleges and universities. Millions of everyday Catholics around the world joined in these prayers. Interestingly, the papal call for prayer and fasting has crossed denominational lines, including some rocky ecumenical lines, as many Protestant groups, Orthodox churches, and even Hindu temples will join Catholics in prayer and fasting. The papal hashtag “#prayerforpeace” trended in the Twitter stratosphere for much of the week.
Many Catholic politicians in Washington among them Speaker John Boehner, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary John Kerry might back President Obama’s looming military response, but papal opposition to American use of military force in Syria has been clear and emotionally moving. Against military intervention, he stated in St. Peter’s Square last Sunday
The sweeping language of such criticism by the pontiff moves the Roman Catholic Church dramatically further in what now seems to be an accelerating arc in its opposition to warfare. Traditionally, the church’s teachings about war were primarily the criteria for Just War rules for when war might be appropriate (jus ad bellum, such as: only in defense or to protect the innocent) or for how warfare might be appropriately conducted (jus in bellum, such as: opposition to warfare that imperiled civilians). Unlike Quaker or other “peace churches,” the Catholic Church never demanded pacifism. Indeed, its teachings insisted that governments have a moral imperative to work to protect not only of their own citizens but all human beings from aggression and secure peace, and in extreme cases that imperative was understood to include using military means. But recent popes, including John XXIII and John Paul II, spoke far less about criteria for Just Wars and far more about mutual responsibilities to always promote and practice peace.
In the lead up to the second Gulf War, neo-conservative Catholics like the Rev. Richard Neuhaus and George Weigel, strained to interpret Catholicism’s old Just War rules in various ways to justify a United States’ led intervention in Iraq. The Vatican response under then Pope John Paul II, however, criticized that war outright as an affront to government’s responsibility to always promote peace. Gauged by the remarks of Pope Francis from the last few weeks in response to the Syrian conflict, today’s Catholic pontiff has moved the church much farther toward the peacemaking emphasis begun under John XXIII and John Paul II. Center-staging the responsibility of governments to promote peace, Pope Francis utterly condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of poison gas against civilians while still demanding that the world community employ only non-violent means in responding to these horrible aggressions and atrocities. Citing Syria in his formal letter to this week’s G20 summit and its Russian host President Vladimir Putin, the pope appealed to the assembled leaders to “find ways to overcome the conflicting positions and to lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution” and called instead for “a peaceful solution through dialogue and negotiation of the parties.”
Pope Francis’s outspoken leadership against military force is unparalled in papal history. More than for any other world figure, his has also become the moral voice for peace in the contemporary world. Under his leadership, the church itself may well come to be identified for its role a moral force for peace in the world. We’ve seen on this day of fasting and prayer that parishes and dioceses and rank and file Catholics are responding to his call. In their letter to Congress, the American bishops too cited these “calls of the Successor of Saint Peter” in their own criticism of proposed military action.
The head of today’s Catholic Church is a peace pope. The significance of that is hard to overstate for what it means for the church, for Catholics, and for the world. No doubt, the Prince of Peace would approve.
Stephen Schneck is Director, Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies of The Catholic University of America.