On October 4, the Vatican released Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti.” The apostolic letter contains eight chapters, spanning a variety of themes that focus mainly on secular issues. The Vatican has published a summary beginning with its own blurb announcing the major themes: “Fraternity and social friendship are the ways the Pontiff indicates to build a better, more just and peaceful world, with the contribution of all: people and institutions. With an emphatic confirmation of a ‘no’ to war and to globalized indifference.”
Nicole Winfield of the Associated Press begins her article on the encyclical with this summary: “Pope Francis says the coronavirus pandemic has proven that the ‘magic theories’ of market capitalism have failed and that the world needs a new type of politics that promotes dialogue and solidarity and rejects war at all costs.”
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Like Winfield, NPR’s correspondent Sylvia Poggioli highlights what she sees as the two most salient issues Francis has addressed: a neoliberal economy that is out of control and the dominant role of war in contemporary political culture. Poggioli summarizes the pope’s take on the economy: “Francis says the marketplace cannot resolve every problem, and he denounces what he describes as ‘this dogma of neoliberal faith’ that ‘resort[s] to the magic theories of ‘spillover’ or ‘trickle.’”
On the issue of war, Poggioli reports a truly historical scoop: “Francis turns to the Catholic Church‘s own doctrine on war, rejecting it as a means of legitimate defense.” She quotes the encyclical: “It is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war‘. Never again war!”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
An oxymoron that, despite its paradoxical nature, may have made sense at a time of history when the idea of defense was really about defense rather than serving as a euphemism for conquest and consolidation of power by imperial-minded nation-states.
In Pope Francis’ mind, military might and acts of war are connected to an economy that relies on neoliberal theories he qualifies as “magic.” These theories, such as trickle-down economics, foster growing inequality. He sees them as the source of ever-increasing injustice.
Francis is certainly not the first commentator to highlight the cancerous relationship between the economy and the belief in justified war. In January 1961, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower — a former general — famously put the subject on the map by giving the system a name: the military-industrial complex. The fact that no US president since Eisenhower has dared even to evoke the idea in public, let alone critique it the way Ike did in his famous farewell speech, tells us a lot about the scale of the problem today. It has only grown monstrously more bloated over the years. And more invisible to the media.
In the six decades since Eisenhower’s speech, The New York Times has notoriously spent a fair amount of time celebrating the prowess of the military-industrial machine, which has assumed the role of locomotive of the modern technological economy. It should surprise no one that Times journalist Jason Horowitz, reporting on Francis’ encyclical, noticed neither the pope’s condemnation of the “dogmas” of the economy or his radical and emphatic position on the idea of a just war. Instead, Horowitz offers this overview of the content: “Pope Francis criticized the failures of global cooperation in response to the coronavirus pandemic in a document released on Sunday that underscores the priorities of his pontificate.”
On the question of a just war, which the Times prefers to ignore, three distinct positions have now emerged. The first is the Augustinian notion that in rare circumstances war can be justified. The second is Francis’ position that, given the destructive force of war in our time, no war can be just. The third version of a “just war” is the New York Times’ position, evidenced in its reporting and editorializing in recent decades with regard to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Venezuela. It could be paraphrased as: All we want in our foreign policy is war, just war and little else.
The Times appears embarrassed by the themes that stood out for journalists such as Winfield and Poggioli. Later in his article, Horowitz summarizes the themes he deems prominent and dismissively writes: “The document calls for closeness to the marginalized, support for migrants, resistance of nationalist and tribal populism, and the abolition of the death penalty, but in those respects it broke little new ground.” Horowitz selected the themes the Times is authorized to talk about.
In its article on “Fratelli Tutti,” The Washington Post loses no time using Francis’ words and thoughts to cast blame on US President Donald Trump: “For Americans, certain passages will likely read as a warning against Trump-style politics.” Not once does it mention Francis’ critique of the neoliberal economy or his condemnation of war. Instead, it compares the pope’s elucubrations on the world today with those of an opinionated journalist working at The Post and trying to promote a book for extra cash. “Here Francis is like an op-ed writer who, after seven years of writing, has decided to repackage his work and present his thought in a comprehensive and systematic way,” The Post quotes Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest.
These two examples confirm that the beacons of US liberalism, both considered “newspapers of reference,” simply refuse to hear from those intellectuals — including a pope — who needlessly pass their time critiquing the logic of an economic system that has clearly failed and a global military order that has spread untold misery across entire regions of the world.
Pope Francis’ ideas about just wars mark a true historical turning point, as Sylvia Poggioli insists. It has never been easy for a religion whose founder insisted on turning the other cheek to justify war. In the early centuries, Christians celebrated the martyrdom that often resulted precisely from turning the other cheek.
When Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire after Emperor Constantine’s conversion in 312 CE, the question of the legitimizing war came to the fore as a moral problem. Writing nearly a century after Constantine’s rule, St. Augustine formulated his just war theory, which founded the traditional doctrine of the Church.
Rather than contradicting the just war theory initiated by Augustine and refined in the 13th century by Thomas Aquinas, Francis appeals to Augustinian reasoning and the idea of proportionality to propose a novel interpretation of the theory. He maintains that a rational justification of war conducted with modern means has become quite simply unthinkable. The massive destructive power of modern weapons has put humanity beyond the threshold of justifying war by a nation-state.
Francis may have noticed the bitter irony when, in 2003, US President George W. Bush used the pretext of seizing weapons of mass destruction (that didn’t exist) to inflict massive and ongoing destruction in Iraq and the entire region. What absurd action could better illustrate Augustine’s principle of proportionality?
Here is how Francis frames it: “We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war.’”
In other words, Francis has consciously overturned centuries of traditional political reasoning shared by nations in the Christian West and the Catholic Church. It often boiled down to the simplistic idea that because we are Christian, what we do is just. The rather subtle moral idea of a just war as formulated by Augustine and Aquinas was routinely used to paper over the most excessive forms of military aggression conducted by Christian nations, later followed — if not aggravated — by the secular versions of most of those same nations.
That is the pope’s message. The message that The New York Times and The Washington Post are delivering goes in a different direction. Here is what they have to say to the great Catholic theologians of the past: Thanks in advance for the justification you provided. We still need it because the power structure we serve happens to be addicted to war and to nothing else… just war.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.