Pacifism and Papal Fallibility

Christopher Hitchens used to say that in modern culture a person’s character is judged by their reputation rather than the other way around. He further noted that this odd phenomenon was particularly acute when considering figures in religious garb. The leniency of the public is never in greater supply than when a witless remark is uttered by a prominent man—or woman—of faith. This may help to explain why Pope Francis enjoys a reputation as a man of peace. Any doubts about whether or not he truly merits that honorific will not be allayed by his useless response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On the contrary, his utterances on the subject make nonsense of the idea that the Church of Rome has any special expertise—much less unique moral standing—on matters of war and peace.

Scrutiny of the papacy’s position on the place of power in international relations would reveal that the pristine reputation Roman Catholic authorities enjoy on this critical subject is thoroughly undeserved. Pacifists who abjure any recourse to violence are, by definition, dismayed by the aggressor and the victim as long as both are fighting. Those concerned with peace, on the other hand, are careful to draw moral distinctions between various applications of force, investigating both the means employed and the ends sought. They also care deeply about the natural competition for power because, as Clausewitz taught us, war is simply the resort to arms in that competition.

Many seem to have been unduly impressed by the pope’s perfunctory condemnations of Vladimir Putin’s renewed war of conquest in Ukraine. But how much moral credit does the pope warrant merely for protesting an unjustified resort to arms? However one answers that question, it must be weighed against the staggering offense of protesting Ukraine’s justified resort to arms.

More than once in recent months, the pope has approvingly cited Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of nonviolent resistance. Many will agree that this is a noble example to invoke, but it is seldom recalled that Gandhi failed the straightforward test of moral clarity offered by the Second World War. Not only did he declare in 1939 that Jewish non-compliance with Nazi decrees might be enough to “melt Hitler’s heart,” but in a 1940 letter addressed “To Every Briton,” he offered this abject example of moral equivalence and appeasement:

I appeal for cessation of hostilities, not because you are too exhausted to fight, but because war is bad in essence. You want to kill Nazism. You will never kill it by its indifferent adoption. Your soldiers are doing the same work of destruction as the Germans. The only difference is that perhaps yours are not as thorough as the Germans. ... I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.

The Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr dissected the immorality of the pacifist position nearly a century ago, but Pope Francis shows no sign of having profited from his wisdom. In Niebuhr’s time as in ours, pacifists claimed that war was the supreme evil. But they neglected to explain how a measure of justice in the world might be secured when peaceful methods had been exhausted. In effect, Niebuhr argued, their answer was to abdicate responsibility and surrender to injustice, leaving countless multitudes to endure the horrors of tyranny and oppression.

In Niebuhr’s view, the “political” pacifism of a great many Christians was a ghastly distortion of the Christian ethic. It failed to recognize the tragic elements of the human condition: the persistence of power and self-interest, the imperfectability of man, and the contested and contradictory nature of moral and material progress. In short, anyone responding to the premeditated mass violence of a brigand empire by invoking this wretched school of thought has forsaken all credibility before the profound responsibilities of power in a fallen world.

This much has been demonstrated by the pope’s pronouncements on Ukraine. As a European democracy defends its territory and population from the lethal onslaught of Russian imperialism, the pontiff intones that weapons aren’t the solution. (Every time I encounter this non-proposal, I imagine how much more pathetic it would sound if the pope spelled out the precise nature of the problem.) He has denounced the “madness” of the West funneling military aid to an embattled democracy. He has chastised NATO for “barking” at Russia’s door. And he has refused President Zelensky’s invitation to visit Ukraine in a show of support, at least until he has had a chance to meet with Putin in Moscow (an audience the Russian autocrat has so far refused to grant).

This is not the place for a prolonged exegesis on the complex roots of Russia’s ambitions in Ukraine or the terrible war it has chosen to prosecute there, let alone about the nature of war itself. Suffice it to say that Putin has long denied Ukraine’s status as an independent state, and that his decision to go to war was not “perhaps facilitated” (in the pontiff’s words) by the eastward march of the Atlantic alliance. In its long history, Russia has rarely enjoyed greater security on its western flank than it has since the end of the Cold War, which is probably why Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has greeted news that Finland and Sweden will join NATO with a shrug.

Utopian masochism appears in both secular and religious form, and needs to be resisted in both. It is detached not only from history but from human nature itself. The notion that some things are worth fighting and dying for has dominated human relations and the order of states since antiquity, and the defense of hearth and home from brutal conquest and despotism has always been foremost among the justifications. Since the outbreak of this latest round of hostilities, Ukrainian forces have been armed and trained by the West, and these advantages have helped them to inflict grievous losses on Russia’s invading forces. They understand what the pope in his transcendent wisdom evidently does not—that the best chance of a viable peace lies not in surrender but in the continued refinement and demonstration of military prowess. Only that can teach Putin and the Russian elite a lesson in deterrence they will not soon forget.

One might have thought that the head of the Catholic Church wouldn’t require patient instruction in this matter. After all, Catholic “just war” doctrine holds that nations may legitimately employ armed force under certain conditions. But Francis has heaped calumny on that option throughout his tenure, especially as it pertains to the defense of Pax Americana. In 2013, as President Obama weighed launching airstrikes to punish the Syrian regime for murdering civilians with chemical weapons, the pope led 100,000 people in a prayer vigil for peace in St. Peter’s Square. Asked about the US-led campaign against Islamic State in Iraq in 2014, the pope argued that “it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor” before unhelpfully adding that “one nation alone cannot determine how to stop an unjust aggressor.”

In his 2020 encyclical, “Fratelli tutti” (“Brothers, all”), Francis asserted that “it is easy to fall into an overly broad interpretation of this potential right” to armed self-defense, especially given the threat posed to civilians by modern weapons of mass destruction. “It is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war,’” he wrote. Perhaps this is why he has not dared to set foot in Ukraine since the siege of Mariupol and the slaughter of Bucha.

For Francis, like the Corbynite Left, salvation lies in the UN, an institution he appears to regard with mystical reverence. “The Charter of the United Nations,” he wrote, “when observed and applied with transparency and sincerity, is an obligatory reference point of justice and a channel of peace.” This is the same charter that grants rogue regimes free rein to violate human rights with impunity so long as they do so within their own borders. He did not pause to consider that, without Allied power, the United Nations would never have been established in the first place. Nor did he mention the UN’s uniformly dismal record in preventing armed conflict—in Ukraine and innumerable other places.

None of this represents a sophisticated rendition of just war theory, to put it mildly. One can scarcely imagine this litany of puerile bromides being recognized, let alone extolled, by the likes of Augustine or Aquinas. Papal support for military aggression was once commonplace. Medieval pontiffs called for crusades against Muslims and (invariably) Jews in the Holy Land, Pope Julius II led knights into battle against rival Italian rulers, and the Vatican retained its own armed forces until the late 19th century. Rome’s last full-throated endorsement of a war was when it sanctified General Franco’s invasion of Spain, an enterprise armed and aided by Hitler and Mussolini.

This vicious chauvinism is plainly no longer the danger at a time when the Holy See exhibits a reflexive and near-absolute renunciation of violence. But that the Vatican has ceased to be dangerous doesn’t mean that it has ceased to be deplorable. Writing for the website of the Italian daily, il Fatto Quotidano, Marco Politi, a Vatican expert, distinguished this approach from that adopted by Pope Pius XII in the early years of the Cold War. Unlike the staunch Cold Warrior of yesteryear, Francis does not aspire to be “the military chaplain of the West.” To be mistaken for the military chaplain of the Kremlin, however, is evidently a separate matter.

The 19th-century historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay once said that the Roman Catholic Church deserved credit for its ability to contain the “enthusiasm” that so often flowered in its ranks. Today, the church’s problem is no longer violent zealotry (which is progress of a kind) but an astonishing unseriousness and moral vacuity about earthly affairs. The only organized violence that Francis seems unable to condemn unambiguously is that of religious fanatics whose prophet has been pilloried. Taking up arms in defense of one’s native soil is intolerable, but murdering civilians on behalf of an impugned icon is somewhat mitigated by the principle that “one cannot make fun of faith.”

In his 1949 essay on Gandhi, George Orwell advised that “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.” The reverence with which Pope Francis’s pronouncements on the war in Ukraine are reported and discussed indicates the opposite—that his reputation as a man of peace is not about to be capsized by the appalling vapidity of his ideas. The kind of pacifism he espouses will not bring peace, it will only inflame the confidence and appetite of aggressors. If Ukrainians are paying no more attention to the pope today than Britain paid to Gandhi in 1940, it is because they understand that peace is not capitulation and appeasement but the most legitimate object of war.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at
1 Like

OK, the doctrine of “just war” is hard, tricky, and liable to get misused. Really the only simple, straightforward set of beliefs is “real” pacifism, for example as espoused by Amish & Mennonites. Maybe the author favors that - I can’t tell.

Pretty clearly, as soon as you claim that certain actions of war (such as sending tanks across the border) are OK because the war is “just”, invites people to claim that their cause is just. Thereby granting themselves license to war.

It’s really not easy to get right. Personally I figure that each case is going to have to be judged on its own merits. Also, there’s a pretty good chance that when you have to make a judgement real-time, you’ll get it wrong. History’s replete with examples of people (and institutions) who got it wrong at the time. We’re neither omniscient nor prescient. Neither is the pope, neither is the Vatican.

(The doctrine of Papal Infallibility, by the way, is highly constrained and has only ever been invoked once - to assert that Mary was bodily assumed into heaven. This doctrine is not something that ever gets applied to secular, worldly matters.)

OK, so suppose I’m right - that making these judgement calls as to what’s just and what isn’t, is difficult, and whatever call you make, you stand a good chance of getting it wrong, and being castigated for your call. Then add this:

Isn’t that a pretty good reason to not endorse a war? I know I’d figure “once burned, twice shy.” Yet it seems that the author wants just this - a full-throated endorsement of the Ukrainian side. Not the defective pacifism he accuses Francis of.

Here’s another thing:

Sounds to me a lot like “Fighting for peace is like f**king for virginity.” Which I used to hear back in the days of the Vietnam war.

By the way, for readers who may not realize this, Catholics, the pope, the Vatican, the Church, are and have long been popular targets of hatred and criticism. Obviously, in some cases that has been warranted. In other cases it just seems that the critic is just ranting.

In this case it seems that the author wants a man (Francis) who seems fairly peaceful by nature, to be more warlike.

OK, go ahead, want whatever you want, wish that Francis would behave more to your liking. It’s a free country.


I agree with your statement that anti-Catholicism has been pretty common these days and the Church is an easy target.

But, like it or not, Francis makes himself a target and in truth, he is a poor pontiff. He pales in comparison to John Paul II who would have likely had no trouble in finding the truth to where the Church should rest its position. Francis is a moral coward and has proven himself to be in a number of areas. That he is the pontiff of Rome entitles him to respect from the faithful… and no one else. For everyone else, he has to earn it. He’s a poor leader. He is a failure and should take a hint from his predecessor. There are other palaces besides Gandolfo where he can spend his retirement in silent contemplation about why he is so utterly terrible at his job. He is arrogant, dismissive of the suffering of others, smug and repellent.

“Fire Pope Francis” should be on the lips of every self-respecting Catholic and should be said in mass each Sunday.


I remember reading in William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill a few years ago about how British conservatives turned staunchly anti-war in the '20’s after it became clear what a useless exercise the Great War had been. The left had to go them one better and declare themselves pacifist, stating that the British Navy and all its guns should be melted down to make farm equipment or some such silliness. They repeated this line until July 20th, 1936, whereupon they did a complete 180 and went all Rutger Hauer (“We need to get bigger guns. BIG ****ING GUNS!”). Why? Well, that was when Franco’s Nationalist Army started shelling Republican positions with German-made artillery during the Spanish Civil War.

Pacifism is a luxury belief, in other words.


Just War as a theory is a fallacy which should be confined to the wastebin of history- however, that being said, there are many things worse than the pursuit of war, not the least of which is the type of capitulation which only invites further aggressions and moral disasters.

Where the West should be a little more cautious is in a couple of areas. First, we should try to avoid the type of ascendant moralism that makes war a virtue, casting any legitimate critique of our own country’s actions as a de facto act of betrayal. We’ve seen exactly where that particular folly inevitably leads- to the nascent authoritarianism which saw the rather limited military actions of the Forever Wars expanded into unending conflicts of occupation, as jus post bellum inevitably became the morally bankrupt justification for attempting to install America friendly regimes in specific regions.

Second, we need to draw a clear line between the pursuit of Human Rights and the recognition of Sovereign Rights, because the human suffering unleashed by the pursuit of the former at the expense of the latter almost inevitably leads to a world which is worse than would have otherwise been the case. Critics will say that Putin was always going to make a play for Ukraine, Xi Jinping for Taiwan, but it not entirely clear to me, without the cultural hegemony of America and her Allies, that either would have had the moral mandate for Casus Belli amongst the Russian and Chinese people, or more importantly the institutional support required- had it not been for an American primacy of values which invariably led to the classification of the cultural ambitions of others as the aspirations of lesser peoples.

This is not an endorsement of cultural relativism, but rather the acknowledgement that whilst there are certainly wrong answers when it comes to how a culture orientates itself in the world, there doesn’t appear to be any singular right answer to many of the common problems cultures have faced. Consider this- had the Soviet Union fallen into disarray during a period when Free Market Capitalism was not on the ascendant, and the response to Russian hardship been a modern Marshall Plan rather than ‘shock therapy’, then it is highly unlikely that Putin would have ever gained power. In this environment, America would have gained sustained access to Russia’s massive mineral wealth, whilst simultaneously making Russia a natural American ally.

In this vein, I would argue that the demonstration of magnanimity in victory marks the true turning points in history far more so than the desire to beat the drum when existential crises emerge on the world scene. Ultimately, it costs far less (especially in human terms) to maintain the peace, rather than to win the peace. Generosity, paired with the absolute respect for Sovereign Nations to determine their own internal domestic matters, would appear to be a far better strategy in the long term for peace than the schizophrenic oscillation between one world supranationalism (with Rights-focused neoliberalism at its core), followed by periods of reactive bellicosity which result from this culturally tone deaf enforcement of Leftist universalism. Nobody likes a Scold, but in many ways, this is exactly what the corporate media in the West has become, along with an alarming tendency to push our global civilisation towards the brinksmanship of mutually assured annihilation.

I’ve been thinking about Ukraine’s response to the Russian invasion, and the West’s response as well. Ukraine’s reaction is completely reasonable - Russia invaded their territory, they are defending their territory.

More interestingly is the response of Europe and other western countries, including the U.S. I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen. I think NATO has the potential to become a potent “anti-armed aggression” body over the long term - allowing “sane” nations to join, and extending it’s umbrella. It could ultimately become what the UN was supposed to be, but never could be due to it’s insistence on including “not-sane” nations and giving them veto power.


Yeah, you lost me here. The “internal domestic matters” of other states are not what they once were. My grandfather was born in Ireland. To him, Ireland was still the “old country” and what happened there mattered to him greatly. The same could be said for many Cuban Americans. The thing is, once they arrive in the US, they have every right to expect their elected representatives to support and maintain positions that seek to undermine actions in their home nations… There is nothing wrong with these efforts.

1 Like

Yeah well, I probably should have just said the quite part out loud- do what thou wilt, but don’t whatever you do, don’t fuck with America, Russia and China. The consequences of commenting on internal domestic matters in these three countries unleashes a friction which degrades their countries ability to restrain the temptation to exercise power for power’s sake. Beware sleeping giants. The consequences could be catastrophic.

Russia is a textbook example of how to avoid the Thucydides Trap. We had ample ability to help when the help could have been decisive. It was unlikely we could have prevented their fall from superpower or even Great Power status, but we could have turned them into something like the British- proud of their cultural and scientific accomplishments, with a widely educated and more expansive upper and upper middle class, which was largely meritocratic.

Instead we were content to see them fall, blind the inherent Coriolis effect of political destabilisation, and heedless of what may arise from the endless sea…

I am not sure if your “takedown” is entirely fair. There is a world of difference between China and America, for example. Chinese angst towards others comes from a determined belief that no other civilization (read: culture and race) is worthy of the name… Theirs is all that matters. Americans, on the other hand, are global interlopers precisely because they are so globally comprised. I don’t know how many Jews live in the US. But I bet there are enough that they alone could sustain American involvement in that region. The same could be said for the IRA. Americans often helped out that awful organization out of a warped sense of patriotism for the “old country”. And what about Italian Americans and the Cosa Nostra? My point is that a nation as “representative” of other places in the world will automatically seek connections to other places. As for Russia? I have no idea what inspires them. They’ve exhausted their culture already and I suspect they are just trying to find some measure of greatness somewhere. But the Russians offer nothing. Theirs is a civilization of paupers and drunks. I have no idea why the West is sending weapons to Ukraine. The whole affair would likely be wrapped up in three weeks if the West just sent copious amounts of alcohol to the Russian side. They would drink themselves into oblivion.

Look let’s try something else. Let’s try comparing America with the British Empire. The British had their flaws, they presided over innumerable disasters from Ireland to India. Their role in China was awful, and largely reprehensible in the same way that many American political dynasties were.

But at the same time, once chastened by the example of the Sepoy Mutiny, they set their sights on far more modest reforms to existing systems. Private property rights, public education, functional courts. The formation of a non-governmental land owning class, often native. The only exception was Africa, where even snake-oil selling missionaries were preferable to the unrestrained political power of the local animist.

Of course, there was corruption, plunder, paternalism, but they didn’t demand local populations subscribe to their value system. Their only concern was the preventing of local hegemonies, which historically speaking is a good thing- given the laughable legal disaster which is the Napoleonic Code, with its routine abuses of individual rights and tendency to cultivate state-sponsored informers.

But largely, they didn’t try to enforce their values. Of course, they hoped the locals would adopt their systems of values, because they hoped their example would show the path to mutual enrichment. It largely worked. They managed to out-finance Napoleon, and despite ruining their finances through over-financialisation, they were still able to contribute substantially to American ascendancy with sheer purchasing power at exactly the moment where the world needed America the most.

And it also worth pointing out that almost all of America’s intellectual infrastructure is British in origin, with much of it stemming as far back as the Venerable Bede. The Right to vote, and legal equality under the law, stemming from participation in the Fyrd.

But they were never so stupid as to believe that their values were universally applicable, and would suit all circumstances. A world in which every people is free to participate in open and fair elections? It will never happen. A world where smaller sovereign nations won’t be subject the the sphere of influence of the local bully- I believe you yourself argued the reverse is true recently. Above all, the belief that all cultures will necessarily place the same intrinsic value on individual human life, regardless of worth?

In the words of your own celebrated author ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.’

Despite their tendency towards mercantilism and offensive paternalism, they were a lot more humble in their ambitions for the various people’s of the world. Even bloody Cecil Rhodes with his ‘mission to civilise’ was at least hopeful that many would aspire to join the British at top table, but he wasn’t entirely the eternal optimist either.

Besides, history has proven the British right. Where America has succeeded it has almost always been where the aspiration was entirely voluntary. Sadly, one the foundational requirements of the exogenesis of exceptionalism seems to be the sacrifice of the blood of patriots. The secret of Excalibur and the ever-flowing cup of cornucopia is that they only appear when brothers come together as equals in common cause, and only then for periods of history which only last as long as the necessities which demanded them, or perhaps a little longer- hubris and venality are sure to follow.

Besides, it’s not as though future generation are going to thank you for stepping into the breach and becoming the world’s policeman. Most would prefer to dwell on Britain’s colonial past than think about the introduction of almost universal public education, the pairing of the scientific method with industry, or the wholesale abolishment of slavery by mostly military and economic means. I’m sure they’ll turn on you guys as well, once the halcyon days are over. Most of them aren’t even bloody grateful now! Ingrates!

You make excellent points (as always!) But I think the analogy is a bit strained. In the first instance, don’t beat up the British as far as China goes. There is too much hay made over the whole opium thing… it wasn’t quite as is often represented in popular media. Lin Zexu may have written to old Queen Vic and complained but of course, opium was still legal in England and the main source of the Chinese complaint was not the opium trade itself but rather, that the Chinese opium was not the preferred sort. Had the empire bought more locally grown stuff, the Qing would have been more easily quieted. But I digress…

I appreciate your point. America is plagued by the belief that it often sees its values as being “universally acceptable”. My point however, is that this stems from the fact that America is a collection of people from all over… who then convince themselves that this is true… The British Empire was an actual Empire. It conquered and ruled territory. The American Empire, such as it is, is not the same animal. It seeks to influence places and peoples. So, for example, I would not be surprised if in 20years there is a real effort on the part of some to simply annex Northern Mexico into the US. Why? Well, for the simple fact that so much of the Southern US will be awash in Mexicans.

Ultimately however, I think my difference lies in your final contention: you are right. No one will thank the US for being the world’s policeman. But so what? The British gave up their empire. Maybe they shouldn’t have. Why should the US look to sustain a world of equals? I don’t quite understand why/how “empire” has become such a dirty word. The US does not owe other nations equal consideration. So, for example, Ecuador is trivial to the US. We have a right to expect from them certain concessions so long as we have the strength and the will to insist upon them. Statecraft has always worked this way and it always will.

1 Like

Both settled inhabited lands… As to conquest, well initially at least Queen Vic only had herself proclaimed Empress of India because of an Upstart German who had the gall to think himself superior to the Head of the Dynasty. Africa was different story, but the initial steps at least were a matter of anti-slavery fervour. UnHerd wrote a great article about it recently:

Brilliant, and great answer, but hardly a sustainable answer going forward I’m afraid. People have a habit of assuming that peace, prosperity and an equal chance to compete through heterodox economics, comes about as a part of the natural order of things. I’m afraid such stories are fanciful fairytales we tell our children- the moral arc of history only bends towards justice when grim old men with a sense of purpose make it so.

They won’t know what they’ve lost till it’s gone- and the hour is growing late to intercede indeed. It’s also the one lesson China seems to be resolute in refusing to learn, despite an apparent fondness for all things Dickensian- no matter how hard they try, their grandchildren’s children will likely be their worst critics. It’s what comes from being outside the delusion of the moment- retroactively prophetic levels of wisdom. I at least had the foresight to publicly proclaim my predictions- although Putin surprised me, I didn’t think he was that geopolitically that stupid.

It might have been a desire to stake a claim on history for good or ill, apparently the Kremlim is claiming his recent cancer surgery was an unqualified success, but who knows- perhaps he began to feel the icy footsteps of Death with his scythe approaching his door.

Trump, for all his sins and buffoonery, still possessed the gumption to threaten to withdraw American defences from the House of Saud. I’m sure behind the scenes there was even talk of withdrawing sovereign immunity for acts of terror. That seemed to get the oil flowing, unrestricted by fiat.

Here’s everybody’s current favourite talking about plans to increase oil and gas production:

A plan that doesn’t contain any actual plans, I’m sure the comedians might have something to say about that:


1 Like