As the United States debates whether to bomb Syria as punishment for the Assad regime’s Suspected use of chemical weapons, the Pope has weighed in, urging peace and dialog. On the one hand we agree that it would be unwise for the United States to enter this war. The opinion of Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska sums it up nicely:
“But to choose sides in a conflict where no side can be trusted is unreasonable. Neither dictators nor thugs masquerading as democratic reformers should be our partners. Adding to the violence in Syria escalates a war with very little hope of resolution, with no clear goals and no definition of victory.”
In terms of the practical policy we would agree with Bishop Conley, the United States should not intervene militarily in the Syrian conflict. This however will not be the main topic of discussion. We would like to focus on the basic tenor the discussion of this issue within the Church is taking on.
As has been the case recently the overall focus in recent Church statements has been to call on all the parties to the Syrian conflict to stop fighting and seek reconciliation, dialog ,and peace. Who could be against this right? On the other hand the problem with this is similar to the problem with a prayer that asked God to send down leprechauns riding magic unicorns to come down from heaven and disarm both sides. Granted this is a caricature, but it makes the point. While God could of course conjure up leprechauns and unicorns to disarm everyone, typically God acts in ways that do not involve “magic”. On some level the idea that the Jihadists and the dictator Assad are going to enter into “dialog” is magical thinking. It would be problematic if cries for peace lapse into an overly sentimental view that peace can always be achieved by “dialog”. Sometimes when men given to evil are waging war, the only way to end the fighting and establish justice is to vanquish the evildoers. Dialog was not an option with the Nazi’s in World War II.
Now it is true that the average Catholic does not need to make many geopolitical decisions directly. There is nothing wrong with a generic call to pray for peace, God will sort out the details. Nonetheless some rational thought about these issues is required by everyone, to the extent that in democracies like the United States we select our political leaders, and bear indirect responsibility for the quality of the decisions made. A few Catholics in policy making roles have even more direct responsibility for decisions of war and peace. It would be disturbing and a great loss to the world if Catholic thought and language lapses into an emotional sentimentality, and loses its grounding in reason. There are signs that this is happening on all kinds of different levels. The way the Church approaches issues of war and peace recently is emblematic of this problem. Since the Syria situation is in the news it bears discussion.
To get a handle on this situation let’s compare two papal prayers to the Blessed Mother: The first is Pope Francis’s recent prayer regarding Syria, in which he said:
“Let us ask Mary to help us to respond to violence, to conflict and to war, with the power of dialogue, reconciliation and love. She is our mother: may she help us to find peace; all of us are her children! Help us, Mary, to overcome this most difficult moment and to dedicate ourselves each day to building in every situation an authentic culture of encounter and peace. Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us! “
The question is what can “dialog” mean when confronted with people who do this , or this. Is it possible to “dialog” with people who are executing civilians, or beheading prisoners? What precisely does one realistically talk about? How is this different that entering into “dialog” with someone who breaks into your home and attempts to abduct your children or attack your wife. There are clearly situations where “dialog” is not just the wrong approach but absurd and cowardly. In fact in may even be immoral. I mention the evils of the Syrian rebels merely to point out that the Jihadists who compose them are evil ideologues. This is not to say Assad is a “good guy” he of course is a brutal dictator.
The current view is that war is “senseless”, but this could not be further from the truth. Both sides in the current Syrian conflict have clear rational goals for which they are willing to kill and risk death. They are not simply fighting because of some peculiar misunderstanding in which compromise is possible. The Jihadists rebels believe the God they worship commands they institute a Sharia based Islamic government. This God views Christians as an enemy, whose very existence is an affront to him and this God thinks it is a virtue to bury women up to their waist and stone them to death for trumped-up charges of adultery, as described here . There is no “dialog” or compromise with such a group whose view of what is “good” is so distorted, anymore than one could dialog with Nazi SS storm troopers. It is clear that they must be defeated using force. . Assad of course is fighting for his own survival and to maintain dictatorial power over Syria consistent with his own ambitions. There is no scenario where he will enter into dialog and if the goal was to remove him from power this too would need force.
This brings me to how the Church looked at a very similar situation in the past. In the mid 1500s The Ottoman Turks threatened to overrun Christian Europe, a league was organized by Pope St Pius V, and the rosary was said not for peace,reconciliation and dialog, but frankly that the Ottoman’s might be defeated. This prayer was granted at the battle of Lepanto. It is described dramatically by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical on the rosary thus:
The efficacy and power of this devotion was also wondrously exhibited in the sixteenth century, when the vast forces of the Turks threatened to impose on nearly the whole of Europe the yoke of superstition and barbarism. At that time the Supreme Pontiff, St. Pius V., after rousing the sentiment of a common defense among all the Christian princes, strove, above all, with the greatest zeal, to obtain for Christendom the favor of the most powerful Mother of God. So noble an example offered to heaven and earth in those times rallied around him all the minds and hearts of the age. And thus Christ’s faithful warriors, prepared to sacrifice their life and blood for the salvation of their faith and their country, proceeded undauntedly to meet their foe near the Gulf of Corinth, while those who were unable to take part formed a pious band of supplicants, who called on Mary, and unitedly saluted her again and again in the words of the Rosary, imploring her to grant the victory to their companions engaged in battle. Our Sovereign Lady did grant her aid; for in the naval battle by the Echinades Islands, the Christian fleet gained a magnificent victory, with no great loss to itself, in which the enemy were routed with great slaughter. And it was to preserve the memory of this great boon thus granted, that the same Most Holy Pontiff desired that a feast in honor of Our Lady of Victories should celebrate the anniversary of so memorable a struggle, the feast which Gregory XIII. dedicated under the title of “The Holy Rosary.”
To this day Oct 7th is the feast of the rosary. Now this is quite different, here Mary granted the prayers of the supplicants by having the “enemy routed with great slaughter”. Ahem…. Not exactly dialog that they had in mind I guess.
The point of this is to illustrate the following. Catholic Christianity has historically been realistic. Part of this realism, is to recognize we live in a fallen world in which some men are evil and need to be restrained by force, at times this means killing them, even “routing them with great slaughter”. It is only after evil doers are suppressed that a meaningful peace is possible. To the extent that the Church calls on us to pray for dialog, and reconciliation without recognizing this obvious fact is to lose touch with reality. Dialog in the Middle East is almost impossible until radical Islam and its supporters are defeated, and to imagine otherwise is to live in a world that is simply unreal. Prayer that does not recognize this is a little like praying that God sends magical leprechauns riding unicorns to intervene as described above. While God could in theory do such a thing, I would not count on it, and would think it rather absurd to ask God for it. God does not work in magical ways, the Universe is such that God most of the time works through human and natural agencies, of which he is the final cause as he gives these things their existence, as God is the ultimate source of all that exists. Our prayers therefore should have some connection with the real world. For most of the Church’s history they did. At Lepanto when faced with advancing Muslim hordes the Church prayed for victory. God and Our Lady working through the Naval forces of St Pius V’s Holy League granted this prayer. Now when faced with arguably even more fanatical and brutal Islamic terrorists we pray for “dialog. I ask whose prayer made more sense?
Our Lady of Victory Pray for us