Skip to main content

No, the Pope didn't call for a crusade

By David M. Perry
updated 1:46 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Asked about bombing in Iraq, Pope Francis says it is "licit to stop the unjust aggressor"
  • David Perry says those remarks aren't a call for a new crusade, as some have suggested
  • He adds that the Pope is trying to balance lessons of the ancient and modern

Editor's note: David M. Perry is an associate professor of history at Dominican University in Illinois. He writes regularly at the blog: How Did We Get Into This Mess? Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Pope Francis' trip to South Korea memorialized the atrocities of the last century. On the way home, the Pope became embroiled in controversy about a conflict raging in the current one.

During a lengthy discussion, Francis remarked on the spread of cruelty and torture before being asked about violence against religious minorities in Iraq, and whether he approved of the U.S. bombing campaign aimed at stopping the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. With what seemed careful deliberation, Pope Francis said: "In these cases where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say this: It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means. With what means can they be stopped? These have to be evaluated. To stop the unjust aggressor is licit."

This response -- and the reaction to it -- says much about the complexity of running an organization that is at once modern and ancient, religious and political, international and parochial. But what exactly did he mean? Was he, as a few excitable writers suggested, calling for a new crusade? Certainly, much of the media response quickly fixated on what seemed to be approval for a military campaign and how a Pope -- the leader of the Catholic Church -- was seemingly sanctioning war against an Islamic caliphate.

David M. Perry
David M. Perry

Actually, he wasn't.

Crusading, as defined by most historians, generally involved taking religious vows to head east and assist in military expeditions against Islamic powers in exchange for spiritual rewards (redemption from sin). Historians have identified major campaigns as the First, Second, Third, etc. Crusades. In response to these conquests, the local Islamic powers leveraged the idea of jihad to rally disparate Muslim groups together.

Yet although the Crusades featured not just plenty of violence but also peaceful cross-cultural exchange, they aren't an example Francis wants to invoke. In fact, he isn't saying that anyone should take vows and go off to fight. Instead, Francis is making the point that taking action to stop evil is just.

Korean 'comfort women' meet with Pope
Pope appeals to youth on Korea visit
South Korea welcomes Pope Francis
5 ways the Pope is tougher than you think

This idea of justified violence, even from Catholics, chiefly emerged from the writing of St. Augustine (354-430). As Matthew Gabriele, associate professor of medieval studies at Virginia Tech, writes: "Augustine argued that war was never desirable but was sometimes necessary. We must protect those who suffer from unjust aggression. If that could be accomplished without war, so much the better, but force could be used by legitimate authorities as a last resort. The end goal, however, was always -- and simply -- lasting peace."

That's the context for understanding the ancient part of Francis' response.

The modern context emerged in how he concluded his answer. "One nation alone cannot judge how to stop an unjust aggressor," Francis said. "After the Second World War there was the idea of the United Nations. It is there that this should be discussed. Is there an unjust aggressor? It would seem there is. How do we stop him? Only that, nothing more."

Such pursuit of multiple perspectives to ward off bias is also Augustinian. In "On Christian Doctrine," St. Augustine argued that reading the Bible required special training because though the book contains all the truths of the universe, humans (flawed creatures that we are) are far too likely to assume that whatever we think is good is also what God thinks is good. To counteract this, St. Augustine prescribed a strict intellectual diet of the best liberal arts and science education the late Roman world could provide.

Multiple perspectives help us discern what is truly just from what might just be convenient. In a way, that's what Francis is doing with his words, too. He's concerned that any individual leader or nation is far too likely to assume that someone with whom they disagree is unjust, and thus the principles of stopping unjust action instead becomes a tool for warmongering. Instead, he argues, we should try to find consensus before acting, collectively, to put an end to atrocity.

"We must also have memory," Francis said. "How many times under this excuse of stopping an unjust aggressor the powers (that intervened) have taken control of peoples, and have made a true war of conquest."

History teaches us all about the dangers of mission creep. And it also makes clear that when two sides engage in the rhetoric of religious war, things can deteriorate rapidly. Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, for example, both routinely railed against the West as "crusaders," an accusation that gained traction in the Islamic world after President George W. Bush called for "this crusade, this war on terrorism" after 9/11.

Francis doesn't want to make a similar mistake. Indeed, while he named himself after a medieval saint who lived during the era of the Crusades, that St. Francis didn't actually go to war. Instead he went on mission, seeking (at least as we remember it today) dialogue and understanding. And that's certainly been Pope Francis' path so far. But when there is great suffering in the world, as is being inflicted on religious and ethnic minorities in areas controlled by ISIS, then Francis says one must act, while also drawing on both the ancient idea of justified war and the modern concept of international cooperation.

The question, of course, is whether in a digital age -- when misinformation and misunderstanding spreads so fast -- Pope Francis can somehow find true harmony between old and new. His ability to do so will determine the lessons his papacy ultimately hands down for posterity.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT