Fratelli Tutti and the Responsibility to Protect

By: Drew Christiansen

October 14, 2020

Fratelli Tutti and the Future of the Catholic Church

Pope Francis, in his new encyclical Fratelli Tutti, has taken another big step toward distancing the Catholic Church from its traditional support for the just war. “It is very difficult nowadays,” he writes, “to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war.’” Fratelli Tutti is the latest in a series of pronouncements by recent popes expressing skepticism about the continued viability of just-war thinking in light of the mounting incidence of civilian deaths.

What I once described as “stringent just-war thinking” has over time become more a moral theology of peacemaking, showing a preference for nonviolence and edging toward pacifism. As James Turner Johnson once commented on the U.S. bishops’ opposition to nuclear war, it is “a just-war pacifism,” a critical posture motivated by the failure of contemporary warfare to satisfy the traditional just-war norms. For decades now, criticism of war by Catholic leaders has focused on its failure to satisfy the norm of non-combatant immunity. For Francis, this failure is especially evident in the plight of war’s victims, especially refugees.

Fratelli Tutti goes about as far as one can go toward critiquing the just war without rejecting it wholesale. Perhaps the Church’s stand on war today might be compared to its position on the death penalty in the 1980s. In principle, war may be rationally justifiable, but as a matter of practice the abuse of the tradition and the realities of contemporary warfare make it impossible to wage a just war today.

Fratelli Tutti goes about as far as one can go toward critiquing the just war without rejecting it wholesale.

The depth of Francis’ skepticism may be seen in his sweeping dismissal of “allegedly humanitarian, defensive and precautionary excuses” for making war. (“Precautionary principles” are what international humanitarian lawyers call just-war norms.) Fr. J. Brian Hehir is reputed to have said he believed there was no war Pope Saint John Paul II would have regarded as just. John Paul, however, called for intervention to prevent genocide in the former Yugoslavia, the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, and Timor-Leste. At the height of the Syrian civil war, Francis himself appealed, though in general terms, for international intervention. 

Francis’ skepticism about “humanitarian” justifications (“excuses”) for armed intervention prompts two question: Is the Church withdrawing its acceptance of armed (international) interventions to prevent humanitarian emergencies—including genocide in progress? Is it rejecting the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) embraced by Pope Emeritus Benedict in his 2008 address to the UN General Assembly?

Looking at egregious cases like Libya and Syria, there may be reason to repudiate military intervention for humanitarian reasons. For my own part as an ethicist, I would have liked to have seen the encyclical provide a closer analysis of such hard cases and more precise judgments on them. Other preventive interventions like those in Côte d’Ivoire and Timor-Leste and the imposition of a no-fly zone in Kurdistan have proven more successful. 

Furthermore, Libya may have been a failure of policy rather than one of principle. President Barack Obama confessed that “failing to plan for the day after” in Libya was probably “the worst mistake” of his presidency. Of course, we must also consider whether policy failure itself may be a reason to question military interventions for the purpose of humanitarian rescue. Libya was an essentially tribal state with only the slightest semblance of a real government. As President Obama indicated, no one seems to have looked ahead to see what the transition to a legitimate, stable government might look like and what it would demand of the intervening powers and the international community. 

[W]e must also consider whether policy failure itself may be a reason to question military interventions for the purpose of humanitarian rescue.

Syria is a much harder case. The regime had already killed more than 100,000 Syrians, mostly nonviolent protestors, when a popular uprising turned into open civil war. The jurisprudence of R2P demands the application of precautionary principles, particularly proportionality and probability of success, before intervening with force to put a stop to a government’s aggression against its own people. According to conventional wisdom, Syria provided ample reason on those grounds to hold back from mounting intervening. 

Once the size of the refugee problem became apparent, however, I still wonder whether it would then have been warranted to intervene with proportionality, given the enormous spill-over effects that weigh more heavily in favor of intervention, if only to provide half-remedies like safe zones and humanitarian corridors. After all, later retrospective judgments of proportionality may weigh in favor of disengagement, as they did in Vietnam, after war has begun. May they not, then, shift in the direction of intervention as the situation evolves, when states fail their responsibility to their own people? When conditions change significantly, re-examination and fresh decisions are in order.

Even if Pope Francis means to exclude or discourage military intervention, the Church has a stake in preserving the principle of the Responsibility to Protect. More than forty years before the 2005 UN Summit’s promulgation of R2P, Pope John XXIII, in Pacem in terris (Peace on Earth), made the case for the essence of sovereignty as upholding the rights of citizens with a world authority being the ultimate resort when state authorities failed. He affirmed that “the end of the public authority of the world community must . . . have as its special aim the recognition, respect, safeguarding and promotion of the rights of the human person.” Anticipating the logic of R2P, he also proposed that when political leaders of particular states fail in that duty, it falls to other political authorities to defend the rights of the population. 

Pacem in terris is the charter of modern Catholic political theology, so what the Church says about R2P has a fundamental bearing on its view of political legitimacy. Of course, the defense of rights does not necessarily entail the use of armed force, but the Church would have to make a firm shift to pacifism to reject altogether the use of force in R2P missions. Despite the well-publicized entreaties from Pax Christi International and the advocates of just peace, it has not yet done so.

Editor’s Note: Portions of this piece appeared earlier in an article published by America online on October 8, 2020.

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