On Aug. 12, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue issued a declaration condemning “the unspeakable criminal acts” being committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (known as ISIS) establishing its rule in parts of those countries. These acts include “the massacre of people on the sole basis of their religious affiliation;” “beheading, crucifying and hanging bodies in public places;” “the forced expulsion of tens of thousands of people, including children, elderly, pregnant women and the sick;” “the abduction of girls and women;” and “the destruction of places of worship and of Christian and Muslim burial places.” The declaration states that “no cause, and certainly no religion, can justify such barbarity.” It calls for all religious leaders, especially Muslims, to condemn these crimes and “the use of religion to justify them.”
Such graphic acts of violence raise many moral questions. Should Catholics support only prayer and humanitarian aid, or should there be military intervention? What course of action is best from the perspective of Catholic moral theology?
The Catholic Church recognizes that “governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2308). Such armed resistance, however, requires that all of the following conditions be met: “1) there is certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights; 2) all other means of redress have been exhausted; 3) such resistance will not provoke worse disorders; 4) there is well-founded hope of success; and 5) it is impossible reasonably to foresee any better solution” (CCC, No. 2243). In light of the ongoing atrocities of the ISIS movement, the use of armed resistance seems justified.
The Church, though, believes the prudential judgment for the use of military force belongs to “those who have responsibility for the common good” (CCC, No. 2309). In resisting ISIS, these would be the legitimate leaders of Iraq and Syria. But military intervention by the United States and other powers cannot be excluded, especially if the leaders of the threatened nations ask for such intervention.
In an Aug. 18 interview on his return flight from South Korea, Pope Francis seemed to accept the necessity of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS, as did Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, the Vatican nuncio to Iraq. The Holy Father stated: “In these cases where there is unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underscore the verb ‘stop’; I don’t say bomb, make war — stop him. The means by which he may be stopped should be evaluated. To stop the unjust aggressor is licit, but we nevertheless need to remember how many times, using this excuse of stopping an unjust aggressor, the powerful nations have dominated other peoples, made a real war of conquest. A single nation cannot judge how to stop this, how to stop an unjust aggressor. After the Second World War, there arose the idea of the United Nations. That is where we should discuss: ‘Is there an unjust aggressor? It seems there is. How do we stop him?’ But only that, nothing more.”
The Catholic Church recognizes that the forces of evil go beyond any individual movement, ideology or regime. Ever since the fall of the angels and our first parents, the world has contended with moral evil, which is “incommensurably more harmful than physical evil” (CCC, No. 311). God created everything good (Gn 1:31), and he is not the cause of moral evil. He permits evil, however, “because he respects the freedom of his creatures and mysteriously knows how to bring good from it” (CCC, No. 311).
The Church knows that the evils of the devil and human malice do not have the last word. In his mysterious providence, God has allowed the weeds of evil to grow along with wheat (Mt 13:24-30). Only at the end “will we fully know the ways by which — even through the drama of evil and sin — God has guided his creation to that definitive Sabbath rest” (CCC, No. 314). Pope Francis, however, in his July 20 Angelus, has reminded us that patience with evil “is not indifference to evil.”
We must resist and condemn evil. This, however, must involve much more than military force. It also demands the power of prayer, fasting and intercession. In resisting evil, we must remember that we must not conquer evil by evil “but conquer evil with good” (Rom 12:21). We must also avoid condemning all Muslims because of the actions of ISIS. Beyond this, we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (cf Mt 5:44).
Robert L. Fastiggi, Ph.D., is a professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.