For such a humble and unassuming man, Pope Francis certainly has a gift for fabricating unnecessary controversy. Last week he released an encyclical that condemns free markets and man-made global warming. But that was rather tame compared to an even more controversial statement this week.
As reported by Reuters, Francis said,
It makes me think of … people, managers, businessmen who call themselves Christian and they manufacture weapons. That leads to a bit of distrust, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time he’s made such statements about people who manufacture weapons. In May Francis is reported as having said,
Behind any war there is always the arms industry, he said. “This is serious. Some powerful people make their living with the production of arms and sell them to one country for them to use against another country … It’s the industry of death, the greed that harms us all, the desire to have more money.”
And last year he is claimed to have said,
… Pope Francis was particularly hard on weapons producers, saying said that they are not interested in the word of God since they “fabricate death, they are merchants of death and make death into a trade.”
Perhaps, as has happened in the past, Francis is being repeatedly misquoted. Or maybe he is simply misunderstood. Maybe his criticism is not intended to be taken as a blanket condemnation of everyone who works in an entire arms industry. Maybe he’s means only those who are legitimately creating weapons for immoral uses.
Hopefully, that is the case, because otherwise it would be a sign that the pope’s views on just war are deeply incoherent.
Presumably, Francis has not yet denounced the Catholic Church’s doctrine of just warfare. As the catechism states,
2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
– the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
– there must be serious prospects of success;
– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.
The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.
Francis seems to agree with this view. Last year a group of journalists asked if the pontiff supported U.S. airstrikes on ISIS targets. He responded by saying,
“In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” the Vatican leader said. “I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I’m not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ just ‘stop.’ And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated.”
He said something similar this week. In the same speech in which condemns the defense industry, he says,
The great powers had the pictures of the railway lines that brought the trains to the concentration camps like Auschwitz to kill Jews, Christians, homosexuals, everybody. Why didn’t they bomb (the railway lines)?
When his statements are taken together Francis appears to be saying that it’s moral and legitimate for a person to bomb Nazi railway lines but immoral and illegitimate for them to make the bombs that get dropped on Nazi railway lines. The use of arms can be morally legitimate, he seems to be saying, but the manufacture of arms is not.
This position makes no sense when you think about it, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that Francis hasn’t truly given it much thought.
In a way, this is understandable. As a global leader Francis is called on to form opinions and state his views on a range of topics that he has likely not had the time to give due consideration. Like many of the rest of us, he is a slave to the combination of soundbite culture and 24-hour news cycle. He’s repeatedly asked to speak extemporaneously, which can cause his statement to appear disjointed, if not incompatible. If given time for reflection he likely could have formulated a coherent chain of thought on this issue.
But Francis is also not just another pundit, tweeting his random thoughts to his social media followers. He is the head of an organization that represents a billion people—some of whom work in the manufacture of arms. To refer to them as “merchants of death” who should be distrusted when they call themselves Christian is callous and irresponsible. If would be embarrassing for such a statement to be expressed by a local priest, much less the head of Catholic Church.
Just as God calls some Christians to take up and use arms in defense of the common good, some are called to create those arms. Most Christians in the defense industry are not doing the work out of “greed” or to “make death into a trade.” They are doing it because that is the way God has called them to use their skills to benefit their fellow man.
Pope Francis owes such people, both Christians and non-believers, an apology for the scandalous, oft-repeated slur against their vocation. They deserve better treatment than to have their reputations maligned by a servant of God.