The Pope's Responsibility to Protect

By Robert Christian

There were no Vatican-led worldwide prayer vigils while over 100,000 Syrians died. There was no massive papal mobilization for helping Syria achieve a just peace after Syrian dictator and mass murderer Bashar al-Assad bombed breadlines, killed innocent civilians who were sleeping in their beds, or set children on fire on a school playground. Even the use of chemical weapons did not seem to spur any real action in the Vatican.

Only the possibility of the United States using force to enforce the international norm against the use of chemical weapons spurred a peace campaign by Pope Francis.

I had hoped it was for real peace, a just peace. For Catholics, there is no peace without justice. But it seems the pope's call for peace is a narrow one to oppose American intervention, while praying for dialogue to lead to a negotiated settlement in Syria. The pope's language seems to indicate a pacifist's rejection of the just war tradition, the 'responsibility to protect' norm, and any legitimate grounds for using force.

The pope has uttered numerous acutely pacific statements in recent days: Faith and violence are incompatible. War never again! Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake.

Are faith and violence incompatible? Can a person of faith never use force? Can a faithful parent not use violence to protect her child from harm? Can a devout policeman not use violence to halt a rape or end a killing spree? I would respectfully contend that in some of these circumstances there is actually a responsibility to use violence to protect the innocent. And I would argue that this responsibility to protect is the right response to mass atrocities, a loving response -- that violence was necessary to halt the Holocaust, end the Bosnian War, and minimize the death and terror in Kosovo. Violence must never be the first or preferred choice for Christians, but there are times when it is just, necessary, and a duty.

The pope's rejection of the responsibility to protect runs counter to his entire papacy. He may be abandoning the most vulnerable people on the planet. The children that Assad is starving to death with his sieges are desperately calling for help. The parents who have seen their children set on fire and those who have witnessed these crimes against humanity scream out to us to reject a false peace that leaves them abandoned and subject to further violence and repression. This extraordnairy pope, this extraordinary man, who is transforming and revitalizing the Church, must ask himself: would over 110,000 Syrians have been killed and a third of the nation displaced if intervention had occurred after the Houla Massacre in May 2012? Can we afford to make that mistake again?

We will see if Russia's proposal to have Assad turn over his chemical weapons amounts to anything, but it seems the threat of force triggered the proposal. What is even more obvious is that this will not bring any type of peace. Assad will continue to murder thousands, likely tens of thousands, with conventional weapons. The Church should be the one reminding both the international community and all members of the global community that it is our responsibility to end mass atrocities. This norm matters more than the chemical weapons norm. It reflects the most important of all the universal human rights -- the right to life. It reflects the core Catholic belief that all members of the human family are our brothers and sisters. It reflects our obligation to provide special attention to the care and protection of the vulnerable.

A Christianity that fails to recognize the reality of evil is a sugarcoated, head-in-the-clouds counterfeit. It is guilty of the charges leveled by atheist critics. It is not of this world, but it's definitely not in this world either. The belief that conversation will inevitably stop the most vicious men from their evil designs cannot be reconciled with the faith of Augustine or Aquinas. It cannot be reconciled with over two years of failed diplomacy and sanctions. Pope Francis recognizes the reality of evil. Why can he not recognize the evil of mass murder and push the world to do what is necessary to stop it?

The Church should be desperately searching for a way to protect the Syrian people, even if that means turning to the just use of force. We must not assume that God will handle this crisis, while we wait patiently. We have been given a moral code for a reason; God demands that we do our duty. God expects us to protect the most vulnerable. Faith without works is not enough. Vague calls for faux solutions to horrendous injustice are not enough. All things are possible with God and through prayer, but we must still seek to do God's will and bear the sacrifices that are necessary for the global common good.

Some argue that both sides in this civil war are awful, so just let them fight it out. This mentality reflects a cruel disregard for human life. And it distorts the reality of the conflict. Some of the rebels are fighting for democracy, for human rights, for human dignity. These forces must be strengthened to achieve a tolerable outcome; it is the most promising path toward a just peace. There will be no just outcome with the butcher Assad or al Qaeda-affiliated extremists in power. And the status quo is intolerable.

The Church does not need to determine which of the following is needed: a no-fly zone, safe zones for civilians that would allow for the flow of humanitarian aid (and that actually protect civilians), missile strikes, the arming of certain segments of the rebels, or any other proposal that might involve the use of force. But as the world stands by idly while Syrians suffer and averts its eyes while body bags are filled with Syrian children, someone should remind each of us that these are our brothers and sisters and that we must not give in to indifference, quietism, or cynicism.

We must do what is necessary to protect them. We must even be willing to confront the perpetrators of evil and use force to stop the slaughter of innocents. The person reminding us should be the pope.

Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial and a PhD Candidate in Politics at Catholic University of America.

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