For anyone familiar with the Vatican’s recent history of bitter opposition to any US use of military force in the Middle East, Rome’s increasingly vocal support for the recent American airstrikes in Iraq may seem, to say the least, a little disorienting.Indeed. The Vatican's previous comments suggested it had forgotten that Christ's admonition to "turn the other cheek" was for individual, not state, conduct. Why the change now? Vatican reporter John L. Allen, Jr. explains:
On Monday, the Vatican’s previously tacit approval for the American intervention turned explicit, as two senior officials offered what amounts to a blessing through official communications channels.
Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, the pope’s ambassador to Baghdad, told Vatican radio that the American strikes are “something that had to be done, otherwise [the Islamic State forces] could not be stopped.”
Lingua spoke plaintively of the ordeals faced by an estimated 100,000 Christian refugees from northern Iraq – many of whom, he said, are children – to account for his view of the American campaign.
“You can see these kids sleeping on the streets,” Lingua said, adding, “[there is so much] suffering.”
In a similar vein, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s envoy to the United Nations in Geneva, told Vatican Radio that “military action in this moment is probably necessary.”
Both Lingua and Tomasi went on to say that the international community needs to do more to unmask whoever’s supporting the radical Islamic State forces and to cut off its supply of arms, signaling reservations about widening the conflict.
At the same time, their endorsement of the American action, however grudging, was unmistakable. In light of recent history, it’s a sharp reversal of course.
So, what gives? What’s the significance of the Vatican offering the Obama administration this time around, if not a green light, certainly a clear yellow?The Vatican is also seeing if its "50 years of ecumenical outreach," as Allen puts it, is worth anything by calling on Muslims to denounce and act against ISIS:
Three points seem most important.
First, there seems a small but telling shift in Vatican reflection on what constitutes a “just war.” Martino’s 2003 comment suggested that the leadership of the Catholic Church was only prepared to endorse a military incursion, however well-motivated, if it came with explicit international authorization, which in practice means the blessing of the United Nations.
The face-value way to read Monday’s comments from Lingua and Tomasi, however, is as a recognition that there are times when the situation is sufficiently urgent that anyone who steps in, with or without a formal U.N. resolution, can claim the moral high ground.
Even if full legitimacy under international law remains the ideal, in other words, there’s now an exception on the record in favor of “unilateral” action.
Second, the emerging Vatican line clearly establishes a limit to pacifism as an option within Catholic social teaching. In effect, the take-away is that there are times when the use of force is the only option left to serve the greater good.
Third, and most basically, what’s different about 2014 with respect to 2003 isn’t so much the theory but the facts on the ground
The Vatican called on Muslim leaders to condemn the "barbarity" and "unspeakable criminal acts" of Islamic State militants in Iraq, saying a failure to do so would jeopardize the future of interreligious dialogue.Ed Morrissey explains the stakes for Il Vaticano:
"The plight of Christians, Yezidis and other religious and ethnic communities that are numeric minorities in Iraq demands a clear and courageous stance on the part of religious leaders, especially Muslims, those engaged in interfaith dialogue and everyone of goodwill," said a statement from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue released by the Vatican Aug. 12.
"All must be unanimous in condemning unequivocally these crimes and must denounce the invocation of religion to justify them," the statement said. "Otherwise, what credibility will religions, their followers and their leaders have? What credibility would remain to the interreligious dialogue patiently pursued in recent years?"
The document noted that the "majority of Muslim religious and political institutions" have opposed the Islamic State's avowed mission of restoring a caliphate, a sovereign Muslim state under Islamic law, to succeed the Ottoman Caliphate abolished after the founding of modern Turkey in 1923.
The Vatican listed some of the "shameful practices" recently committed by the "jihadists" of the Islamic State, which the U.S. government has classified as a terrorist group. Among the practices cited:
-- "The execrable practice of beheading, crucifixion and hanging of corpses in public places.""No cause can justify such barbarity and certainly not a religion," the document said.
-- "The choice imposed on Christians and Yezidis between conversion to Islam, payment of tribute or exodus."
-- "The abduction of girls and women belonging to the Yezidi and Christian communities as war booty."
-- "The imposition of the barbaric practice of infibulation," or female genital mutilation.
The Council’s question is a challenge to their partners, demanding some investment in the risks of peace and tolerance. Pope Francis’ last two predecessors both took a lot of criticism for their efforts to reach out in dialogue with Muslim leaders. Now it’s time to see whether those leaders and their successors have the same fortitude, or whether these have just been empty gestures all along. If after decades of engagement these leaders cannot bring themselves condemn the forced conversion, beheadings, ethnoreligious cleansing and flat-out genocides of ISIS, then it leaves very little value in continued engagement from the Vatican’s perspective.I'm not holding out much hope for success here. Osama bin Laden wanted a clash of civilizations. ISIS is determined to make that happen.