Pope Francis has contributed two encyclicals to the magisterial tradition of reflecting “out loud” to the world about pressing problems. In this, he follows a pattern set by his predecessors since Pope Leo XIII in the late nineteenth century. Pope Francis has had, however, the unique misfortune of promulgating reflections in the age of social media and its staggering contribution to the deepening of divisions inside and outside the Church. So, the reception of Laudato Si’ (2015) and now Fratelli Tutti (2020) is vulnerable to being damaged by instant yet entrenched responses reflective of little thought or consideration, but concerned with advancing prior agendas.

The depth and impact of encyclicals are impossible to judge immediately. Laudato Si’ initially encountered a great deal of withering critiques; at this point, some five and a half years later, much of that critique has been burned off by the encyclical’s powerful message. I offer no predictions about the fate of Fratelli Tutti, but its theme of universal brotherhood is a welcome response to emerging nationalisms and even tribalisms. The quality of writing is poorer overall than can be found in Laudato si’, and there are places where greater explanation would be welcomed in unpacking Pope Francis’ interpretations of prior magisterial statements. Having now completed two readings of the encyclical, I am struck by its sense of urgency, as though Pope Francis felt his intervention could wait no longer, despite its manifest need for another round of editing.

I want, however, to focus on one area of the encyclical, an area where some see great movement in the Church’s view, even to the point of claiming to find doctrinal change. That is the issue of war.

Pope Francis calls out the language of war. He speaks against “war” as a solution. In this, he echoes many prior popes; indeed, nearly all the popes of the Catholic social teaching tradition, stretching back to the middle of the twentieth century, have made similar statements. Pope Francis quotes Pope John XXIII’s statement in Pacem in Terris (1963), saying that “it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice” (FT 260). For decades now, popes have echoed that statement. Because of the scope of its devastation, modern warfare is an inapt instrument of politics, the popes have declared. Pope Francis, in the latest echo, says nothing new in rejecting war as an instrument of politics. Resorting to that bluntest and most devastating instrument of politics always speaks to some failure of men and women to resolve their differences.

But Pope Francis’ comments are newly emphatic: he not only rejects recourse to war as a “failure of politics” (no. 261), but he also denounces the language of “just war.” In a puzzling footnote (fn. 242), he distances his analysis from St. Augustine, often considered the most important early contributor to the Christian political thinking from which “just war” derives. The footnote is puzzling because it says St. Augustine “forged a concept of ‘just war’ that we no longer uphold in our own day,” and in the paragraph of footnote 242, the pope rejects the “rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries” (no. 258). Students of St. Augustine know he did not “elaborate rational criteria” for thinking about justice in war. Instead, he articulated a Christian view of politics, and action in politics, that ordered genuine politics toward shared or “common” goods. All political action had to be so ordered, even the political action pursued by the use of force. But St. Augustine offered no rational criteria for the justification of war. Instead, he made the much more radical assertion that through his victory over death Christ claims dominion over the use of force in politics. The elaboration of rational criteria of the sort concerning Pope Francis came later and can be found, for instance, in the works of Thomas Aquinas.

Pope Francis’ concerns seem to be twofold. First is the manipulation of these criteria and the naming of all and any conflict as “just.” He exhibits justifiable contempt for the language of “collateral damage” (FT 261). He notes that “war can easily be chosen by invoking all sorts of allegedly humanitarian, defensive or precautionary excuses, and even resorting to the manipulation of information. In recent decades, every single war has been ostensibly ‘justified’” (FT 258). Many recent US conflicts have employed language deriving from just war analysis, and at least one, “Operation Just Cause,” the 1989–90 invasion of Panama, made explicit reference to just war in its name. He has the US-led Iraq war in mind in his comment that “some would also wrongly justify even ‘preventive’ attacks or acts of war that can hardly avoid entailing ‘evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated’” (FT 258). Pope Francis’ impatience with these linguistic abuses is obvious.

But the abuse of justice language in war bothers him less than his second and more fundamental concern: nations too often resort to war to solve political problems. In this judgment, Pope Francis surely is correct. If we take seriously the counsel suggested by Sts. Augustine and Aquinas, and other theologians and philosophers contributing to the just war tradition, then warfare’s modern conditions matter when people justify military force as an apt instrument of politics. Too often Christians ignore that counsel, and “just war” analysis contorts itself to conditions held out as “real” or “practical.” We have recently seen instances of this in the continued attempt to justify as “moral” the intentional killing of innocent Japanese by atomic attack, acts that Pope Francis rightly condemned in Fratelli Tutti (FT 248). If Christians claim the use of force as an instrument of politics is possible, then certainly they are obliged to study the devastation of specific instruments of force, trends in the conduct of warfare, and the political outcomes of contemporary uses of force. Again, here Pope Francis breaks no ground: he is the latest pope since Pope John XXIII in the late ’50s to worry about the modern instruments of war.

Pope Francis’ comments on the just war fit the context of the entire encyclical; indeed, he suggests as much himself by reflecting on the just war shortly after moving comments on the role of forgiveness and reconciliation, which he insists are “central themes in Christianity” and in other faiths (FT 237). Here, though she is not mentioned, Pope Francis develops insights the great political theorist Hannah Arendt advanced. We might not typically think of placing political reflection on war (and capital punishment) in the context of forgiveness and reconciliation, but Pope Francis, like Arendt, recognizes the place of forgiveness in all human relationships. Politics requires forgiveness. Arendt states, “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense” (Arendt, The Human Condition, 238). Pope Francis begins (but does not complete) a small, suggestive reflection on the role of forgiveness in politics, as a means by which to seek both truth and greater unity across conflict. His counsel against both vengeance and for the cessation of oppression parallel the politics Augustine described in initially defending the possibility of a just use of force (see Capizzi, Politics, Justice, and War):

Forgiveness does not entail allowing oppressors to keep trampling on their own dignity and that of others, or letting criminals continue their wrongdoing. Those who suffer injustice have to defend strenuously their own rights and those of their family, precisely because they must preserve the dignity they have received as a loving gift from God. (FT 241)

Forgiveness and reconciliation involve a commitment to bringing back together that which for whatever reason has come apart. A central message of Fratelli Tutti is the fundamental familial unity of all humankind. “Love… impels us towards universal communion,” writes Pope Francis (FT 95). Human beings share a common destiny. On their path to that destination, they therefore share common sufferings—their divisions, their wars, their environmental degradations—that call for them to pursue solutions that bring people together. The unity of humankind as an ontological reality has a pale but critical concrete political expression in the international community. Any responsible statesmanship today has to recognize the impact national decisions have on the international community. Pope Francis emphasizes the political need to look to the international community for solutions. In the context of migration and refugee issues, he writes, “states are not able, on their own, to implement adequate solutions, ‘since the consequences of the decisions made by each inevitably have repercussions on the entire international community’” (FT 132). The same goes for modern war: the first casualty of war, he states, is “the human family’s innate vocation to fraternity” (FT 26).

Some may find Pope Francis’ position that the fraternal unity of humankind is a goal of politics as utopian or silly. But the unity of humankind is a given for Christians who locate that unity in the common origin in Adam and redemption from sin by Christ. Political action is good when oriented toward that unity, cognizant of the effects of sin. Pope Francis’ claim builds on claims popes before him have made repeatedly in connecting the goal of human unity and judgments about war. In 1959, Pope John XXIII emphasized the fraternal vocation in the context of a warning against war. He said:

If men do not pursue this fraternal unity, based on the precepts of justice and nurtured by charity, then human affairs will remain in serious peril. This is why wise men grieve and lament; they are uncertain whether we are heading for sincere, true, and firm peace, or are rushing in complete blindness into the fires of a new and terrible war. We say “in complete blindness,” for if — God forbid! — another war should break out, nothing but devastating destruction and total ruin await both victor and vanquished. The monstrous weapons our age has devised will see to that! (Ad Petri Cathedram, 1959)

The point Pope Francis and his predecessors make does not entail committing to some fanciful, far-off political world government or community. Instead, they are pointing to a political reality already existing, one whose presence affects all political judgments right now.