American Catholics need to get serious about Syria

This week, there has been a seemingly endless stream of deeply flawed articles and statements on Syria from Catholic scholars, journalists, and leaders whose knowledge of Syria is extremely limited. Most have employed “just war pacifism,” in which just war theory is supposedly applied but inevitably leads to a pacifist position of non-intervention (or, occasionally, farcical nonviolent intervention schemes). Many liberal Catholics have adopted the libertarian tendency to assume that the most likely outcome of government action is the worst conceivable manifestation of unintended consequences. The consequences of inaction are then entirely ignored. This is not serious moral thinking on an exceptionally complex matter.

The most common request is for prayer so that dialogue can resume and a negotiated settlement can be achieved. Yet they do not describe, even in the broadest terms, what the “political solution” they propose would look like if a ceasefire and negotiations were successful. Given the current realities on the ground, would it mean Assad retaining power and bringing Islamists and others into the government? Why would Assad do this when he is content killing as many people as necessary to maintain his power? Does anyone think the rebels would agree to living under an Assad regime? Given Assad’s brutality and the radicalization of the rebels, why would anyone think a regime of this nature would support human rights and religious freedom? Alternatively, if Assad would not be included, why would he negotiate at this point, given the current military realities? The man has set children on fire in schoolyards and murders whole families in their own beds to keep his power. Is there a reasonable person on the planet who believes he would voluntarily give up power?  This is not a plan; it’s a dangerous, delusional fantasy.

And what of the international norm that states should not be permitted to use chemical weapons with impunity? Should the Church no longer believe in such norms, or just not their enforcement? The refusal to fully examine and assess the justice, particularly the proportionality, of proposed American strikes within this context is inexcusable.

A political solution is the only long-term answer for establishing a just peace in Syria, but it can only be achieved if something is done to change the military dynamics on the ground. It’s fine for the pope to be prophetic, but if American Catholics want to put forward actual policy proposals, they need to be responsible. And if they merely want to restore orderly tyranny through negotiations, they should be clear. There is no peace without justice; the word peace should only be used by those who are serious about it. Declaring one’s self a partisan for peace or anti-war is not the same as supporting the establishment of peace or ending a war that has killed over 100,000 people so far. Peacemakers are called to achieve real peace, not to advertise their own moral purity. It is essential that Catholic thinkers and leaders apply serious moral reasoning to the possible use of force by the United States. If we declare the use of force just when it isn’t, we are responsible for the increased suffering. If we declare it unjust and it isn’t, we are complicit in Assad’s crimes, for as St. Ambrose reminds us, “He who does not keep harm off a friend, if he can, is as much in fault as he who causes it.”