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On «just war» and the peace being built by the Church: interview with Vatican Secretary of State

Vatican diplomacy faces the test of a “third world war fought in piecemeal.” The task of Christians and the radical crisis of trust. In the December issue of Traces, a dialogue with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See.

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Stefano Filippi

(ZENIT News – Traces (Communion and liberation) / Rome, 12.05.2023).- The conflict between Hamas and Israel has added a tragic piece to the “third world war fought in piecemeal” that Pope Francis has been denouncing for years. Armed violence is rampant and people are increasingly unable to recognize the good that is the other. What makes it possible to escape the spiral of violence that engulfs us? And what is the task of Christians? Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, who is committed–with the entire Church–to mending the many wounds that lacerate the world, answers.

Today there are many theatres of war and in many of them it seems that, with respect to diplomatic activity, the only achievable possible objective is a slowing down of hostilities rather than a true path to reconciliation. What peace is the Church building, including the actions of the Vatican Secretariat of State?

Diplomacy is the international community’s instrument for seeking a peaceful solution to conflicts, through dialogue and negotiation between the parties involved. Of course, like any human endeavor, it has its limits and sometimes, unfortunately, fails in its intent. But I would say that already a slowing down and, even more so, a cessation of hostilities is a Vatican diplomacy faces the test of a “third world war fought in piecemeal.” The task of Christians and the radical crisis of trust. In conversation with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See. What Unites Stefano Filippi 5 December 2023 positive result, not to be underestimated. It is a first step, necessary but not sufficient, to be followed by starting down a path of reconciliation aimed at building a just and lasting peace. The Church, which adopted it very early on as one of the means of its mission in the world, continues to trust in diplomacy. What would be the point otherwise of meetings with political leaders, heads of state, and government and other authorities after an audience with the Holy Father, meetings that take up much space in the work of the Secretariat of State? What is the purpose of the trips to the various capitals, the participation in international bodies?

What do you ask of the leaders when you meet with them?

All we do is remind them, adapting to local situations, of the principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church on peace, which draw abundantly on the conciliar and pontifical magisterium. I am thinking, for example, of numbers 77 et seq. of Gaudium et Spes, the document of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council on the Church in the contemporary world (“Peace is not an absence of war…”); of the encyclical Pacem in Terris of Saint John XXIII, which founds the edifice of peace on the four pillars of truth, justice, freedom, and love; of Saint Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio; and of the rich teaching of Pope Francis, summarized in Fratelli Tutti. Points on which we insist on a lot, following the current pope, are disarmament, overcoming injustice and inequality, forgiveness, and fraternity. This is the “weak power” of the word! But we believe it is necessary to sow, to reap when and how the Lord wills, and to never lose hope. The offer of our availability, according to the nature of the Holy See and within the limits of its possibilities, to actively contribute with the means of diplomacy, to activate concrete paths of reconciliation and peace, is never absent from the mentioned political meetings.

 Pope Francis repeats that “war is always a defeat,” so are there no “just wars,” not even when one is attacked?

Every war is a defeat, since they all sow death and destruction, fueling feelings of revenge and vengeance. Therefore, there are no right and wrong wars. The negative judgment on war does not, however, preclude the right to legitimate defense of the aggrieved party in a conflict. On the other hand, the Catechism of the Catholic Church recalls that “the defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm” and provides that “those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility” (CCC 2265). However, we must remember that the right to self-defense must be aimed first and foremost at safeguarding the life of the aggressor and must always be proportionate to the offense received.

The Church’s unceasing invitation is to not stop praying, asking God to touch the hearts and minds of the combatants and their leaders. There have been those who have denounced the risk that prayer will become an alibi for establishing an “inappropriate equidistance” or erasing moral judgments. Why is this not the case for a Christian? What is your experience? And where do you see hope in the face of everything that is happening?

Speaking of prayer, the famous words of St John Chrysostom come to mind: “The man who prays holds the helm of history in his hand.” Prayer, therefore, is an active force that contributes to the transformation of history, in the sense of bringing it ever closer to the Kingdom of Heaven that the Lord Jesus came to establish on earth, which, however, will have its consummation after his glorious return at the end of time. Therefore, I cannot share the mentioned view that prayer would be an alibi “to establish an inappropriate equidistance, to cancel out moral evaluations.” Prayer is always a stance: a stance in favor of goodness, justice, love, and against evil, injustice, hatred, in whatever form they present themselves. It is interesting, for example, to note that at certain moments in history and in certain parts of the world, it is even forbidden to remember people and situations in prayer because this simple fact is perceived as subversive of a certain order or system. I would then stress the efficacy of prayer and, therefore, its necessity because, as the Second Vatican Council recalls, all tensions and conflicts in the world arise from a profound imbalance in the human heart, an imbalance that is linked to the first sin, disobedience to God, and is deepened by our personal sins. And who can intervene to cure man’s heart, to heal it, to pacify it, if not God Himself? He is the physician who works in the depths! And He has willed that the work of His grace be untiringly invoked through prayer. I have faith in diplomacy, but, at least for us, only if it is accompanied by prayer. This is where hope is found ed: “What is impossible for human beings is possible for God” (Lk 18:27).

For the Middle East, since the 1940s, the Holy See has advocated a “two peoples-two states” solution with a special status for Jerusalem, a course of action followed in the 1993 Oslo Accords and that has been reiterated even in these tragic days. Is this solution still viable?

As has been reaffirmed several times by the Holy See in these days, the “two peoples-two states” solution is the most urgent political solution to be pursued as soon as conditions permit because it responds to the legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians: to have their own nation and live side by side in peace, security, and stability. Furthermore, an internationally guaranteed special status for the holy city of Jerusalem will allow the faithful of the three monotheistic religions to have equal rights and equal duties and access to their respective holy places be respected, according to the status quo where it applies. Of course, this cannot be improvised. There is a need both for a clear legal framework that both sides must respect, as the Oslo Accords also sought to promote, but also for mutual trust, which unfortunately is now at an all-time low, if not completely at zero. Indeed, these days we are witnessing a change–unexpected and brutal–in the course of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

The terrorist attack of October 7th by Hamas and other organizations against the population in Israel, which was absolutely unjustifiable and inhuman, has generated a great deal of suffering among Israelis that will take a long time to heal. We think of the twelve hundred people barbarically killed, the hundreds of wounded, the 240 or so taken hostage, the thousands of Israelis who had to leave their homes because they were close to the conflict zones. I often think of the desperation of the families of the hostages, including the elderly and children, even infants, and I pray and hope that they will be freed immediately, as the Holy Father has reiterated several times. It will also take a long time to overcome the suffering of the Palestinians following the military response of the Israeli army in Gaza. Think of the more than ten thousand dead, the hundreds of thousands injured, the one million Palestinians displaced to the south of Gaza. Here too, children, the elderly, and civilians are bearing the brunt of it. The humanitarian situation that has been created is extremely serious. Schools, places of worship, and even hospitals are not safe environments because of the tragic logic of war that cannot spare them. I am truly concerned about the need for the people in Gaza to receive all the humanitarian aid they need to survive. Now, more than ever, the release of all the hostages and a ceasefire could help to ensure that the situation does not escalate further, averting a widening of the conflict that would make it even more unacceptable. This great suffering will certainly make any negotiations, any solution, very difficult. But if we could start again from the concept of the sacredness of life, then we could recover a sense of humanity and the necessary fraternity.

A “logic of sides” prevails in our societies. In public debates and demonstrations, there seems to be no alternative to division, or at least to reducing everything to “right and wrong,” a position that deepens the lacerations. How do we get out of this spiral that poisons everyone?

Unfortunately this is the case. We live in a polarized world, in a society that is increasingly divided and opposed to the other. Pope John used to say that we must seek more what unites than what divides. This remains true even in the current situation. So many commendable efforts have gone this direction. We must not forget this, lest we fall into a destructive pessimism unable to see the much good that, despite everything, flourishes around us. But the evil that undermines the root of our living, the relations between people, between groups, between nations, is, in my opinion, the lack of trust. We no longer trust one another, so we erect barriers to defend ourselves, to secure ourselves, to protect ourselves. We no longer recognize good faith and right intention in others. All this has resulted and is resulting, at the international level, in the crisis of multilateralism.

The pope would tell us that the antidote to this situation, which I would dare to call “tragic” because it generates and fuels conflict, is encounter and dialogue. Avoid simplifying, avoid falling into Manichaeism, unilateral propaganda, warlike hysteria, lies! Practice openness to the other, regarded as a brother (this is the theme of Fratelli Tutti!) and not as an adversary to be crushed or prevailed over at any cost. Be open to the other’s reasons; try to understand them. Take on the pain of the other and of others. Make it your own. Feel it in your own flesh. This was the invitation that Cardinal Martini expressed after his stay in Jerusalem in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have seen that this appeal has been taken up in recent days. I am glad because, in my opinion also, it is the right way to start getting out of the tricky situations in which we find ourselves. After all, the redemption of the human race began precisely by the sharing of human pain and suffering by the Son of God–and thus by God himself– who assumed everything of us into himself, except sin. We Christians have no choice but to confidently follow the path traced by our Master and Lord.


 Interview originally published in the first December issue of Communion and Liberation’s Traces magazine.


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