The Pope’s Off-the-Cuff Remarks in Turin

My intention to spend a soporific afternoon welcoming the Summer Solstice was disrupted by a query from a friend about remarks made by Pope Francis in Turin the day before. Happily, the Holy Father was able to pray before the mysterious and moving Shroud of Turin and also the tomb of the patron of young people, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. But then, in the Piazza Veneto, speaking to thousands of youths, he abandoned his prepared talk and raised two points in what a Reuters press release called “a long, rambling talk about war, trust and politics.”

First, the Holy Father assailed the weapons industry: “It makes me think of … people, managers, businessmen who call themselves Christian and they manufacture weapons. That leads to a bit of distrust, doesn’t it?” Then he took aim at those who invest in weapons industries, telling the applauding teenagers: “…duplicity is the currency of today … they say one thing and do another.”

One recalls the indictment of the “military industrial complex” in the Farewell Address of President Eisenhower, who was no pacifist but, like a good general, hated war:

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Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

The Pope’s comments did not engage the issue with the perspicacity and experience of Ike who seldom spoke off the cuff. Inasmuch as papal guards carry Glocks and Sig 552’s, the earnest Pope knows that weapons are necessary. The problem is that he called those who manufacture them un-Christian. This raises a problem for the cults of Saint Barbara and Saint Gabriel Possenti, respectively patron saints of arms manufacturers and hand gunners. It also conjures the image of the Holy Father’s patron Francis of Assisi who supported the Fifth Crusade and was escorted at least part way on his journey to North Africa by soldiers with purchased weapons.  As for the hypocrisy of those who invest in such manufactures, that would seem to be an unqualified criticism of a large number of investors in a complicated and interlocking world of investments. For example, the Pietro Beretta Company, which is the largest arms manufacturer in the world, is now controlled by the Beretta Holding S.p.A. It is also probably the oldest. The Republic of Venice, in consort with Pope St. Pius V contracted the company to provide the arquebuses that helped to defeat the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. One was used to shoot Ali Pasha. During his reign (1823-1829), the della Genga pope Leo XII, enlarged the papal artillery and, a skilled marksman himself, often relaxed by shooting birds in his gardens.

There are two approaches to weaponry available to persons of conscience, both symbolized by sculptures in the collection of the United Nations. One is an impressive figure by Evgeniy Vuchetich, a gift ironically from what was the Soviet Union, of a man beating a sword into a plowshare (cf. Is 2:4; Jl 3:10, Mi 4:3). It was propaganda, but it fairly reminded me of that figure who should be familiar to every schoolboy, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who left his plow to fight at the battle on Mons Algidua and then returned to his arcadian farm.  Another, in the U.N. sculpture garden is a gift of Luxembourg, not a formidable military power, by the Swedish sculptor Carl Fredrick Reuterward. It depicts in bronze a handgun with a twisted barrel. The knotted gun called “Non-Violence” is considered risible by anyone of taste, and is popularly cited as an example of what is called “kitsch.” That term is nearly untranslatable, but it does define a certain sentimental and undisciplined approach to a serious subject. The Vuchetich statue is more plausible. Like cutlery in the hands of a surgeon or a maniac, weapons are morally indifferent and so is their manufacture.  Our Lord, who said that those who live by the sword will also die by the sword, told his disciples that if they did not have a sword, they should sell their cloak and buy one (Lk 22:36). Suffice it to say that the subject is so ponderous that its moral complexity cannot be exhausted by one-line aphorisms.

Secondly, for something completely different, the Holy Father changed the subject  to talk about the Allies in the Second World War who, in his estimation, did not do enough to shut the concentration camps: “Curiously,” as Reuters put it, Pope Francis then complained that “the great powers” during World War II did not end the Shoah sooner by bombing the railway lines to the concentration camps: “The great powers had the pictures of the railway lines that brought the trains to the concentration camps like Auschwitz to kill Jews, Christians, homosexuals, everybody. Why didn’t they bomb [the railway lines]?”  This seems to have been an apostrophe inspired by abstract associations cogent to the Holy Father alone, for most teenagers lack information of the Allied bombing policies seventy years ago, but they cheered nonetheless, perhaps out of goodwill or bewilderment.

Assuming that the Holy Father’s condemnation of arms manufacture is universal and ageless, the first question is, “Where could those bombs have come from, save from manufacturers?” There is the moral dilemma that is the stuff of compromise in every epoch of a fallen world. Obviously, dropping flowers on the railway lines would have been ineffectual, although the Flower Children of the last generation might have tried it, as they stuck daisies into the rifles of National Guardsmen. But that would not have stopped the Nazis, who were indifferent to love bombing, unlike the Samurai who combined bloodlust with bonsai.

Having written a book on moral issues in the Second World War, I am surprised that the Holy Father, holy and paternal as he is, asked the question the way he did. There were various reasons why the Allied forces refrained from bombing the railway lines, some more cogent than others. The consensus, in those days before “smart bombs,” was that there was little chance for effectiveness.  It is true that the Americans had become skilled at precision bombing, but it is also true that the Germans had perfected the technique of quick repair of the rails. Even so, aerial precision still was uncertain, and of the vast fleet that aimed to drop supplies during the Warsaw Uprising in August of 1944, only seven aircraft were successful. Many today who said there should have been more bombings are also quick to condemn Sir Arthur Travis Harris and others for the carpet-bombing of Dresden.

Moreover, bombing access routes to the concentration camps would have interrupted food supplies, meager as they were, worsening the lot of prisoners who also would have been at risk. General Ira Eaker, the Commander of the American Allied Air Forces, favored daylight bombing, which he had already begun near Auschwitz in the summer of 1944. General Carl Spaatz, commander of the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe supported him. But in August of that year, the bombing of a factory at Buchenwald killed 315 prisoners and wounded over 1400. David Ben Gurion, speaking for the Jewish Agency, at first opposed bombings and then reluctantly consented to it when the horrors of the genocide became clear, through Ultra decrypts. There was no settled opinion, for men trained to demonize their enemy were traumatized to realize that this time their enemy truly was demonic. On July 1, Leon Kubowski, head of the Recue Department of the World Jewish Congress wrote to the director of the War Refugee Board:  “The destruction of the death installations cannot be done by bombing from the air, as the first victims would be the Jews who are gathered in these camps, and such a bombing would be a welcome pretext for the Germans to assert that their Jewish victims have been massacred not by their killers, but by the Allied bombers.”

Despite odds, Winston Churchill urged bombing around the camps but yielded to strategic objections of the British Air Ministry that was stretched on several fronts.  It must be said that Franklin Roosevelt was colder than Churchill and blatantly lied to the Polish hero Jan Karski when he promised to do something. Similar was his frigid indifference and dissembling after the Katyn Massacre. Considering the number of innocent lives that would have been lost in bombings, the estimable historian Max Hastings writes in “Winston’s War”: “It is the privilege of posterity to recognize that this would have been a price worth paying. In the full tilt of war … it is possible to understand why the British and Americans failed to act with the energy and commitment which hindsight shows to have been appropriate.” Churchill told his Foreign Secretary: “… all concerned in this crime who may fall into our hands, including the people who only obeyed orders by carrying out these butcheries, should be put to death….” In this he was supported by Pope Pius XII who urged swift hangings at Nuremburg. Last year Pope Francis correctly and graciously defended the reputation of Pius XII against calumny.  Since he opposes capital punishment, one wonders how he would have treated the genocidal criminals.

In this period, Pope Francis was just a child in Argentina, which was neutral but only in name, although its neutrality was not as neuralgic as that of Ireland whose government under DeValera went into official mourning at the death of Hitler, or as cynical as Switzerland whose banks national and private profited nicely from the Nazis. Looking back, Archbishop Bergoglio justly would be satisfied that he never joined a political party, but at the time his country was far from helpful to the world’s great crusade against evil. Indeed, in 1943, Juan Peron went to Germany to sign an agreement with Nazi arms manufacturers. This paved the way after the war for the Argentinian government to issue more than one thousand blank passports, welcoming such as Mengele, Eichman, Stangl, Priebkle and Barbie. The growing influence of Peron and his pre-embalmed wife, would stain more than one generation. Pope Francis had nothing to do with any of that, and his good heart could not be less than repulsed by it. It was characteristic of his pastoral solicitude that the Holy Father famously cautioned us to be careful about judging others. So it wise not to pass judgment off the cuff about circumstances of whose history one is innocent.

No one should be held accountable for the sins of antecedents, be they of commission or omission. But everyone should refrain from playing Monday Morning Quarterback when it comes to wars. In spite of that nice line about Waterloo and Eton, battles are not won on playing fields. Their proportions are blurred by a vision that is retrospect, and their strategies cannot be assessed by impulsive rhetoric far removed from the shouts on the frontline.

(Photo credit: Pope Francis in Turin / REUTERS)

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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