On a Sunday in June, one century ago tomorrow, Franz Ferdinand Karl Ludwig Josef von Habsburg-Lothringen, Archduke of Austria-Este, Austro-Hungarian and Royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia and his loving wife, Sophie Maria Josephine Albina Grafin Chotek von Chotkow und Wognin, Duchess of Hohenberg were shot in cold blood in front of a German delicatessen in Sarajevo after their driver made the most consequential wrong turn all of history. The circumstances which would engulf the entire world in the conflagration of war are depressingly similar to what we find today. The greatest guarantee of peace is uncontested strength, but unfortunately our president remains unconvinced of this reality of international affairs, and peace remains predictably elusive.
Throughout history, the perception of weakness has always preceded wars of revenge and conquest. One hundred years ago, it was the very real weakness of the Ottoman Empire and the self-perceived inferiority of the German Reich which led to their isolation and escalated the dark events of June 28, 1914 into a global war which devastated much of Europe and destroyed so many young men of the “lost generation.” Today we find similar conditions in the same part of the world. Europe is weak, Russia has an inferiority complex, and Muslim fundamentalists yearn for greater glory and power. These are dangerous times.
As we celebrate the great feast of Saints Peter and Paul this Sunday, we should consider that these two great apostles of the Church bear potent symbols of strength and security: the crossed keys and the sword respectively. As Christians we must eschew violence and seek peaceful resolution to our disputes, but we also cannot be under any illusion that pacifism alone will defend the faithful against the forces of the evil one. In both temporal and spiritual warfare, it would be foolish to leave the gates unlocked and to go into battle unarmed. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson maintained a policy of idealistic and arguably reckless pacifism, but this would not prevent us from being drawn into the war by 1917.
In a spiritual sense, we must gird our hearts and souls with the protections of the sacraments and carry forth the flaming sword of righteousness into the darkness of a world poisoned with sin and iniquity, but also in a physical sense, we must face the very real dangers and persecutions which await our brothers and sisters in Christ with more than just hashtags and our prayers. There is also a place for faithful Christians to defend one another–and especially the innocent–against aggression and oppression and genocidal maniacs with force if necessary.
The Catholic teaching of just war is a difficult proposition. Looking back a century ago, there was nothing just or fair or noble about the carnage and maelstrom of what was foolishly praised as the “war to end all wars.” Though we always pray for peace, there will always be wars, so we should also pray that none ever again equal the desolation of the World Wars. In our age of weapons of mass destruction, asymmetric warfare, and terrorist cells, we should never pursue military actions which are likely to harm innocent civilians, but at the same time, Christians in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa have suffered mightily in recent times because the great powers of the world did not intervene. Christian communities in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Egypt are desperately holding out. The Christian populations of Iran and Turkey have all but vanished. Many martyrs have suffered and died for our shared Christian faith in that part of the world. If we remain passive in foreign affairs, the same course is sure to continue.
We can learn from history, or we can repeat it. The late great historical theorist of our time, Samuel Huntington, predicted the very same events which we now see today. Civilizational and sectarian fault lines are rupturing in the Ukraine, across the Maghreb, and in the Holy Land. The great powers of the last age are weak and ineffective and new powers are rising to take their place. We live in a time of transition, but it is not too late to influence the course of history to protect the innocent from bloodshed and to defend our fellow Christians from genocide. We live in a time when America still wields enormous and uncontestable power to shape world events. We can use this power to defend the weak from wicked men, or we can wait for the inevitable trigger which will plunge the world once again into chaos and unfathomable destruction.