‘The Absurdity of War’

I have had a subscription to the weekly English edition of L’Osservatore Romano ever since it began. It is a most valuable printed source: While many papal statements can now be found online at the Vatican Web site, having these at hand, in print, made the journal worthwhile.
Pope Benedict XVI, a man of prodigious intellectual enterprise, appears much less frequently in its pages these days than did his predecessors, also men of great capacities. (I preferred the earlier edition where I could regularly consult printed materials of the popes.) The current English edition is more like a newspaper, or a journal of opinion, where the editor and a host of other writers cover subjects more or less related to the Church.

Some of this commentary is all right, I suppose. But it is less useful than when each edition was mainly devoted to papal statements of various kinds. Benedict speaks less, though he has written more.
In any newspaper, we sometimes run across odd headlines. For example, the August 5 edition of L’Osservatore Romano carried the following headline: “Priest Who Served Without Distinction Killed in India.” The story is a tragic one: A Mangalore priest is found murdered by a roadside in southern India. What the headline meant to say, I suppose, was that here was a good priest who calmly served his people. But in English, “to serve without distinction” is not exactly a compliment.
Two items from the September 9 edition I found particularly perplexing. The pope was in Viterbo, “the City of Popes.” At the centerfold was the Holy Father’s brief “Angelus” reflection. The headlines say: “Memories of War Warn against Future Violence.” This is just after September 1, the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Poland. The text of the pope’s talk says nothing about war but rather speaks about the popes who were born in this area.
At the end, in only 40 column lines, the pope noted a congress beginning in Krakow. World War II was “one of the most terrible wars in history.” He acknowledged the Holocaust and other deaths. Talking to all sides, he hoped it is a warning not to “repeat” such conflict. He proposed a culture of love and solidarity: We are to foster “forgiveness and reconciliation against the violence, racism, totalitarianism and extremism that disfigure the image of the creator of humankind . . . .”
Nothing is found on whether the war resulting from this infamous Polish invasion was necessary. “Violence, racism, totalitarianism, and extremism” are abstractions. The headlines could have more logically read, “Memories of War Warn against Failure to Stop Unjust Invasions.”
The pope’s Wednesday audience of September 2 is also found in the same edition. The printed text of the audience is about St. Odo of Cluny (880-942). As far as I can tell, not a single word about war or violence is found in this discussion of St. Odo, who was concerned rather with “the fragility of the world.” He was devoted to the Eucharist. For “the immensity of vices widespread in society, the remedy he strongly recommended was that of a radical change of life, based on humility, austerity, detachment from ephemeral things and adherence to those that are eternal.” This is not war talk.
Above this exhortation on St. Odo, the L’Osservatore headline reads: “The Absurdity of War: Benedict Remembers the Tragedy of World War II During His General Audience Catechesis.” What is more, smack in the middle of the papal text on St. Odo, we find a reprint of Marc Chagall’s vivid 1964 painting called War. Something seems amiss. Odo of Cluny and Chagall speak to different issues.
Several writers note a kind of pacifism in certain Roman circles. I can hardly think that this pope, of all people, would judge that World War II was simply unnecessary. Rewriting history back into abstractions like “violence, racism, totalitarianism, and extremism” will never do.
Perhaps some sub-editor of the online text got mixed up with another address? Poor Odo of Cluny busied himself not with the “absurdity of war,” but with forming a new monastic system under his jurisdiction as the second Abbot of Cluny.
September 1, 1939, forces us to ask another question: Which was more “absurd,” finally — to fight that war or to capitulate by not lifting a finger to stop it? It strikes me that blaring headlines like “the Absurdity of War” are themselves silly, especially when used to introduce Abbot Odo of Cluny.
By identifying “war” with an abstraction that makes no distinction between invasion and defense, just or unjust, we do not make war “absurd.” We do, however, render ourselves unlikely to make the distinctions necessary to prevent everything from becoming unjust. War is not simply “absurd.” Not thinking about it surely is.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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