Bishop addresses 'white flag' comments

Published: April 1, 2024

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor issued the following statement, March 25, 2024, regarding Pope Francis’ “white flag” comments March 9, 2024.

"Not a few people were perplexed by Pope Francis’ comment in an interview with Swiss broadcaster RSI, taken out of context that Ukraine should have what he called the courage of the 'white flag' and negotiate an end to its war with Russia. 

"The way the comment unfolded was as follows: In the interview, Pope Francis was asked for his position on a debate between 1.) those who say Ukraine should give up its fight — fly a white flag, presumably of surrender, because despite their valiant efforts and inspiring courage, their efforts are ultimately futile because there is simply no long-term prospect of victory over the vastly more powerful Russian army; and 2.) those who say giving up the fight would simply legitimize the aggression and perhaps set the stage for further aggression.

"Pope Francis did not take either side in this debate but did weigh in on the underlying prudential question and he did so by drawing on the traditional teaching of the Church to emphasize the need for negotiation.

"It was in this context that he took up the interviewer’s language of a 'white flag' but modified it to call not for surrender but rather for a truce during which both parties take the time to look clearly at the situation and search for a way to resolve the underlying issues, which will require the courage of dispassionate negotiation. 

"Pope Francis said, 'The word negotiate is a courageous word. When you see that you are defeated, that things are not going well, you have to have the courage to negotiate.'

"Elsewhere he said, 'Do not be ashamed of negotiating, before things get worse' and in reference to the war between Israel and Hamas, he reiterated that 'negotiation is never a surrender.'

 The Teaching of the Church

"Since the time of St. Augustine, the Catholic Church has used the Just War Theory to help discern when and how force might be applied in the defense of the nation in time of conflict — a timely topic in these days of Russian aggression against Ukraine and the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

"The teaching of the Church regarding war and peace is spelled out clearly in articles 2263-2267 and 2302-2317 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). According to the Just War Theory, all the following must be in place before a military response can be considered legitimate. When any of these are missing, negotiation and non-violent resistance are the only legitimate options. 

  • DEFENSE ONLY — A military response can only be undertaken in defense (CCC 2263-2267) against an aggressor bent on inflicting damage that is lasting, grave and certain.
  • LAST RESORT — All other means of putting an end to the conflict must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.
  • PROPORTIONAL — The use of arms must not produce evils greater than the evils to be eliminated.
  • NOT FUTILE — There must be a serious prospect of success against the enemy. 

"An assessment of the sufficient presence of these factors is, in part, a prudential matter, but it is clear from the perspective of the Just War Theory, that the main problem we face in the conflict between Israel and Hamas is that the third element is missing. 

"With more than 30,000 Palestinian civilian deaths, the use of arms has produced evils greater than the evils of Hamas to be eliminated. Moreover, though Israel’s initial response was a defensive reaction against an aggressor bent on inflicting grave damage, Israel has subsequently pursued an aggressive goal of subjugating the entire Gaza Strip in their effort to destroy Hamas, with the result that the first element is also now missing.

"The problem we face in Ukraine is that without military allies the fourth element is missing. More and more people are realizing Ukraine’s diminishing prospects of long-term victory, and thus it would not be moral to sacrifice more lives in an increasingly futile struggle simply for the honor of the homeland. 

"If NATO were to step in, the prospect of Ukrainian military success would be greatly improved, but then it becomes likely that the use of arms by these nuclear powers would produce evils greater than the evil to be eliminated, even if only conventional weapons are used. 

"For one thing, many more people would die, and concern over the tens of thousands of Ukrainian deaths so far underlies Pope Francis’ repeated appeals for what he calls 'martyred Ukraine' and his repeated offer to assist with mediation.

"And then, once war has begun, the acts of war must:

  • SPARE CIVILIANS — Military actions must not target the civilian population, including using famine and starvation as a weapon, and
  • SPARE NON-THREATENING COMBATANTS — Military actions must not target combatants who have surrendered or otherwise no longer present an immediate lethal threat.

"The Just War Theory sets high standards for a legitimate entrance into a war and even higher standards for right conduct within a war. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the initial unprovoked attack against Israeli civilians by Hamas and the subsequent manner in which Israel is conducting its pursuit of Hamas are among the most blatant violations in our lifetime, but the fact is that no war in recent memory has met all the Just War criteria and probably very few in the last 1,600 years since St. Augustine. 

"Therefore, the time has come to recognize that since the Just War criteria are almost never met, conflicts need to be resolved through negotiation and other nonviolent means instead. That is the point that the Holy Father is making.

"Many people are suffering the effects of war in Gaza and Israel, in Ukraine and Russia, as well as many other parts of the world. Let us pray for those who have lost their lives and their loved ones in these conflicts and all other acts of violence throughout the world."

Sincerely in Christ,
+Anthony B. Taylor
Bishop of Little Rock