This week, Pope Francis informed an audience in Turin that gun manufacturers—and those invested in the weapons industries—were hypocrites if they called themselves Christians. Francis, who earlier this year accused weapons makers of participating in an “industry of death,” explained: “It makes me think of … people, managers, businessmen who call themselves Christian and they manufacture weapons. That leads to a bit a distrust, doesn’t it?”
Well, not really.
This piece comes with customary caveat that English-speaking media tends to tweak the translation of the Pope’s messages just enough to mislead or strip it of proper context—or sometimes, miss the point entirely. But let’s just say his position is not compatible with the conventional American view that peace can be achieved through superior firepower. Of course, no one should expect the Pope to mollycoddle arms dealers (and I leave the theological discussion about his comments to those more invested in what he says) but, as a historical matter, the Pope may consider that some weapon makers can be a force for good.
For starters, if you consider that self-defense is a civil right— and, to some extent, most Americans still give this notion some lip service—a quick reading of European history tells us it can be perilous for minorities to be denied the right to bear arms. Being defenseless can be even more dangerous than owning an air conditioner, in some instances. And since the Pope brings it up, let’s consider the Jews, who were left without any means of defending themselves not that long ago.
Here’s the Pope on the topic in that Turin talk:
He spoke of the “tragedy of the Shoah,” using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust “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)?”
A thought-provoking question. Also mystifying, considering Francis’ other contention. If the Allies had disrupted the rail lines to concentration camps, wouldn’t those who manufactured the bombs that made saving them possible be engaged in a moral pursuit? One imagines the Jews, Christians, homosexuals, and everybody else involved, would have thought so. In 1948 and 1967, when Jews were armed (with weapons sold to them by predominantly French Catholics) they were able to insure that comparable cruelty was not visited on them again.
But let’s make it more personal, and point out that the Pope has been protected by the Swiss Guard since the 1500s— and those guys pack an array of high-powered contemporary weaponry to gets the job done. Because, unless everyone in the world retires their weapons there’s always going to be some malicious types with plans.
Then, of course, there is history that most of you are probably familiar with to consider.
The Cold War
More than that, Catholicism may have survived German-style fascism for a while, but it was their faith and an arsenal of extraordinarily destructive weaponry that saved millions of Catholics from falling under the atheistic tyranny of Communism. Without Western weapon makers, things may have turned out a bit differently for the righteous.
Battle of Lepanto
One the most famous naval engagements in history pitted forces of the Holy League, Christians supported by Pope Pius V, against the invading Ottoman Turks. It was the first major victory for a Christian naval force over a Turkish fleet, a victory driven, by, among other things, technological advances in weaponry. Here’s Victor Davis Hanson in “Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power”:
In truth, the six colossal oddities were recently constructed Venetian galleasses. Each carried nearly fifty heavy guns – bristling from starboard and port, shooting over the bow and from the poop deck, guns it seemed booming everywhere. Each of these novel monstrosities could deliver more than six times as much shot as the largest oared ship in Europe- and in terms of firepower alone were worth a dozen of the sultan’s galleys.
When the news of the military victory reached Pius V he offered a prayer in St. Peter’s Basilica and spoke of his hopes for similar victories in the future. Even though Europe ended up losing some ground later on, it was this victory that help consolidate Christian forces against the invading Muslims and, thus, helped save Italy from minarets.
For a few centuries, at least.
Battle of Vienna
For two months a giant Ottoman army surrounded the Vienna before being repelled by armies of the Holy Roman Empire and others, effectively ending the threat of Muslim incursions into central Europe. One imagines that the Pope didn’t accuse Polish King Jan III Sobieski of being ‘the savior of Western European civilization’ because he was showering his enemy with goodwill.
Battle of Tours
Gibbons offered his famous counter-historical observation that Tours “rescued our ancestors of Britain, and our neighbours of Gaul, from the civil and religious yoke of the Koran.” Charles Martel— whose grandchild would be crowned emperor by the Pope— against a much larger Islamic army that would be have marched through France and, who knows, perhaps all of Europe. Instead, the Arab army retreated south over the Pyrenees never to come back. As Ed Creasy put it, “The progress of civilization, and the development of the nationalities and governments of modern Europe, from that time fort went forward in not uninterrupted, but, ultimately, certain career.”
The Battle of the Milvian Bridge
The night before the battle with his Roman rival Maxentius, pagan Emperor Constantine is said to have seen a vision in which God instructed him to engrave Christian crosses on army’s shields. After an impressive victory, Constantine attributed his good fortune to God. Within in one year, he would allow Christians—and others—the freedom to practice their religion in the empire. Though Constantine did not retire his army. Since he, like we, still had enemies in this world. Someone needs to make weapons to help defend against them. The Pope should know this. After all, his own Church would be very different without them.