The debate over what Pope Francis meant when he talked about U.S. airstrikes in Iraq

Pope Francis is making news again in what has become his signature pattern: Passionate comments, followed by intense debate about what he really meant. This time the topic is U.S. airstrikes in Iraq.

During an airborne news conference on his way home from Seoul on Monday, Francis was asked explicitly: “Do you approve [of] the American bombing?” The question was set up by saying that the United States is “bombing the terrorists in Iraq, to prevent a genocide, to protect minorities, including Catholics.”

Francis avoided addressing details of the Iraq conflict, instead going into a more general discussion of Catholic theory and teaching on war.

“In these cases where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say this: It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means. With what means can they be stopped? These have to be evaluated. To stop the unjust aggressor is licit,” he said, according to a transcript by America magazine.

He then warned that at times in the past stopping a war has been simply pretense for a war of conquest. Decisions about how to stop an unjust aggressor, Francis said, should not be decided by any one nation.

Did a pope just endorse war on a Muslim nation? Or the opposite – was he remarkably restrained in an era when Christianity’s homeland is being violently emptied of Christians? Polling in the spring showed Americans divided about airstrikes on Iraq, but as atrocities by Sunni insurgents have built up over the summer, experts say American hesitance is fueled by confusion not about the use of force but about what it might accomplish.

Catholic teaching on war – called “just war theory” – has always mandated as a requirement of force that conditions will be improved in its aftermath.

Many saw Francis as approving of the strikes, calling his words a remarkable green light on war by a pope.

“He thinks the efforts undertaken are moral and necessary,” said John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University and a longtime adviser to U.S. bishops on peace issues. “I thought he was remarkably candid. He said: In this case, you need to disarm the aggressor and that should be the goal. Halt, not bomb. I think he doesn’t see this as a war. He sees it as action to protect the innocent.”

Brendan McGuire, who teaches history at Christendom College, a Catholic school in Front Royal, Va., said Pope Francis did not endorse U.S. strikes – nor did he condemn them. By enunciating a principle and not commenting on this specific case, McGuire said, Francis reflected the tightrope he walks as leader of the world’s largest Christian community.

“In general people are horrified by what’s going on and it’s not clear what to do. And since Sept. 11, almost everything [the United States] has done in the Middle East has affected Christians in a deleterious way,” McGuire said. “I think what he’s really advocating for is United Nations’ involvement. That’s what the papacy wants.”

Other higher-ups at the Vatican have been more explicit. Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative at the United Nations in Geneva, criticized the “indifference” of the international community and called for “political and even effective military protection” for Christians in Iraq. Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, the Vatican’s representative to Iraq, told Vatican radio that airstrikes were “something that had to be done.”

Francis would hardly be the first modern pope to advocate the use of force. Pope John Paul in 1991 — in the context of the first Gulf War — declared himself “not a pacifist.” That same decade he urged the United States to intervene in the Bosnian conflict. But John Paul and Benedict opposed President Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

But Francis, who in recent months has tweeted — to many thousands of retweets — “War never again! Never again war!” — is walking a particular line. Sensitivities between Muslims and Christians have only been exacerbated in recent years. And after all, he did name himself after Saint Francis, an emblem of humility.