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War Drums

War Drums

CRISIS Magazine

October 10, 2002


Dear Friend,

First things first: I want to thank all of you for your support over the past few days as news of the sniper in the Washington, D.C. area has been unfolding. Life here has mostly continued as usual, but there's still a feeling of helplessness in the face of this fear. How, after all, do you protect yourself from a killer who shoots from 300 yards away?

I admit, it's really hard to hear my daughter, Hannah (who's in middle school herself) ask me if it's safe for her to go to school. I've reassured her as best I can but we're all still a little uneasy. Let's pray for the victims and their families.

As you can guess, the "Beltway Killer" isn't the only cause for anxiety here in the nation's capitol. The increasing talk of war with Iraq is a concern for many Americans, especially those who aren't sure where to turn for guidance in this very delicate situation. For Catholics, the situation is made more complex by having many respected Church leaders weigh in on different sides of the issue.

The Vatican has come out against war in the Middle East, and their UN observer, Archbishop Renato Martino, has called an attack on Iraq "unilateralism, pure and simple," a move that raises serious moral and legal problems.

Bishop Wilton Gregory and the Administrative Committee of the USCCB agreed with Martino. In his letter to President Bush last month, Gregory reiterated that he found it "difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent clear and adequate evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks of September 11th or of an imminent attack of a grave nature." The letter goes on to question the legitimacy of war on Iraq based on some of the principles of the Just War theory, and states that any action taken by the United States against Iraq should first be sanctioned by the UN Security Council.

Needless to say, this is a difficult issue. Do these statements constitute the final word on this matter for Catholics? Can faithful Catholics disagree and still remain in good standing with their conscience and the Church? How do we balance these conflicting interests?

For Catholics who are still trying to make up their minds, we wanted to open a discussion on the issue to help us all make an informed decision. First, however, a couple clarifications need to be made.

First, if you're worried about the bishops' insistence that the UN must approve a strike against Iraq, don't be. It's certainly prudential for the US to seek the judgment of other nations in our actions, but whether the UN finally approves has little bearing on the just nature of the war. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and other Just War theorists certainly didn't have the United Nations -- or any one-world-government schema -- in mind when they laid forth the basic principles for determining whether a war is just.

And really, it seems pretty ridiculous to trust the UN to be an authority in matters of ethics or morals. After all, this is the same group that has long been a supporter of family planning, population control, and other such anti-Catholic positions. The Church has never sought their advice on these issues, so trusting them now to determine whether this war is "just" is nonsensical.

But this brings me to another concern: If the bishops tell us that the US should seek UN approval in a war on Iraq, or that this war is unjust, isn't it our responsibility as faithful Catholics to agree with them?


Now, I know what you're thinking -- no one has been louder than me in insisting that we must be faithful and respectful to the hierarchy of the Church. After all, isn't that why I dislike Voice of the Faithful, because they pose a challenge to the Church's teachings?

This is certainly true. We must always be respectful of the hierarchy, and we are bound by the Church's moral judgments. It's the bishops' job to teach, and it's our job as lay Catholics to listen. However, this issue of Just War is a prudential judgment on which Catholics can disagree and still remain in perfectly good standing with the Church.

Let me explain what I mean by a "prudential judgment." A quick way of defining it is applying right reason or moral imperatives to everyday situations. The Church and its leaders are always indispensable in helping us form our moral framework for making these kinds of decisions. Sometimes, the decision is clear: Abortion, for example, is a direct affront to the Church's teaching on the sanctity of human life. There can be no room for debate on how we as Catholics must act, given this truth.

However, other problems allow for more diversity of opinion. In the case of war with Iraq, Catholics ...

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