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Rome Notes: Cardinal Stafford on War and the Church's Thinking

Critiques Positions by Some Catholic Scholars

by Delia Gallagher

ROME, MAY 24, 2004 (Zenit) - Some views recently voiced by Catholic scholars on Church teaching about war and on John Paul II's positions may have missed the point, says Cardinal James Francis Stafford.

In this interview, the American cardinal critiqued some of the views that have surfaced in the face of ongoing debates about the Iraq war. The cardinal is the major penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a tribunal of the Holy See, and a former archbishop of Denver.

The opinions offered by some Catholic scholars have put a focus on key questions such as: Is there a presumption against war in Catholic teaching? What does the Pope mean when he speaks of humanitarian intervention? What is the Holy See's position on the United Nations, an organization that not infrequently opposes Catholic teaching?

Cardinal Stafford in particular responded to comments made by scholars George Weigel and James Turner Johnson at a conference in Rome in late April.

Weigel asked: "Is the Catholic Church's position on the morally legitimate use of armed force -- whether that position is manifest in the personal witness of the Pope, the diplomacy of the Holy See, or the 'default position' found in the relevant Vatican agencies -- a kind of functional pacifism, a way of thinking that retains the intellectual apparatus of the just war tradition of moral reasoning but that always comes down at the bottom line in opposition to the use of armed force?"

"Recent events might seem to justify a positive answer to that question," Weigel said. "But then what is one to do with John Paul II's insistence on a 'duty' of 'humanitarian intervention' which would presumably include the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force, in cases of impending or actual genocide?"

To these questions, Cardinal Stafford responded: "The Pope speaks first not of humanitarian intervention but of humanitarian assistance."

"In his World Day of Peace Message 2000, the Pope allowed the right of 'humanitarian assistance,'" the cardinal said. "He speaks of this within the context of 'the armed conflicts taking place within states. ... For the most part, they are rooted in long-standing historical motives of an ethnic, tribal or even religious character, to which must be added nowadays, other ideological, social and economic causes. These internal conflicts, usually waged through the large-scale use of small-caliber weapons and so-called "light arms" -- arms which in fact are extraordinarily lethal -- often have grave consequences which spill over the borders of the country in question, involving outside interests and responsibilities.'"

"In the first place, the Pope speaks of humanitarian aid," Cardinal Stafford continued. "He described this as 'the pre-eminent value of humanitarian law and the consequent duty to guarantee the right to humanitarian aid to suffering civilians and refugees.' He then insists on the greatest importance of continued negotiation in such conflicts.

"Then the Pope speaks of humanitarian intervention. He says, 'When a civilian population risks being overcome by the attacks of an unjust aggressor and political efforts and non-violent defense prove to be of no avail, it is legitimate and even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor.'"

"So the context of humanitarian intervention is: How does one get aid to people who are being oppressed by internal conflict within a given state?" noted the cardinal. "George Weigel's interpretation of the Pope's teaching on humanitarian intervention is excessively abbreviated and even misleading in what he omits."

"Weigel says that he presumes that such intervention would 'include the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force in cases of impending and actual genocide,'" Cardinal Stafford said.

"I find it curious that he makes no mention of the Pope's immediate qualifiers regarding the decision for 'humanitarian intervention,' which are severe and specific," he added. "'These measures must be limited in time and precise in their aims. They must be carried out in full respect for international law, guaranteed by an authority that is internationally recognized and in any event never left to the outcome of armed conflict alone.'"

The cardinal continued: "The chief qualifier is that, 'the fullest and best use must therefore be made of all the provisions of the United Nations Charter.' That's important, the qualifiers that are not mentioned either by Weigel or Turner; that is, you must have respect for international law, you must involve the internationally recognized organization."

Presumption against conflict

In a 1983 document, the U.S. bishops' conference contended that Catholic teaching contains a "presumption against war."

Johnson and Weigel contend that the U.S. bishops have misrepresented the Catholic just war tradition by claiming that it begins with a "presumption against war," so that "the function of the just war criteria is to overturn the 'presumption against war.'"

To this, Cardinal Stafford responded: "The Pope's teaching in his 2000 message is equivalent to the meaning of the U.S. bishops' phrase of 'presumption against war': 'War is a defeat for humanity. Only in peace and through peace can respect for human dignity and its inalienable rights be guaranteed. Against the backdrop of war in the 20th century, humanity's honor has been preserved by those who have spoken and worked on behalf of peace. ... Those who have built their lives on the value of non-violence have given us luminous and prophetic examples.'"

"It should be noted," Cardinal Stafford said, "that the Pope explicitly places his emphatic choice of peace against the background of 20th-century total warfare, not the tribal conflicts of fifth-century North Africa where the first enunciation of the just war criteria were developed by St. Augustine. I think that one should look at the bishops' statement in light of the Pope's abhorrence for war and when he says it is a defeat for mankind.

"The Pope himself is building upon the experience of the 20th century and modifying, as he perceives it, the just war criteria. Augustine says nowhere as clearly as the Pope does, 'War is a defeat for humanity.'"

The cardinal continued: "I think there is an evolution in light not only of John Paul II but Benedict XV, his 1917 proposal for the peace plan, which was rejected by the Allies, and in John XXIII in 1963 against the backdrop of the total warfare that was seen in Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Dresden ... that is the wholesale disregard for the civilian populations."

"It doesn't lead to functional pacifism but it is leading to a presumption against preventive war," Cardinal Stafford said. "The Pope is saying that we must exhaust every possible means including the U.N. before this presumption is able to be overcome. I don't think that's being emphasized by neoconservative arguments."

The United Nations

The Pope's emphasis on the U.N. role in international law is countered by neoconservatives who contend that the United Nations is an inefficient organization, incapable of carrying out its mandates and, worse, supportive of policies that directly oppose the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Johnson calls the United Nations "inept." Weigel says it is surprising that the Holy See's support of the organization "has intensified at the same time the U.N. and its affiliated agencies have adopted policies with respect to abortion, the family and the proper response to the AIDS pandemic in Africa that are opposed to the moral teaching of the Catholic Church."

Cardinal Stafford admitted that he too is "discomforted" by some positions of the United Nations. But he says that is a "different tract."

"The Pope in various World Youth Day messages emphasized the importance not simply of relying upon the U.N. as it exists now, but of a further enhancement of its peacemaking capacities," the cardinal said. "As a matter of fact, we are living in a world in which the only pre-eminent, internationally recognized authority is the U.N.

"I'm convinced that the Holy See must critically discern the role of non-governmental organizations which are very strong activists for the anti-family, anti-life, anti-conception, pro-abortion positions and pro-gay positions that the U.N. has adopted or is seen to be moving towards. But that is a different tract and I think there are important allies that transcend cultures, including Islamic nations, that the Holy See and Catholic and Christian peoples throughout the world can rely upon regarding these issues."

"We're living in a very ambiguous moral situation in which both the wheat and the tares are growing together and you know what Jesus said about that: Let them grow together," said Cardinal Stafford.

"How long does one tolerate that?" he asked. "The time has not yet come to say that we must jettison the Church's support of the U.N. based upon the immoral positions they're taking on family, marriage and life issues."


Finally, Cardinal Stafford pointed out an important element of Catholic teaching on the war, mentioned repeatedly by John Paul II, which has been ignored in debates on the issue.

"No one makes any mention of the Pope's repeated and major theme in most of his World Day of Peace messages at least since 2001, of the absolutely foundational need for forgiveness," the cardinal said. "Pope John XXIII spoke of this in 1963 when he said that a program for peace is based 'on the Gospel of obedience to God, mercy and forgiveness.' Major portions of the World Day of Peace messages since 2001 have been devoted to forgiveness and reconciliation.

"No one is talking about the Christian understanding and practice of forgiveness which are unique. It would be important to study the Muslim understanding of forgiveness. It doesn't seem to be a central theme, although the suras, divisions, of the Koran open with the beautiful invocational formula, 'in the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.' Compassionate and merciful implies a God who is forgiving, and Muslims mention forgiveness in some of their prayers."

Cardinal Stafford continued: "The Pope places such great stress upon forgiveness as a condition for peace -- forgiveness of one human being to another, and not only that, but of one society to another: that is, to forgive the whole past of the crusades or the nations of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, before Vienna. The forgiveness of all of that, is not only individual, but societal and cultural. How much of that really rings true in the Muslim faith. What role does forgiveness have?"

"The Muslim religion rejects the idea of redemption," the cardinal observed. "Muslims reject the idea of redemption because they want to place thorough emphasis on the human responsibility for one's sinfulness. And that one must, in a Pelagian way, open oneself totally to the mercy of God. But there doesn't seem to be much emphasis in the horizontal element of forgiveness.

"Is there anything in Muslim religion that would parallel the central position given to forgiveness in the Our Father: 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us'? Jesus insists on the essential connection between vertical forgiveness and horizontal forgiveness."

The cardinal continued: "It would be useful to have a dialogue based upon the Holy Father's teachings from 2001 and going back to Blessed John XXIII in 1963, about the foundation of peace today to be forgiveness, reconciliation -- and their resonance in the Islamic religious tradition."

He added: "None of the participants including the dialogue that I read in First Things between the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and George Weigel speaks of the centrality of the Pope's teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation as a condition for peace -- or rather as a creative way of bringing about international peace."


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