Can Catholics Fight This War?

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A most interesting discussion concerning the morality of the Iraq war has finally reached the level of the troops in the trenches. It comes from a most unusual quarter — the Catholic Church. Its implications might be profound.

Catholic servicemen and women, wherever they serve, have their own “diocese,” called the Military Ordinariate. They have their own Archbishop, the Most Reverend Edwin F. O’Brien. On March 25, after the war was already under way, Archbishop O’Brien addressed all the chaplains under his command in a pastoral letter commemorating the Feast of the Annunciation of Mary, March 25. It offers a fascinating insight to the war.

As everyone knows, Pope John Paul II condemned the war long before it started. However, Bishop John Botean, head of a small Byzantine Catholic diocese based in Ohio, went further in a pastoral letter, warning those in his flock not to take part in the war, under pain of mortal sin. After a careful consideration of the Just War theory as explained in the Catholic Catechism, Bishop Botean concluded:

With moral certainty I say to you it [the Iraq War] does not meet even the minimal standards of the Catholic just war theory… I hereby authoritatively state that such direct participation is intrinsically and gravely evil and therefore absolutely forbidden.

Archbishop O’Brien’s letter addressed these issues in a most curious way. He told his priests that they could comfort those in combat units under their pastoral care who might be troubled in conscience, with the following:

Given the complexity of factors involved, many of which understandably remain confidential, it is altogether appropriate for members of our armed forces to presume the integrity of our leadership and its judgments and therefore to carry out their military duties in good conscience.

Archbishop O’Brien continued:

Long after the hostilities cease the debate likely will continue as to the moral justification for the armed force recently initiated by the United States and its allies. It is to be hoped that all factors which have led to our intervention will eventually be made public and that the full picture of the Iraqi regime’s weaponry and brutality will shed helpful light upon our President’s decision.

Archbishop O’Brien is careful not to endorse the war, or to indulge in patriotic rhetoric to motivate the troops. Instead, he carefully and clearly addresses the abiding, persistent secrecy surrounding the genesis of the war and its conduct. Many “complex factors” contributed to the war policy. We have yet to hear the whole story, because some people don’t want us to.

Archbishop O’Brien is not talking about troop movements and other confidential battlefield arrangements. Rather, he is addressing the unspoken reasons that require we go to war in the first place. They have not been revealed by the war’s advocates within the Bush administration. Discussion has been forbidden, “understandably” and resolutely.

But not permanently. “The debate likely will continue” — indeed, it cannot end — until “all factors which have led to our intervention [are] made public.” Only then will we know the truth about the “integrity of our leadership.”

Archbishop O’Brien is hopeful, but he doesn’t appear to be holding his breath. One thing should be evident: while the armed forces can enter the battle with a clear conscience, their leaders have a greater burden to bear. If they have lied, if they have been corrupted, if they have tried to hide the truth — even if they are successful in the short run — the powerful who have broken the commandments of God and sent men and women in harm’s way to fulfill their own venal designs will face Our Lord at a moment of His own choosing. Then everything that is hidden will be revealed. The punishment for the unrepentant will be harrowing, and eternal. That is why we pray for our nation’s leaders at every Mass, because the temptations of power are so great, and the punishment for its abuse is so severe.

Catholic Americans have been lied to before. Students at Catholic University in Washington supported Woodrow Wilson’s re-election in 1916 because he lied to them about his intentions regarding World War I. Midwestern American Catholics supported Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election in 1940 because he lied about his intentions regarding World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Catholics fought for “freedom” in that war, but, when it was over, FDR betrayed more than one hundred million Eastern European Christians to his friend and ally Josef Stalin. The road to the Viet Nam war started with the assassination of elected, Catholic President Diem in a coup orchestrated by the U.S. State Department. It goes on and on.

Archbishop O’Brien knows all to well how these things work. His job is to save souls, not to approve ambitious political agendas. This might well account for his less-than-emphatic but comforting words to the fighting men and women of our armed forces that, should combat put them in harm’s way, their souls will not be endangered merely because they wear the American military uniform.

In spite of his high military rank, Archbishop O’Brien has good reason to be suspicious about the true aims of the war’s champions. Under imperfect circumstances, he advises his chaplains that combat is “appropriate”; how long did he mull over that word? He does not say it is “mandatory” or “advisable” or “natural” or “patriotic” or “Christian,” it is “appropriate for members of our armed forces to presume the integrity of our leadership and its judgments and therefore to carry out their military duties in good conscience.”

It could also be “appropriate” for them to reach the opposite conclusion, of course, but he doesn’t need to spell that out to battle-hardened chaplains who deal with death every day.

Archbishop O’Brien’s letter does not constitute an endorsement of the war. Far from it. What it constitutes is a shot across the bow of the cadres who have conjured up this conquest in secret. “This debate will continue,” he warns, and “all factors which have led to our intervention will eventually be made public.”

Archbishop O’Brien’s letter, when viewed in light of John Paul II’s condemnation of the war as immoral, and Bishop Botean’s warning about grave mortal sin, constitute a dire warning. The archbishop hopes that “all factors” will be brought to light in the debate, and I hope he is right. But Catholics believe that Christ, the author of all truth, is the light of the world. The Archbishop wants to shed that light into all the secret corners of duplicity and pride. The Prince of Darkness will not be pleased; he will fight that with every fiber of his infernal being.

Once all the facts and agendas are revealed, what if the debate reveals that the war was illegitimate after all? The issue of legitimacy was raised already in 1996, when the Catholic periodical “First Things” featured a variety of articles addressing the question, is the American government still legitimate? The particular question centered on the imperial judiciary, and focused on the Supreme Court’s legalization of abortion on demand. But the drama went much further than the abortion debate. Here were some of the finest Catholic minds in America, calmly discussing whether we owed any allegiance to our national government at all, and whether it might be a good time to have a revolution.

An uproar ensued. Boston University sociologist Peter Berger resigned from the board of the journal, as did the writer and critic, Gertrude Himmelfarb. She wrote a letter to Father Richard Neuhaus, the editor, asserting the abiding legitimacy of the U.S. government, using first the radical left as her foil, and then the evil Moslems:

Slavery did not illegitimize the Founding, as some radical historians suggest. Nor did the Vietnam War (an “unjust war,” many claimed) illegitimize the government of that time. By the same token, the appalling errors of the present judiciary (in respect to abortion particularly) do not illegitimize the government today. If abortion is the litmus test of a moral law that cannot be violated by positive law, then all of the Western democracies that legalize abortion — and do so by the legislative rather than judicial process — are illegitimate. (Indeed, the only legitimate governments would be Iraq, Iran, and the like.) [emphasis added]

Stunning. Iraq might be a legitimate government under Saddam! Bill Kristol (Himmelfarb’s son), call home!

But she was not serious. Catholics, on the other hand, are very serious. We consider abortion to be an issue that can threaten, if not destroy, the very legitimacy of our government. Today the United States is leading a bloody battle to revolutionize the Iraqi regime — and, if the most fervent warriors have their way, our armies will attack as many other regimes as they can topple in the Middle East. Yet, the first item our military governors will deliver to these countries as part of the new American-led political administration is — abortion.

Ms. Himmelfarb is correct. Iraq, Iran, and other Islamic societies do not permit abortion. But if our “success” in Afghanistan is any indication, American government “aid” agencies will be plying Iraqis with abortifacients, abortion counseling, and abortion itself, all as part of our ubiquitous and mandatory “family planning” programs funded by the U.S. taxpayer.

Ironically, American Catholics whose bravery and blood bring “freedom” to Iraq might find revolting just how the U.S. Government-imposed regime proceeds to “liberate” Iraqi society. In Saddam they had a secular Stalinist. In Uncle Sam they will have a secular American apparat that will consider Iraq its playground for social and cultural experimentation and control. Already bureaucrats at State and Defense are fighting to see whose prime movers get the choice spots. There they can practice for their future role in running the Brave New World as America liberates one evil kingdom after another.

Ah, to be queen for a day! Perhaps it can best be visualized as one massive American government school that features remedial education for brutalized students with a backward religion, people who are desperate for modernization — whatever is “appropriate” for westernization.

Late in the afternoon of September 11, 2001 came the electrifying news that Brittney Spears had cancelled her worldwide tour. Since last fall, American government “Radio Sawa” has been beaming thug rock and rap music to Iraq. If our bureaucrats are successful in their campaign for Iraqi pacification, Catholics in the military can heave a sigh of relief. It was worth it all. Ms. Spears’s first Baghdad concert will certainly not be far behind.

Christopher Manion [send him mail] writes from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.

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