Can Catholics Support This War?

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am innocent. I was just following orders." Have you heard that
one before? It is known as the Nuremberg defense. It wasn't deemed
an acceptable defense in 1946 for the Nazis. For Catholics in 2003
is "George said it was okay" a sufficient justification
to kill Iraqis in the Iraq war? For Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien
the answer is apparently "yes." He is wrong.

a recent letter to the United States military chaplains under his
authority the Archbishop wrote the following:

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.

have heard the same line from Catholic laymen. Certainly, individual
consciences can be justly judged only by their Creator. But we can,
and must, make judgments about ideas expressed as principles of
action. The Archbishop says we don't have the whole story. That
may be true. However, that doesn't mean that we don't know anything
about the circumstances of this war. We know plenty. And what we
know makes it clear that the answer to the moral question of whether
or not killing people in this war is justified is, at a minimum,
doubtful. Those doubts must be resolved before a person may act
in support of this war.

a person acts in ignorance his conscience may be clear even if the
act is evil. That is not the case if his ignorance is culpable.
Men have a responsibility to inform their consciences, particularly
so in grave matters. Killing people is a grave matter. "George
says it is okay" may be sufficient for some activities. Is
it for this one? What is it that any responsible Catholic, who has
been asked to kill or support killing on behalf of the aggressor
in this war, knows?

a minimum he knows that this war has been condemned by Pope John
Paul II, the Church's highest moral authority, as "immoral."
Why does the Pope say this? Because this war fails to meet even
one of the Catholic standards for justified military defense. Note
the word "defense." Our government does not claim our
country has been attacked by Iraq. Nor has Iraq even threatened
aggressive action against the U.S. The Iraq war is one of U.S. aggression.
The aggressive character of this war immediately puts it outside
the parameters of a just war. You can't kill people who haven't
attacked you and who are not threatening to attack you. An aggressive
war cannot be just. Until this hurdle is overcome the argument
need go no further. What could George Bush possibly know that trumps
this? Nothing, it seems. Wouldn't his administration have disclosed
any such knowledge to either the U.N. Security Council or to the
Vatican in the midst of its attempts to persuade them to condone
the violence against Iraq? In any case, Bush hasn't even tried to
overcome the hurdle. He has tried to go around it using an idea
called preventive, or preemptive, war.

is an idea that was laughed, or cried, out of the Vatican when the
Bush people presented it there. Stripped of the bells and whistles
with which it is presented, preventive war is revealed to be the
law of the jungle. It makes questioning the morality of a war irrelevant
because it assumes war to be inevitable. So the question becomes
not, "Should we kill?" but, rather, "When is the
best time for us to kill?" In effect, adopting the idea of
preventive war is to declare perpetual war because it is not possible
to eliminate all potential threats to our safety, particularly potential
threats that cannot be credibly verified. Unless we kill everybody.

we could somehow get past the problem that this is a war of aggression
there are other problems with the war regarding proportionality
of response, exhaustion of all other means of resolving legitimate
issues of division, prospects of the effort being good for the safety
and well being of our citizens. But the aggression issue is the
elephant in the living room.

O'Brien states people can "presume the integrity of our leadership
and its judgments" in good conscience. In light of what is
known about this war and the Pope's position on it, and in view
of the Bush administration's promotion of preventive war, is such
a presumption proper to an informed conscience?

if you are Most Reverend John Botean, Bishop for the Catholic Romanian
Faithful of the United States. Bishop Botean wrote the following
to his flock:

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.

is no room in that for "George said it is okay." Nor should
there be. Until George demonstrates that he is not the aggressor
he is wrong and does not deserve a presumption of integrity.

11, 2003

Bertucci [send him mail]
leads Great Books discussion groups with students from all over
North America. He lives with his family, and his grapevines, in
the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State.


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