Can Catholics Support This War?

"I 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.

In a recent letter to the United States military chaplains under his authority the Archbishop wrote 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.

I 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.

If 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?

At 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.

This 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.

If 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.

Archbishop 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?

Not 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:

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.

There 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.

April 11, 2003