War and justice don’t mix, Catholic leaders say


A group of Catholic leaders issued a statement Dec. 19 declaring Washington’s “war on terrorism” morally unjustifiable and calling for new teaching to replace the centuries-old Catholic teaching that justifies war.

The leaders urged that the doctrine be overturned by a “witness of justice and peace” rooted in “dialogue that takes seriously the gospel challenge of Jesus who calls peacemakers blessed, who calls us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors, who reminds us forgiveness is at the heart of our faith.”

The statement challenges some recent statements from U.S. Catholic bishops in support of military action as a response to the devastating Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. At the same time, the signers say they are responding to U.S. bishops’ recent invitation to engage in dialogue about the Catholic community’s appropriate response to the bombing of Afghanistan.

The Dec. 19 declaration was signed by more than 70 Catholic leaders, many of whom represent organizations, including religious orders. Some represent organizations of peace activists. None of the leaders is a bishop.

Paradoxically, the signers, while calling for a new “Catholic paradigm” to replace the just war doctrine, say the present war, under terms of the doctrine, is unjust.

The just war theory states that war can be justified if certain conditions are met. Among those conditions, harm to humans or property must be in proportion to the good achieved, and warring parties must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants, with no civilian populations targeted.

Among reasons for the injustice, the Catholic leaders issuing the statement say the U.S. military campaign has, in violation of the just war doctrine:

The statement notes that harm to civilians is not confined to direct damage from bombs. Additionally, the leaders say, huge military expenditures associated with the bombing “rob from the poor” by diverting money that could have been spent in alleviating human need.

As for the war’s unlikely “probability of success,” the statement notes that terrorism will almost certainly continue unless “injustices and root causes” that breed terrorism are addressed. Injustices that breed frustration and hatred “create the fertile soil in which disinherited and disillusioned people are recruited to terrorism,” the leaders say.

In recent weeks, some U.S. cardinals have offered measured support for bombing of Afghanistan against military targets and suspected terrorist camps. Further, U.S. bishops, at their annual meeting in November, issued a 15-page pastoral letter giving cautious endorsement to the military campaign. The letter, “Living with Faith and Hope after Sept. 11,” affirmed the right of nations to use military action in response to terrorism, but said nations must exercise moral restraint and reflection in the use of force.

The bishops said nothing justifies terrorism, but like the Dec. 19 statement, noted that poverty, violence and human rights violations can breed the anger and resentment that generate terrorism. The bishops asked Catholics to join in a National Day of Prayer for Peace on Jan. 1, 2002, and to fast one day a week. The events of Sept. 11 require a time for teaching, for dialogue, witness, service, solidarity and hope, the bishops wrote.

At the same meeting, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary of Detroit and singular among U.S. bishops for support of pacifist positions, urged bishops at the meeting to abandon the just war theology.

“Take that ‘just war’ theology,” he said. “Put it in a drawer. Lock it. Never open it again.”

Gumbleton recommended just war theology be replaced by nonviolence, the norm for Christians in the first four centuries.

Among statements issued by individual bishops in apparent support of the war, Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George declared the campaign to be “a just war,” while asking God to “help us to overcome war” and usher in an era of love and justice.

Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick described military action as “a necessary response” but said he hoped it would avoid harm to civilians and would be conducted under “principles of morality and human dignity.”

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston described the bombing as “measured and carefully targeted,” saying the terrorists and their supporters pose a threat to the common good.

Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua defended the government’s “right and duty” to defend its people against terrorist aggression.

Cardinal Adam J. Maida of Detroit described the campaign as “a military necessity,” and Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York called for “a speedy and decisive victory” in a statement issued Oct. 7, the day U.S. bombing began.

In the Dec. 19 statement, Catholic leaders opposed to the military campaign called on U.S. officials to stop using the “rhetoric of war” to explain their actions and refer instead to “grave criminal actions” by the terrorists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.

As speculation grows about the next theater for military action, including Somalia and Iraq, the leaders call for cessation to further conflict.

Those demands head up a list that also calls on U.S. leaders to:

President Bill Clinton, acting on advice from the Pentagon, refused in 1998 to approve the International Criminal Court, intended to be a permanent tribunal for international crimes against humanity. The United States is among seven nations that have declined to join 150 other nations in approving the court.

The statement goes beyond the nation’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks, calling on U.S. leaders to facilitate peace between Israelis and Palestinians by facilitating “a just and sustained resolution of the conflict” and urging an end to economic sanctions in Iraq.

The statement’s signers include Franciscan Fr. Joseph Nangle, co-director of the Franciscan Mission Service; Marie Dennis, vice president of Pax Christi International; Mercy Sr. Kathy Thornton national coordination of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby; Jesuit Fr. James E. Hug of the Center of Concern; and Notre Dame Sr. Rosanne Rustemeyer of the U.S. Catholic Mission Association. Among other signers: Sr. Helene O’Sullivan, president of Maryknoll Sisters; St. Joseph of Peace Sr. Kathleen Pruitt, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; Russell Testa, director of the Center for Ministry and Public Policy at Washington Theological Union; Holy Cross Sr. Aline Marie Steuer, president of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, Notre Dame, Ind.; Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister of the Erie Benedictine Community; and Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Maura Browne, Justice and Peace Coordinator of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.

The leaders affirm a number of the points made by U.S. bishops in their recent pastoral letter, in addition to their call for dialogue as a step toward peace.

“We affirm and echo the bishops’ outline of additional areas of concern that need to be addressed in the aftermath of that fateful day,” the statement says. Areas of concern the signers endorse include “the call for a Palestinian state and security for Israel as the only way to bring peace to the Middle East; condemning the deadly use of sanctions against innocent people in Iraq; calling on the U.S. to address terrorism in Sudan.”

The principles of Catholic moral teaching make possible, indeed demand, a judgment on the morality of our government’s massive military response to the events of Sept. 11, the statement said. The bombing of Afghanistan … and the war that continues unabated come under the same gospel judgment as all of those realities which the bishops name so accurately as requiring resolution if our world is ever to be made safe.”

Gumbleton, when read excerpts of the statement in a telephone interview Dec. 20, said he felt “strongly affirmative” and added, “My own conviction about just war theology is that it is just not applicable in a time of high-tech warfare. It was devised for a time way in the past when armies fought armies under more controlled circumstances.”

Gumbleton said he would “look to the gospels” and Jesus’ “rejection of all violence” as the model that should be followed.

Noting the objection raised by some to that position -- that it might be suitable for an individual, but that a state has an obligation to protect its citizens -- Gumbleton argued that nonviolence “is a form of defense, just not a violent form.”

Pamela Schaeffer is NCR’s managing editor. Her e-mail address is pamlives@aol.com

The full text of the statement can be found at www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm

National Catholic Reporter, December 28, 2001