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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children.

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Irish Elk
Saturday, April 26, 2003  
A notable essay by Fr. Neuhaus at First Things

Excerpts from The Sounds of Religion in a Time of War":

The day after military action began, the evening news headlined, "Vatican condemns both sides for war." Spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Pope received news of the war with "deep pain." The official statement explained: "On the one hand, it is to be regretted that the Iraqi government did not accept the resolutions of the United Nations and the appeal of the Pope himself, as both asked that the country disarm. On the other hand, it is to be deplored that the path of negotiations, according to international law, for a peaceful solution of the Iraqi drama has been interrupted." On the one hand, on the other hand. What Saddam did was regretted; what Bush did was deplored. Some pounced on this as an instance of precisely that false evenhandedness of "moral equivalence" that John Paul so sharply opposed during the Cold War. Others deplored that in none of the statements issuing from the Holy See was there any reference to the totalitarian oppression and massive violation of human rights by the Saddam regime. The suggestion seemed to be that there were two heads of state, Saddam and Bush, who disagreed about how to implement UN resolutions, and the latter was guilty of abandoning the search for a peaceful solution by resorting to war. Moreover, there was no mention of the fact that in the 1991 Gulf War the U.S. had the backing of the Security Council and therefore had presumably satisfied the requirements of "international law," and yet in 1991 the Pope condemned military action against Iraq in what George Weigel, author of the monumental biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, calls "apocalyptic" terms.

It is not easy to counter the complaint of those who say that the Holy See seriously confused the question of moral legitimacy in international affairs, sometimes leaving the impression that questions of war and peace, right and wrong, come down to how the Pope feels about things. I do not accept that complaint, but it is most particularly puzzling that, with respect to moral credibilty and authority, some in the Curia seem bent upon hitching the wagon of the Catholic Church to the dubiously constructed institution that is the UN. The life and mission of the Catholic Church will continue long after the UN is a historical footnote along with, say, the Congress of Vienna. The experience of the last quarter century seems to have been forgotten by some. When, for instance, the Pope was playing a crucial role in bringing about the end of the evil empire of the Soviet Union, the UN was more than simply useless. Why now is it the bearer of moral authority in international authorities? If indeed that is, as some contend, the position of the Catholic Church…

And now war has come. By the time you read this, a great deal more will likely be known about consequences. At present, I'm afraid it must be said that the public witness of the Catholic Church, severely battered by the sex abuse scandals of the past year, has been further confused and weakened. Compared to, for instance, the leadership of oldline Protestantism, the Catholic bishops in the U.S. have been generally careful in their public statements, mainly confining themselves to raising questions. When military action commenced, Bishop Wilton Gregory of the U.S. episcopal conference issued a carefully crafted statement, noting that faithful Catholics and people of good will can disagree about the wisdom of the policy, and that the Church spiritually supports both those who conscientiously support and those who conscientiously oppose the war. The same carefulness did not characterize the statements by officials of the Holy See, some of whom have come unconscionably close to suggesting that Catholic Americans must choose between loyalty to their country and fidelity to the Church. If, as one curial archbishop has declared, the coalition led by the U.S. is engaged in a "crime against peace," it would seem to follow that our soldiers are engaged in a criminal activity.

As you might imagine, I have received many messages taking issue with what I have said. A surprising number attribute to the Pope things he has not said. Don't I know that the Pope has declared the war to be "illegal," "immoral," "in violation of the Church's teaching," and "a crime against humanity"? No, I don't, and I don't know that because he has never said what many are claiming he said. The "crime against humanity" line was cited even by the Wall Street Journal, which, to its credit, promptly retracted when the error was pointed out. There are times when Catholics, and all Christians, must choose between complicity in great injustice and fidelity to moral truth. That choice has over the centuries produced martyrs beyond numbering. For a curial official even to imply that coalition soldiers and others are facing such a choice is a reckless abuse of ecclesiastical office. Unless, of course, he really thinks that his view of the war is binding upon consciences. Were that the position of the Church, one would expect the Pope to say so, and the Pope has not said anything even remotely like that. It is to be feared that some churchmen are more enamored of being players in world politics than devoted to being shepherds of souls.

At the same time, and somewhat contradictorily, curial officials have said that they are not arguing moral theology but are making prudential judgments, drawing on "the Church's vast experience in international affairs." People may be forgiven if, faced with the choice between the geopolitical expertise of the Curia and that of the people surrounding George W. Bush and Tony Blair, they choose the latter. A crucial question is this: In the past three months, has the Holy See elevated the level of moral discourse or added to the discussion considerations that would otherwise have been neglected? It is not easy to answer that question in the affirmative.

His most devoted admirers acknowledge that the Pope bears a measure of responsibility for this unhappy circumstance. And it is a mildly amusing nuisance to hear chronic dissenters from firm magisterial teaching on faith and morals proclaim that, on war and peace, they are loyal to the Pope, while the champions of magisterial teaching are, in fact, dissenters. Well, let them have their little fun while they can. With respect to providing moral clarity about war and peace, it must candidly be admitted that this has not been this pontificate's finest hour. But nobody should be shaken too severely. Flannery O'Connor said that we sometimes suffer more from the Church than for the Church. And it is really not suffering so much as it is a matter of disappointment, and more than a little embarrassment….

As they say, go read the whole thing.

(Via Verdad!)


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