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Opinions clash on just war


Can “preemptive war”-- military action undertaken absent an imminent threat or ongoing attack by an aggressor -- be a “just war”?

That depends on who answers the question.

On the one hand: “A preventive war is a war of aggression, there’s no doubt. It is not included in the definition of a just war,” Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Vatican’s justice and peace council, said late last year.

On the other: Leaders of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention told President Bush that his “stated policies concerning Saddam Hussein … are prudent and fall well within the time-honored criteria of the just war theory as developed by Christian theologians in the late fourth and fifth centuries A.D.”

Despite their large numbers -- the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the country -- that group’s leaders find themselves outside the mainstream of Christian thought on this prospective war. In fact, opposition to a U.S.-led attack unites U.S. Christian churches like little else:

  • “We do not support a decision to go to war without clear and convincing evidence of the need for us to defend ourselves against an imminent attack,” said the Episcopal church’s House of Bishops.
  • “A preemptive war by the United States against a nation like Iraq goes against the very grain of our understanding of the gospel, our church’s teachings, and our conscience,” according to the United Methodist church’s Council of Bishops. “Preemptive strike does not reflect restraint and does not allow for the adequate pursuit of peaceful means for resolving conflict,” the group told the nation’s leading Methodist, George W. Bush, last fall.
  • “While Iraq’s weapons potential is uncertain, the death that would be inflicted on all sides in a war is certain,” said United Church of Christ leaders. “We fear that war would only provoke greater regional instability and lead to the mass destruction it is intended to prevent.”

In addition to the traditional “peace churches” such as the Quakers and Mennonites, leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church of the USA, the Orthodox Church in America, the Disciples of Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal church, and the Anglican Consultative Council have expressed varying degrees of opposition to war with Iraq.

The U.S. Catholic bishops, meanwhile, said last November that they “fear that resort to war, under present circumstances and in light of current public information, would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for overriding the strong presumption against the use of military force.”

Said the bishops: “Based on the facts that are known to us, we continue to find it difficult to justify the resort to war against Iraq, lacking clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature.”

Much of the church-based opposition to U.S. policy is based on politics, not just war reasoning, says papal biographer and Ethics and Public Policy Institute senior fellow George Weigel.

“They’re making contingent political judgments that … have very little to do with the just war tradition. Mainstream Protestant denominations in the United States have tilted left politically in a dramatic way over the last 35 years, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see [them] … lined up with the left wing of the Democratic Party.”

And, continued Weigel, while “the Catholic commentary has been much more intelligent, much more shaped by elements of the just war tradition … even there it seems to me there has been a failure to develop that tradition of thought to deal with the exigencies of the international political situation today.”

Weigel is one of at least two high-profile conservative Catholic thinkers who have been arguing that a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq could be just, apparently in contradiction to the thinking coming out of the Vatican these days. Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, has been invited by U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson to Rome to make the case for preemptive war. Novak was unavailable for comment.

Weigel also seems at odds with Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, who said during a recent teleconference for priests that justifying war requires “clear and certain knowledge of a clear and certain danger.”

“That is why in the current crisis, men and women around the world are supporting the work of the weapons inspectors.”

Egan made the comments, based on Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, during a teleconference for Catholic priests around the world sponsored by the Congregation for Clergy.

“The truth of the danger must be established without any doubt, the danger must be certain,” Egan continued. He added that if a clear and present danger cannot be established, “justice requires that no conflict be engaged.”

The development of the just war tradition, said Weigel, starts with updating some outmoded definitions once thought essential to the teaching. “In a world where rogue nations have the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons and already have the ballistic missile capability to deliver them, ‘last resort’ cannot mean waiting until the rogue has the nuclear weapon and then, shortly before [it is fired], attempting to prevent its successful delivery. In those kinds of circumstances, ‘last resort’ means you have reached the point at which action must be taken to prevent the rogue [nation] from getting the weapon in the first place.”

In his October letter to President Bush, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land said the administration had met or exceeded each of the seven criteria of the just war theory. Such a war would be a “just cause” waged with a good “intent” by legitimate authorities who have exhausted other options, said Land.

Weigel concurs. “What people don’t seem to want to recognize, particularly in these many church pronouncements, is that the conflict has been underway for 12 years,” he said. “The moment in history in which we are today is part of a continuum [that] includes 12 years of [Iraqi] resistance to 17 U.N. resolutions” and ongoing efforts to “maintain a chemical and biological weapons stockpile and to develop a nuclear capability.”

Combined with the Iraqi government’s 20-plus-year record of attacking its neighbors and its own citizens, said Weigel, “it seems to me not at all implausible to say that aggression is underway.”

And what of the Vatican’s opposition to war with Iraq?

Weigel points to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2309, which states that it is the job of those who have “responsibility for the common good” to evaluate the “moral legitimacy” of armed force. “The duty of religious leaders and theologians is to clarify those [just war] principles, but the call is made, according to the catechism, by responsible statesmen.”

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2003