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A model for Catholic debate

One of the truly remarkable consequences of the insistent march toward war by the Bush administration is the equally insistent resistance to the use of preemptive force being voiced in a variety of quarters, but in a particularly strong way in religious circles.

The developments are remarkable, first, for the way in which they have provided a model for Catholic debate on a difficult issue and, second, for the focus itself on opposing war.

Among religious groups, moreover, it would appear that some of the strongest antiwar sentiments to be heard anywhere are coming from the Vatican. The church’s unrelenting opposition to the use of force has set up some unexpected contretemps between not only the Vatican and the Bush administration, but also between Vatican officials and some Catholics in the United States who would normally use their loyalty to the pope and magisterium as proof of their Catholic authenticity. They now find themselves in open contradiction to some of the strongest Vatican language of recent months.

The record would leave little to question about the Vatican position:

  • At a January conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, representatives from 15 countries and eight religions released a statement that called for efforts to “find new ways to respect our religious differences while forging peaceful bonds based on our common humanity.” The group pledged to reexamine their scriptural traditions to reject interpretations that foster violence.
  • The same month the Jesuit-edited Civiltà Cattolica, a publication that is reviewed by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State prior to publication, charged that the “root motive” behind the U.S. determination to invade Iraq was control of oil supplies. The magazine also criticized America’s “messianic vocation on behalf of the human race.”
  • Later in the month, Jesuit Fr. Pasquale Borgomeo, director of Vatican Radio, said during a broadcast commentary that the “propagandistic attitude of the U.S. administration is increasingly less convincing.” He added that a unilateral attack “would represent the imposition of hegemony by a superpower founded on force and not on law.”
  • Cardinal Walter Kasper, in a Jan. 24 interview with NCR, said bluntly of an attack on Iraq, “I do not see how the requirements for a just war can be met at this time. … A war would touch the poorest of the poor, not Saddam Hussein. Women and children and sick people would have to suffer, and we should consider the destiny of such people.”
  • During the Christmas season the pope repeatedly called for peace and added his voice to senior aides who for months had openly opposed a U.S.-led military attack on Iraq. “War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations. As the Charter of the United Nations Organization and international law itself remind us, war cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations.”
  • In a more recent interview (see story on Page 3) Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, compared the evolution of the just war doctrine to the development of the church’s teaching on capital punishment. While the Catechism of the Catholic Church holds that the death penalty could be used in extreme cases, at the same time, said Martino, the pope in Evangelium Vitae “said that society has all the means now to render a criminal harmless who before might have been sent to the gallows. This could well apply to the case of war. Modern society has to have, and I think it has, the means to avoid war.”

That’s just a sampling of the sentiment coming out of the Vatican in recent months. It is against that backdrop that Michael Novak, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, will travel to Rome a few days from the time of this writing to attempt to justify a preemptive strike through the same just war lens that others use to condemn such action.

It is not often that the Catholic right finds itself in disagreement with this papacy, and it is tempting to argue that Novak and others who love to wave the flag of orthodoxy should simply be quiet and obey. They are, after all, among those who have joined in elevating ordinary papal pronouncements to exaggerated levels of authority.

The more important lesson, however, is that the church is a living community and, as such, a sometimes messy thicket of uncertainty and clashing opinions. As Robert Bolt, in his play, “A Man for All Seasons,” so splendidly put it in the mouth of Thomas More: “God made the angels to show him splendor, as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But man he made to serve him wittily in the tangle of his mind.”

No one can challenge Michael Novak’s Catholic credentials. He has deep experience and a vital intellect to bring to any debate. If, however, this church can tolerate a discussion that would find a way to justify, out of our tradition and sacred texts, the exercise of modern warfare in all of its horror and destructive capacity, then surely it can tolerate discussion on a host of other issues.

The point is, people think, even if they are ordered not to. And they see things differently, even those who profess the same creed and meet to worship under the same roof. Those who raise the questions and even dissent in their opinions should not be fearful of the modern ecclesial equivalent of Star Chamber proceedings. Their allegiance to church and faith should not be so easily dismissed as has been the case in recent years.

To Mr. Novak, then, we say, give it your best shot in Rome. It won’t surprise you or us if we disagree. And we might even take to arguing with you. But rest assured, we’d never seek an investigation of your Catholic credentials.

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 2003