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Bishops confront culture on Iraq

In a national popularity contest, being Catholic usually means drawing the short straw. In a “hang ’em or fry ’em” nation, the Catholic church opposes the death penalty. In a Roe v. Wade world, it says no to abortion. When the mood turns nasty against immigrants, the Catholic church not only defends immigrants’ rights but also refuses to make a distinction between legal and illegal.

What Catholics do -- when we do it well -- is see beyond the knee-jerk reaction, political expediency or social myopia to the suffering individual.

And last week, another case in point was made when Bishop Thomas Gumbleton walked to the microphone at the bishops’ conference. By the time he walked away he had placed the U.S. Catholic church somewhere between Iraq and a hard place.

Gumbleton (weakened from a water-only hunger strike protesting the silence of the U.S. Embassy in Honduras about data concerning the 1983 death of Jesuit Fr. James Carney) quietly described the deteriorated condition of ordinary people inside Saddam Hussein’s fort. They are desperately hungry and have no utilities. He used the words of his guide, the Chalcedonian archbishop of Bashra, Iraq’s second largest and most devastated city.

Gumbleton’s narrative -- he was in Iraq eight weeks ago -- was chilling. The Detroit auxiliary bishop wanted his confreres to intervene vocally as a body to ameliorate the effects on Iraqi civilians, particularly children, of the U.N.- and U.S.-enforced barricade on humanitarian relief.

Gumbleton and other U.S. bishops and the pope believe President Bush was wrong to go to war with Iraq. The Detroit bishop also wants some acknowledgment of U.S. culpability for Iraq’s internal crisis.

And this in a week when newscasters and politicians were drooling over a possible renewed war with Iraq (meaning Saddam). While the details of the bishops’ deliberations are outlined elsewhere (see page 9), there’s a larger point.

The U.S. bishops -- many of whom have served under two popes who loudly declared “war never again” -- wrestled with their consciences. They were willing to pit their Catholic teaching against public popularity, personal ideology and others’ interpretations of Iraqi reality, not least Hussein’s militarism.

To their credit, the overwhelming majority saw through the papier-maché military posturing into the tragedy Gumbleton described. Then they did what bishops do -- they found a compromise. But even that compromise is sufficient to make the U.S. Catholic church unpopular in a nation that, right or wrong, equates Hussein with Hitler and that proclaims on bumper stickers, “Kick His Ass, Get the Gas.”

If the church should get the equivalent of the societal short straw on this one, it should come as no surprise. Moreover, it should come as a sign that maybe we’re doing something right.

National Catholic Reporter, November 21, 1997