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Catholic moralists warn against U.S. war plans

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

In the "Documents" section, read letters from the U.S. cardinals and Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark opposing military action against Iraq.

As the United States builds up its force in the Persian Gulf in preparation for possible military strikes against Iraq, religious leaders and ethicists caution that conditions for a just war do not exist.

Noting that United Nations inspectors have destroyed thousands of Iraqi weapons and that economic sanctions have left Iraq enfeebled, some Catholics who have visited Iraq believe that Americans are being misled into regarding Iraq as a much greater military threat than it is.

Some experts say that military strikes will not ensure President Saddam Hussein’s compliance with a cease-fire and that the real victim of U.S. aggression is not President Saddam Hussein but the Iraqi people.

So far, inspectors have destroyed 38,000 chemical weapons, 124,800 gallons of chemical weapons agents, 48 missiles, six launchers and hundreds of pieces of equipment that could be used to make chemical and biological weapons. But Iraq, noting that no new weapons have been found since 1995, accuses inspectors, in their determination to gain full access to all potential storage sites, of stalling so that economic sanctions can remain in place.

A weakened nation

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has warned that the United States will employ deadly force to “delay or reduce Iraq’s ability to reconstitute its weapons of mass destruction” -- specifically chemical and biological weapons -- and its ability “to threaten its neighbors unless Saddam Hussein complies with the United Nations cease-fire and allows unrestricted U.N. inspections” of suspected weapons-building and storage sites.

As recently as Feb. 8, Pope John Paul II, who made some 50 appeals for peace before the Gulf War, asked international leaders to “use the instruments of diplomacy and dialogue to avoid any use of weapons.”

Anglican bishops on Feb. 10 issued an open letter to the British government saying that the conditions for a moral war against Iraq do not exist. Great Britain is among a majority of NATO allies supporting President Clinton’s threat to use force against Iraq, while hoping for a peaceful solution. France, which played a major role in the Gulf War, is siding with Russia and China in opposing force.

Catholic bishops and others who have visited Iraq recently insist that an embargo, in place since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, has seriously weakened the country and impaired the health of civilians in Iraq. In 1996 the embargo was revised to allow an exchange of Iraqi oil for food and medicine. Humanitarians say the provisions fall far short of meeting human needs.

Under terms of the embargo, Iraq is allowed to export $2 billion in oil every six months in exchange for food and medicine. But $1.2 million of that go for reparations to Gulf War victims in Kuwait and to the United Nations to cover its ongoing expenses related to the cease-fire agreement. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has recommended that the program be expanded to $5.2 billion every six months, allowing Iraq $3.4 billion for foods, medicine and other humanitarian supplies.

Fifty-four U.S. bishops, including three who have been fasting to call attention to suffering of the Iraqi people, wrote President Clinton on Jan. 20 seeking an immediate end to sanctions. Most of the signers are members of Pax Christi USA, a peace organization; 17 of them are retired. The fasting bishops are Auxiliaries Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit and Peter Rosazza of Hartford, Conn., and retired Bishop Albert Ottenweller of Steubenville, Ohio. Gumbleton and Ottenweller were to have continued their fasts through Feb. 12, the seven-year anniversary of the bombing of Iraq in the Gulf War. Rosazza ended his fast in January.

A more moderate response to the embargo -- and a plea to avoid military action -- came from a representative of the full body of American bishops on Feb. 5. In a letter to Albright calling not for an end but for a reshaping of the embargo, Newark Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, head of the U.S. bishops’ International Policy Committee, said that the embargo, as now applied, “unduly risks violating fundamental moral norms and prolonging human suffering.” Further, McCarrick said, “We fear that the use of military force ... could well be disproportionate to the ends sought.”

McCarrick’s letter was considerably stronger than an earlier letter, approved by U.S. bishops at their annual meeting in November, pledging “solidarity and prayers” with and for the Iraqi people. That letter, signed by Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla and addressed to Chaldean Patriarch Raphael I. Bidawid in Baghdad, was denounced as “diluted” by the papal nuncio to Iraq, according to John Heid, a peace activist who met with the nuncio last month. Heid said the nuncio, Archbishop Guiseppe Lazzarotto, declared he was “shocked at the appalling silence of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy” on Iraq.

A proposal, sponsored by Gumbleton, urging bishops to condemn the sanctions failed at the November meeting by five votes (NCR, Nov. 21).

Heid, a member of the Catholic Worker Loaves and Fishes Community in Duluth, Minn., went to Iraq last month with his wife and members of the grassroots, Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness. The group, founded by Sacred Heart Fr. Bob Bossie of Chicago, takes medicines and medical supplies to Iraqi doctors and patients in defiance of the embargo. Since it was founded two years ago, the group has sent 11 delegations involving 38 individuals to Iraq.

More than a million Iraqi civilians have died since sanctions came into force; 600,000 of them children, according to statistics published by UNICEF, the World Heath Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization and the British medical journal Lancet. Those keeping statistics say children are perishing at the rate of 4,500 monthly due to disease, malnutrition and lack of clean water.

Doctors have noted a sixfold increase in the mortality rate for children under 5 since the embargo began. Seventy percent of Iraq’s pregnant women suffer from anemia and a quarter of Iraq’s children under 5 suffer from stunted physical and mental development.

Jesuit Fr. G. Simon Harak, who teaches religion at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn., returned in January from Iraq. He described the blockade as “an act of war that violates the Geneva Conventions by depriving citizens of the means to live normal lives.” He cited lack of clean water, of sewage treatment, of food, medicine and medical supplies and the destruction of roads, bridges and factories. Americans hear little of this, he said. “I have no problem with a military embargo,” but the present embargo “is a direct attack on the civilian population,” he said.

Charity Sr. Eileen Story, who has made 10 visits to Iraq since 1991,when the United State first took military action against Iraq, describes “ghost towns” with no spare parts for any equipment. “Depression is everywhere,” she said. Story teaches religion at Marymount Manhattan College in New York. Others note that the country has lost 80 percent of its farms and 90 percent of its fisheries with serious consequences for the food supply.

Six Catholic bishops in Iraq have issued a passionate plea for an end to the sanctions. In a handwritten appeal to “all Catholics and all Christians in the world” the prelates said the embargo is “killing our people, our children ... our beloved Muslim brothers and sisters.” The sanctions, they said, “strike at our poor and our sick most of all. In the name of God’s people we ask you: Tell your government to end the sanctions against the Iraqi people.”

Tempted to smack

David Cortwright, researcher at Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and an expert on sanctions, said he is convinced that Iraq has been brought low by the embargo and by the U.N. inspections, despite Iraq’s lack of compliance. However tempting it might be to smack Saddam for his continued defiance of the U.N. cease-fire, “there is no indication of any immediate threat that would justify the use of military force,” he said. Such a threat would be required for force to be used under Christianity’s principles for a “just war.”

Bombing Iraq will bring no guarantee of compliance, nor will it eliminate Saddam Hussein’s ability to threaten his neighbors or even to release biological weapons in the United States, Cortwright said.

Rather than bombing, Cortwright proposes a return to the original formula of the Gulf War cease-fire Resolution 687: Offer Iraq a fixed timetable, say six months, for lifting the embargo in exchange for Iraq’s full compliance with inspectors. Albright’s insistence that the United States will keep sanctions in place until Saddam is gone offers Iraq no incentive to settle, he said.

The Anglican bishops in their Feb. 10 statement said they opposed military action “on the basis of the Christian conviction that innocent citizens have the right not to become the target of threats and violence.” They also expressed concern over the effects of war on relations between Western nations and the world’s Muslims.

Fr. Frank Winters, who team-taught with Albright at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, urged “diplomacy over ultimatum, negotiation over bullying and patience over urgency.” Winters is associate professor of ethics and international affairs.

“Assuming that the (U.S.) government is not lying -- that Saddam has the weapons,” it’s still “wholly unacceptable” to bomb Iraq in light of the devastation sanctions have already wrought and the risk of collateral damage, he said. “It’s irrational to prefer Iraqi civilian deaths to those of U.S. soldiers,” he added.

Stephen Krason, professor of political science at Franciscan University in Steubenville and president of the Society of Catholic Sciences, considers it imperative that Catholics remain informed, study the statements of the pope and Catholic bishops and get in touch with Catholic social teaching and with Christianity’s centuries-old “just war” tradition. “There’s a tendency to throw morality out the window when dealing with dictators,” he said. He feels that, despite Saddam’s arrogance, he has “maintained a certain stability” in his region. No one knows what would follow Saddam’s downfall: possibly civil war and/or a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism, he said.

Gumbleton, who planned to end his 24-day liquids-only fast before flying to Chiapas, Mexico, Feb. 15, said the criteria for just war aren’t there in the U.S.-Iraqi standoff. “There’s no harm in waiting unless the endgame is to get rid of Hussein,” he said.

Harak warned against further humiliating Saddam. “Compliance is one thing; humiliation is something else,” he said. He urged Catholics to dust off their copies of Gaudium et Spes from the Second Vatican Council, which admonishes against subjugating a defeated population. “Let’s keep true to our Catholic principles and do what Jesus did ... attend to the suffering of people,” he said.

At press time, Gumbleton and a group of Christian demonstraters were arrested outside the White House for protesting U.S. plans to take military action against Iraq.

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 1998