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Military bishop criticizes bombing


The head of the U.S. Military Services archdiocese said Dec. 30, 1998, that the U.S. bombing of Iraq “should cause serious moral concern for all Americans.”

In a statement sent to all Catholic chaplains, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien warned that military personnel “are not exempt from making conscientious decisions” if they are ordered to take an action they regard as a clear “violation of the moral law.”

“I join the bishops of our country ... in calling on our president and his advisers to initiate no further military action in the Middle East,” he said.

Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, who has been the most passionate voice in the bishops’ conference opposing sanctions and military actions against Iraq, called the military archbishop’s statement “a step in the right direction,” but said it was inadequate.

“It doesn’t spell out what the teaching is and say here are the criteria for anyone to justify use of lethal force,” Gumbleton told NCR. “Certainly it would be easy enough to spell out the criteria and say these must be shared with troops under your pastoral care.”

O’Brien, who as archbishop for the military services is responsible for the pastoral care of Catholics in the U.S. armed forces around the world, was visiting American troops in the Middle East when the U.S.-British bombing of Iraq occurred.

He praised “the courage and professionalism of the men and women of our armed forces during the very trying days of military action” and stressed that the military activities of U.S. troops “are ever subject to civilian policy decisions as formulated by the executive branch of our government.”

“Once civilian leadership decides a policy requiring military action, it is the sworn obligation of all in our armed forces to execute their mission in complete obedience unless in a specific instance the required action is judged clearly illegal or immoral,” he said.

O’Brien noted that top officials of the bishops’ conference in November and December raised “serious questions ... as to the justifiability of military action at this time.”

When the bishops met in November, just after the United States had pulled back from a threatened attack, Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of Cleveland, then president of the bishops’ conference, issued a statement expressing concern about the morality of a military response.

Following the U.S.-British attacks in December, Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick of Newark, N.J., head of the bishops’ International Policy Committee, echoed those concerns and said that in his own opinion “these military strikes unduly risk violating just war criteria.”

Spelling out moral principles for soldiers and officers, O’Brien wrote: “In executing orders that might violate just war requirements, military personnel face a serious moral challenge. ... Any individual who judges an action on his or her part to be in violation of the moral law is bound to avoid that action. When clear moral conclusions that a particular act is unjust cannot be reached because, for example, of lack of sufficient evidence, the individual is justified in following the presumably better informed decision of his or her superiors.”

In a footnote to his statement, O’Brien quoted a portion of the Catechism of the Catholic Church spelling out “rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy” that must be met to justify the use of military force.

O’Brien was out of the country and unavailable for comment.

Gumbleton, who has joined humanitarian trips to Iraq in defiance of the sanctions, said the U.S. bishops have failed to clearly explain the church’s teaching on war. “What I would like to see is a directive going to the chaplains saying that we do have a moral teaching for war, and here are some of the criteria that need to be applied to Iraq,” Gumbleton told NCR. “It’s important to teach military personnel and help them to make moral judgments and even to refuse to obey orders.”

The full text of O’Brien’s statement can be found on NCR’s web site at www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm under documents. Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999