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Cardinal compares Sept. 11 horror to Auschwitz


Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston has said the feellings he had about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States were the same he felt in an earlier visit tothe Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. In both cases, he said, “words do not exist” to capture the sensations of horror.

Law, who heads a committee responsible for a statement supporting the war in Afghanistan adopted Nov. 15 by the U.S. bishops, added that while he respects pacifism, he also expects respect for Catholic “moral realism,” which recognizes that sometimes a state must defend itself.

Law spoke Nov. 22 at Rome’s Basilica of St. John Lateran before a crowd of several hundred, as part of a lecture series sponsored by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops’ conference and the pope’s designate to run the Rome archdiocese.

Law told his Rome audience that in his experience as a bishop, the “only analogy” to the experience of Sept. 11 was a 1986 trip to Auschwitz.

“There one hears the cry of fear, that the earth will open up and drag us down to hell,” Law said. He said that after the Sept. 11 attacks, which the pope defined as an “assault against humanity,” he felt a similar dread.

Law said both events awaken a resolve of “never again, never again.”

Law added that the attacks have led to an increase in religious expression in the United States, greater appreciation for people who deliver public services such as police and fire protection, and a new burst of patriotism.

“For many young people who do not remember World War II, the virtue of patriotism is a completely new experience,” Law said.

Commenting on the Nov. 15 document of the U.S. bishops, Law said it sets Sept. 11 in a broader context including the Israeli-Palestinian problem, suffering in Iraq, and the scandal of poverty.

“Catholics cannot accept the inevitability of a clash of cultures based on religion,” Law said. He called for more interreligious dialogue based on the twin principles of “truth and love.”

In this connection, Law strongly defended the recent Vatican document Dominus Iesus.

The most explosive moment of the evening came when a member of the audience asked Law if he did not recognize, as a matter of principle, that Christians should be committed to pacifism based on Jesus’ dying words: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.”

The question drew strong applause from the crowd.

Law replied that while Catholic thought “respects nonviolence and pacifism,” it also features “a certain moral realism that acknowledges not only the right of the state, but sometimes the grave obligation of the state to defend itself when the common good is threatened.”

Law added that while the church allows the use of force, it also recognizes that “every war is a tragedy” and that “our goal is no war.”

His comments also drew applause. Ruini complimented Law on the response.

Appearing alongside Law was well-known Italian journalist Ernesto Galli della Loggia, whose editorials in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s paper of record, often express points of view supported by Ruini.

In response to the question on pacifism, della Loggia said that Jesus on the cross was speaking only for himself.

“Things get more complicated when you’re the head of a society,” he said. “You have to consult the others.”

Della Loggia added that the Catholic position cannot be based only on the example of Jesus. “We have the gospel, but we also have the tradition of the church, and both are important,” he said.

The U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, and American Bishop James Harvey, head of the papal household, were on hand for Law’s address.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001