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Activists deplore bishops’ approval of military force

Many Catholic peace activists at the annual protest against the Army’s School of the Americas reacted with disappointment and frustration to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ statement giving their moral seal of approval to the country’s use of force to stop terrorism.

In a statement approved Nov. 15 at their meeting in Washington, the bishops affirmed “the right and duty of a nation and the international community to use military force if necessary to defend the common good by protecting the innocent against mass terrorism.”

Maryknoll priest Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch, said he was saddened by the bishops’ statement, which criticized U.S. foreign policy, but allowed for the use of force in Afghanistan. “I have been very, very disappointed in our leadership,” Bourgeois said. “The vast majority of our spiritual leaders, our bishops, have become corporate executives. They have become cheerleaders for the government.”

The bishops’ statement, called “A Pastoral Message: Living With Faith and Hope After Sept. 11,” said nonviolent responses to the threat of terrorism were also necessary, such as strengthening homeland security and a persistent effort at negotiations.

The message urged the United States to work for a more just world, including an end to sanctions against Iraq, measures to combat poverty worldwide and a reduction in weapons build-up and the global arms trade.

“No injustice legitimizes the horror we have experienced,” the statement said. “But a more just world will be a more peaceful world.”

Dave Robinson, national coordinator of Pax Christi USA, praised the fact that the 15-page statement included 14 pages of analysis “that go to the root causes of terrorism” and call for a “new foreign policy.” However, he said, the endorsement of the use of force was a letdown.

“The bishops tend to work in a just war framework,” Robinson said. “We’re disappointed that they couldn’t move beyond that. We’ll keep doing what we do, giving support and encouragement to those bishops that are willing to stand up and say there’s got to be another way.”

Benedictine Sr. Anne McCarthy, director of the Center for Social Concerns at Gannon University, said the bishops’ statement was not surprising. “The nonviolent alternative was marginalized and not given credence,” she said. “It’s very difficult for any bishops’ conference in a nation at war to go against that nation. It’s very rare. It has hardly ever happened.”

Brian Terrell, who lives with his family at Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker Farm and serves as director of Catholic Peace Ministry in Des Moines, Iowa, said the bishops’ support for war is “denying the gospel.”

“When our leaders claim, in the name of God, that it’s permissible to kill innocent people, we need to absolutely, unequivocally and clearly as we can say no. They do not speak for us.”

By their statement the bishops have rejected both pacifism and the just war principles, Terrell said. “There can’t be a just war when you say, ‘There’s no negotiation’ as President Bush said. What they’re teaching now is outside anything that resembles traditional Catholic teaching unless you want to go to the tradition of the Crusades, which is not our shining moment.”

Bourgeois said his hope comes from the grassroots movement that is working to shut down the School of the Americas. “Change will come from the bottom up, not the top down.”

Bourgeois said it’s time for the bishops to speak with a collective voice against all violence. “It’s a moral issue,” he said. “It’s not complicated. It’s about men with guns, about violence. It’s about the suffering poor. It’s all about the gospel, and what we should be doing in the midst of all this violence, suffering and death. Jesus was a healer, a peacemaker, an advocate of nonviolence. What’s the problem here?”

-- Patrick O’Neill

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001