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Issue Date:  January 27, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

Teaching beats blackmail

Since this paper -- this corner of it included -- has often been critical of the U.S. bishops for spending most of their time dealing with “in house” issues and failing to address some of the more pressing public matters of the day, it is only fair to call attention to the story by Joe Feuerherd (see story). The U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Policy headed by Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, Fla., has called for a “national civil dialogue” leading to a “responsible transition in Iraq.”

It would be easy to fault the document for its lack of specifics. How, exactly, do we conduct this dialogue? How would it affect public policy? How does one measure any of the benchmarks the bishops suggest when so much of the official assessment of progress in the war (so many corners have been turned we are approaching full circle) has been self-serving and inaccurate?

I am willing to leave those questions to others, presuming, recent evidence to the contrary, that an enlightened democracy ought to have ways to conduct a civil dialogue to determine national direction on important matters.

What I find significant, then, is that the bishops enter the fray not as partisans or with all the answers but, and this is a departure from episcopal business as usual, with what amounts to some good questions grounded in principle. It is significant as an example of political discussion, that the bishops acknowledge that “people of goodwill may disagree with specific prudential judgments that we offer.”

Recognizing that possibility, the bishops nonetheless press on, saying, “our religious tradition calls us to shine the light of faith and the church’s social teaching on the moral dimensions of the future choices that lie ahead. We hope our reflections will contribute to a serious and civil national dialogue to help our nation chart a way forward that responds to both the moral and human dimensions of the situation in Iraq.”

The statement has the tone of the bishops’ statements on political responsibility that are issued before each presidential election and are largely ignored by candidates, especially Catholics running for office, and by individual bishops and clerics who reduce all political discussion to the single issue of abortion and virtual endorsements of candidates on that one issue.

While the prohibitions against war in the Catholic tradition are not as absolute as the prohibition against abortion, still the bishops were able to cite the repeated opposition of the late Pope John Paul II to preemptive war and Pope Benedict XVI’s criteria for peace, which emphasizes human rights, alleviating poverty and protection of religious rights.

The bishops express “grave moral concern” over the way the invasion of Iraq occurred and over the effects of the war. Taking into consideration the bishops’ concern about refugees and the Iraqi civilian population, their urging that U.S. troops be withdrawn “sooner rather than later,” their warning that the war effort should not be permitted to cut into essential funding for the poor at home and abroad, one can only conclude that a very high bar has been set for politicians in considering the moral and ethical implications of foreign policy.

It is unlikely, however, that any politician will be kept from the Eucharist because he or she continues to vote for or support policies that result in more U.S. war dead and more Iraqi innocents added to the “tens of thousands” already killed in this action.

Much as we have opposed the war in these pages, that is as it should be. Application of moral and ethical principles to political and public policy issues is rarely a clean and easy matter.

The bishops have taught. Let the politicians be aware. And if the bishops are persuasive in their moral arguments, there’s no need for sacramental blackmail over one issue. The Catholic community should take up the issue and let their politicians know what they’re thinking. That certainly is a valid part of the civil debate.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, January 27, 2006

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