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Churches unite against war on Iraq

By Fr Bruce Duncan

BY sending armed forces to join the British and US forces ready to attack Iraq, the Australian Government has effectively committed troops to any military course of action the US might decide. This is an astonishing situation.

It means Australia has relinquished to the US President its moral responsibility to decide about engaging in a major war, even if it involves a pre-emptive military strike without UN authorisation.

All this has been done without proper parliamentary debate and scrutiny, and against public opinion which is more than 60 per cent opposed to Australian involvement in a pre-emptive strike.

It may smack of ‘appeasement’ to certain members of the Government, yet opposition to this war has been sweeping through Western Churches. The situation is unprecedented since never before have the Western democracies fought a major war without the blessing of their Churches. Surprisingly, there has been little media comment on this in Australia.

Why has the Australian Government volunteered to join a pre-emptive war with only Britain and the USA, even without UN endorsement?

The 1991 Gulf War to defend Kuwait comprised a coalition of 34 countries, including Muslim ones.

Now President George W. Bush is determined to proceed, alone if necessary, despite the obvious damage to the Atlantic Alliance which is so crucial to improving international order and governance, and according to a mid-January Pew Research survey, despite 53 per cent of Americans believing that Bush had not yet made the case for war.

The Washington Post reported on January 12 that Bush had ordered the Pentagon to draw up plans to invade Iraq just six days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, and he has since repeatedly claimed, without proof, that Saddam is connected with al-Qa’ida.

The Churches are now likely to mobilise their constituencies on what is one of the most grave moral issues for a nation. A bruising debate over the justice of a war will polarise public opinion and unfortunately may harm the morale of armed forces personnel themselves.

Yet the Churches speak as key custodians of the just war tradition in Western societies.

Not only is the rejection of war with Iraq virtually unanimous among the Church statements overseas, except for some evangelical groups, but often the mainstream Churches are attempting to speak with one voice to their governments, as in the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

In Australia, leaders of many Christian traditions have been speaking conjointly. In September, 38 leaders of various Christian communities wrote to Prime Minister Howard questioning the morality of war with Iraq. Mr Howard was later reported condemning the views of leaders of the Anglican and Uniting Churches critical of launching a pre-emptive strike.

Yet the Pope himself is opposed to a pre-emptive strike.

In his address to the diplomatic corps last month, he insisted that ‘war cannot be decided upon … except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations’. He is also concerned that war will harm his constant efforts to foster deeper understanding and co-operation between Muslims and Catholics.

The Catholic Church illustrates how widespread in Europe at this time is the refusal to accept the need for war, including from Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Tauran (undersecretary for relations with states) in the Vatican, Cardinal Ruini, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, and the French bishops’ conference. Archbishop Tauran feared a war on Iraq would be a ‘disaster’, and spark ‘a kind of anti-Christian, anti-West crusade’.

Reinforcing the views of other bishops’ conferences, the German bishops on January 20 also strongly opposed military intervention. They supported UN efforts to contain Iraq, but declared that ‘a preventative war is in contradiction with Catholic teaching and international law … A preventative war represents an aggression and thus it cannot be defined as a just war for self-defence’.

Other Catholic bishops’ conferences are issuing statements opposing war. The bishops of Malaysia and Singapore on January 19 denied that military intervention met the conditions for a just war, and called on bishops’ conferences everywhere to speak up strongly on the issue. Cardinal Carrera of Mexico on January 21 declared that war was not necessary.

In Pakistan, the leaders of the Catholic and Protestant Churches on January 21 condemned totally the notion of a pre-emptive strike. They called on the British and US leaders to ‘reverse their decision to wage war and, instead, to use other means to force Iraq to comply with the UN resolutions for disarmament of weapons of mass destruction’.

The views of the Catholic bishops in the United States are particularly significant because of their long and substantial involvement in debate about issues of war and peace, and because with 50 million adherents the Catholic Church is the largest in the USA. By an overwhelming vote of 228-14 with three abstentions, the US Catholic bishops on November 13 strongly criticised the Bush administration’s rationale for war with Iraq.

The president of the US bishops’ conference, Bishop Wilton Gregory, had written to President Bush on September 18 questioning the morality of any pre-emptive unilateral military strike to overthrow the government of Iraq. Gregory wrote: ‘We find it difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent clear and adequate evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks of September 11 or of an imminent attack of a grave nature.’ He asked Bush ‘to step back from the brink of war’.

The US bishops’ conference of November 13 endorsed Gregory’s letter, and reiterated the traditional criteria for just war, especially just cause, legitimate authority and proportionality, while recognising that people of good will may differ on how to apply these norms. ‘With the Holy See and bishops from the Middle East and around the world, we fear that resort to war, under present circumstances … would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for overriding the strong presumption against the use of military force.’

Instead, they urged the United States to continue the policy of containment, with a military embargo, political sanctions and careful economic sanctions ‘which do not threaten the lives of innocent Iraqi civilians’. The bishops supported the role of members of the armed forces in defending the nation, but pointed out military personnel also have a right to conscientious objection if they judge a war unjust.

The bishops’ conference of England and Wales supported the US bishops and called on the British Government to ‘step back from the brink of war’. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor on November 15 said that the dossier on Iraq published by Prime Minister Tony Blair failed to convince the bishops that the threat from Iraq justified war.

Toowoomba’s Bishop William Morris, as chair of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, in August denied that ‘an attack on Iraq at this time would conform to the conditions for a morally legitimate use of force’. And in Canberra, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Francis Carroll, and Bishop Pat Power, with leaders of eight other Churches, on August 23 expressed their concern about Australia’s ‘unquestioning support’ for unilateral US military intervention in Iraq. They argued that Iraq did not threaten to attack any other country and there was no evidence that it had been involved in the September 11 attacks.

The full Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference responded to the Iraq crisis on November 29, calling for political restraint to avoid a war which could inflict a ‘human catastrophe’, and welcoming the role of the UN Security Council ‘in ensuring that Iraq meet its obligation to disarm’.

The Churches are now in a very difficult position, with the risk of a major clash with the Government on a matter of high principle. Not only is the Australian public deeply divided, but so are people in the pews.

The task now is urgently to inform Catholics about the implications of the Church’s teaching on just war, while encouraging full and open debate; to explain the right of conscientious objection; and to work for a rapid political solution to the current dilemma without resort to war.

Fr Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest and lectures in social ethics at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne. He is a member of the Melbourne Catholic Commission for Justice, Development and Peace and a consultant at Catholic Social Services Victoria.

Written by: Staff writers
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