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Why the morality of a war against Iraq went unreported

DEBATE over the morality of a war against Iraq has lasted over a year, and what is striking is how low a profile the media has given Church leaders.

A decision to risk war is one of the most serious decisions a nation can take and, from the Church’s point of view, ranks at the top of its priorities in moral issues. While the community and the political parties are deeply divided about the morality of embarking on this war, why has there been so little debate in terms of just war theory, the great tradition of moral reflection on warfare? And why has not the Church been at the forefront of the debate?

Part of the difficulty lies in the Bush administration’s assertion that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and that these pose a direct threat to the United States, which is hence entitled to act in self-defence.

The US Government and its agencies has repeatedly promised, and attempted to produce evidence, to prove these claims, and hence Church leaders have been reluctant to commit themselves before seeing the evidence.

But by September 2002, president of the US Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Wilton Gregory, wrote to President Bush saying that war did not seem justified, since no evidence had emerged to link Iraq with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or prove an intention to attack the United States.

Two months later the US bishops’ conference, by an overwhelming vote of 228 to 14, reiterated that war against Iraq did not meet the conditions for a just war.

A flood of similar responses came from episcopal conferences around the world, and leading Church figures in Rome, working closely with the Pope, also spoke out strongly against war. The Vatican mobilised its diplomatic resources to try to reach a peaceful outcome, the Pope himself playing a leading role.

A number of Australian Church leaders, particularly Archbishop Frank Carroll and Bishop Pat Power in Canberra, from August expressed their concern about Australian involvement in a war against Iraq. But people were left wondering where some other Church leaders stood on the issue.

It is important to recognise that issues like the morality of war, which depend on interpretations of the natural law and analysis of data, are not issues directly related to core elements of faith, and hence different opinions are possible.

However, it is also the Church’s task on such a key matter to try to see through ‘media management’ and propaganda to identify clearly the moral dimensions to help Catholics and others better inform their consciences.

It would seem that the bishops themselves held divergent views on the war, which would help explain the prolonged silence on the issue by some. It must also be borne in mind that some bishops were preoccupied dealing with the sexual abuse scandals, and Archbishop Pell was himself off duty for some time. It was not an ideal moment to tackle the contentious issue of war. Nevertheless, it was the most critical moral issue facing the nation, and the Church could not be silent.

Astonishingly, however, differing views among the Australian bishops at their November 29 conference resulted in a watered-down statement on an Iraq war, which failed to endorse what their US colleagues had said, that the evidence so far presented did not support the justice of this war. Not surprising, as far as I know the Australian statement received no secular press coverage and seemed to disappear without trace.

Not until March 5 did the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference state that “the strict conditions of Christian teaching for the use of military force against Iraq have not been met”. Given the strong stand by the Pope, the Holy See and bishops’ conferences in abundance, it was long overdue.

What is the significance of this? I would suggest two things. First, that unlike the US bishops, the Australian bishops and clergy (and people generally) have not been through an education process on interpreting the just war tradition today.

The US bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace, not only informed US Church people on this range of issues, it nurtured a community of scholarship which has left a continuing positive legacy. Australia has not benefited from a similar process, nor have we effectively nurtured scholarship in this area. Many people have a good intuition on issues of war and peace, but we have very few specialists to call on.

Secondly, and partly as a result of our limited resources, some Church leaders may have been unable to sort through the disinformation and propaganda being so skilfully dished out on this issue. The group of neo-conservative Catholic writers close to the Bush Administration, Michael Novak, George Weigel and Richard Neuhaus, have also continued to adopt a spoiling role in their opposition to the US bishops and the Holy See.

While I would defend their right to dissent on such matters, I regret that others are not more alert to the strategic role they are playing on behalf of the Bush administration.

Given that only Australia and Britain have sent troops to join US forces around Iraq, the Australian Church has had a great responsibility to engage robustly in public debate, but I think we must say we have so far largely failed to do so, or to educate ourselves and others about the moral conditions for war today.

We are now sailing into uncharted waters. The Church cannot bless this war, and we are morally bound to oppose it. What will this mean? How do we inform Catholics adequately about the moral issues involved? How can we deal with divergent views on the war? What can we do to inform people about the right of conscientious objection?

Issues arising over Iraq may be with us for some time, so we must urgently think through the implications.

Redemptorist Father Bruce Duncan is lecturer in history and social ethics at Yarra Theological Union and is the author of War on Iraq: Is it just? (ACSJC, March 2003).

Written by: Staff writers
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