Bishops Dare to Dissent

Jack Miles, author of "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God," was recently named a MacArthur Fellow.

In the march to war in Iraq, President Bush enjoys, for the moment, widespread popular support at home. He is, as the saying goes, the only president we have, and he has won the qualified backing of Congress. But sometimes the war debates that matter most in the long run are not those conducted on Capitol Hill.

A surprisingly early statement against the war by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops suggests that if the president’s Iraqi gamble goes badly -- and particularly if its consequences prove catastrophic for Iraq without decisively improving security in the United States -- the current wide support may erode rapidly.

The bishops’ early statement surprises because Catholic opposition to the Vietnam War came so late. For American Catholics, rather more than for American Protestants, the Cold War had always been a holy war, because so many Catholics were trapped behind the Iron Curtain in places like Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and western Ukraine.


South Vietnam, the most Catholic part of Asia after the Philippines, fell into what seemed a cruel and familiar pattern: godless communism directing its worst fury at devout Catholics. By the late ‘60s, to be sure, there was an active Catholic peace movement. By the end of the war, Catholic conscientious objectors outnumbered all others. But that change came slowly. Through the early escalations of the war, Catholics remained its stoutest supporters.

Even now, the Roman Catholic Church is not pacifist. It adheres, generally, to its classic teaching allowing “just war.” Nonetheless, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, writing Sept. 13 to Bush on behalf of the bishops’ administrative committee, expressed grave doubts that an American invasion of Iraq could meet the just-war criteria and urged the president to “step back from the brink of war.”

Gregory wrote that war can only be justly waged in “cases in which the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations is lasting, grave and certain.” But he questioned whether Iraq is in a position to inflict lasting, grave and certain damage on the United States. “Is there clear and adequate evidence,” Gregory asked, “of a direct connection between Iraq and the attacks of Sept. 11, or clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature? ... Is it wise to dramatically expand traditional moral and legal limits on just cause to include preventive or preemptive uses of military force to overthrow threatening regimes or to deal with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? Should not a distinction be made between efforts to change unacceptable behavior of a government and efforts to end that government’s existence?”

One of the key tenets of just-war theory is probability of success. The loss of innocent life in war cannot be justified if, after victory, the status quo ante is quite likely to remain unchanged. But will Al Qaeda not remain a threat after victory in Iraq, just as it has remained a threat after victory in Afghanistan?

Gregory asked, “Would ... force succeed in thwarting serious threats, or, instead, provoke the very kind of attacks that it is intended to prevent?”

As if anticipating the objection that Al Qaeda would at least be a somewhat smaller threat after victory in Iraq, Gregory invoked another tenet of just-war theory -- namely, proportionality: One does not settle a trade dispute, say, by bombing the adversary’s capital. As a Catholic catechism cited by Gregory put it, the use of force “must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” Can mass casualties in Iraq be justified in the interests of bringing about nothing more than a reduction of unknowable size in the terrorist threat to the United States?


The subject of Iraqi civilian casualties is one about which the American political silence has been striking, but then this is just the kind of question that, by an unwritten, unofficial American division of powers, has often been left to religious leaders. Accepting this role, Gregory asked: “How would another war in Iraq impact the civilian population, in the short and long term? How many more innocent people would suffer and die, or be left without homes, without basic necessities, without work? Would the United States and the international community commit to the arduous, long-term task of ensuring a just peace, or would a post-Saddam Iraq continue to be plagued by civil conflict and repression and continue to serve as a destabilizing force in the region?”

What Gregory implies -- in the diplomatic language suitable for a letter to the president -- is that mass casualties in an avoidable war are tantamount to mass murder. If the United States commits such a crime, or if by ill-considered action its intervention becomes the occasion for such a loss, he politely suggests, the nation will be morally disgraced. In Washington, even among the political opposition, this ranks low on the list of policy considerations. But if the moral core of a great national debate is located outside the usual political forums, it will scarcely be for the first time.

Iraq seems targeted to become a second Afghanistan, a second front in America’s war on terror, but Gregory dares to ask about the consequences of war in Iraq for the first front. “Would war against Iraq,” Gregory wrote, “detract from our responsibility to help build a just and stable order in Afghanistan and undermine the broader coalition against terrorism?” For the United States, the bishop suggests, Afghanistan may have been a charity case before the American military descended on it from the sky, but Afghanistan is an American responsibility now.

Gregory and his brother bishops, to repeat, are not pacifists. As the spiritual leaders of one American in five, they do not rule out all wars in advance on moral grounds. But wars, like all other human actions -- perhaps more than any other -- merit moral scrutiny. Some wars are just, and some are unjust. What the Catholic bishops have to say on the distinction between the two, rising to an occasion that has come so often before in American life, is no less important than anything they have lately had to say about child abuse.