Signs of the Times

Bishops’ Conference President on War and Wartime Conduct

Just before the United States began war with Iraq, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed “deep regret that war was not averted” and called on U.S. troops and their allies to “value the lives and livelihood of Iraqi civilians as we would the lives and livelihood of our own families and our own civilians.”

“We worked and prayed and hoped that war would be avoided,” said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., in a 1,250-word “statement on war with Iraq” issued on March 19 in Washington. The statement was based on a framework adopted that morning by the 60-member U.S.C.C.B. administrative committee, which was meeting in Washington on March 18-20.


“The task now is to work and pray and hope that war’s deadly consequences will be limited, that civilian life will be protected, that weapons of mass destruction will be eliminated, and that the people of Iraq soon will enjoy a peace with freedom and justice,” Bishop Gregory added. He called on the United States and its allies to observe “the moral and legal constraints on the conduct of war” and to “respect the lives and dignity of Iraqi civilians, who have suffered so much already from war, repression and a debilitating embargo.”

“Any decision to defend against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction by using our own weapons of mass destruction would be clearly unjustified,” the bishop said. “The use of anti-personnel land mines, cluster bombs and other weapons that cannot distinguish between soldiers and civilians, or between times of war and times of peace, ought to be avoided.”

Calling Iraq “a regime that has shown, and we fear will continue to show, a disregard for civilian lives and traditional norms governing the use of force,” Bishop Gregory said that was “all the more reason” for the United States to uphold and reinforce those values “by its own actions.” He also expressed concern about “the precedents that could be set and the possible consequences of a major war of this type in perhaps the most volatile region of the world.”

“The decisions being made about Iraq and the war on terrorism could have historic implications for the use of force, the legitimacy of international institutions and the role of the United States in the world,” the bishop said. “The moral significance of these issues must continue to be assessed given their importance in shaping a more just and peaceful world.”

Addressing the role of conscience in the debate, Bishop Gregory said there are “no easy answers” and added, “War has serious consequences; so could the failure to act.”

“We understand and respect the difficult moral choices that must be made by our president and others who bear the responsibility of making these grave decisions involving our nation’s and the world’s security,” he said. “We support those who have accepted the call to serve their country in a conscientious way in the armed services and we reiterate our long-standing support for those who pursue conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection,” he added.

Noting that the humanitarian crisis “will be worsened by war,” at least in the short term, Bishop Gregory said the United States, “working with the United Nations, private relief organizations and all interested parties, bears a heavy burden, during and after the war, of providing for P.O.W.’s and the civilian population, especially refugees and displaced persons.” He pledged that “Catholic relief agencies will continue to do all that they can to respond to the needs of the Iraqi people.”

In the long term, he said, the United States must “help Iraqis build a just and enduring peace in their country, while also addressing the many serious unresolved issues in the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” But Bishop Gregory warned that those efforts “must not result in an abandonment of our nation’s responsibilities to the poor at home and abroad, or a diversion of essential resources from other humanitarian emergencies around the world.”

He closed the statement by joining with Pope John Paul II in “urging Catholics to dedicate this Lenten season to reflection, prayer and fasting that the trials and tragedy of war will soon be replaced by a just and lasting peace.”

Vatican: Those Who Give Up on Peace Must Answer to God

As U.S. President George W. Bush abandoned international diplomacy and set a countdown for war on Iraq, the Vatican warned that whoever gives up on peaceful solutions would have to answer for the decision to God and history. The Vatican statement, on March 18, came a day after Mr. Bush gave Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his sons a 48-hour ultimatum to leave Iraq to avoid military conflict.

“Whoever decides that all the peaceful means made available under international law are exhausted assumes a grave responsibility before God, his conscience and history,” said Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls. The one-sentence statement did not mention President Bush or any other international leaders by name. For months, the Vatican has spoken out against a possible war, calling on all sides to pursue diplomacy to avoid a fresh conflict.

In one of his most impassioned public pleas, Pope John Paul II said on March 16 that war would have “tremendous consequences” for Iraqi civilians and for the equilibrium of the entire Middle East and could foment new forms of extremism. He called on Saddam to cooperate urgently and fully with the international community “to eliminate any motive for armed intervention,” and asked member nations of the U.N. Security Council to respect their own U.N. charter, which allows the use of force only as a last resort, when all peaceful means have been exhausted.

“I say to all: There is still time to negotiate. There is still room for peace. It is never too late to understand each other and to continue to work things out,” the pope said.

The pope had sent a personal envoy to President Bush earlier in March to urge that the Iraqi crisis be solved peacefully through the United Nations. After returning to Rome and briefing the pope on March 15, the envoy, retired Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi, criticized what he called a rush to war in Iraq and said it was an illusion to think democracy can be imposed through military force. “Democratization through war is a utopia. It is well known that growth in democracy takes a long time,” he said in an interview published the next day by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Cardinal Laghi, a former ambassador to the United States, said there was a serious risk that a U.S.-led war with a few Western allies would be seen by many Muslims as a “Christian” war against Islam. Hatred and terrorism can be expected to increase as a result, he said. He said a key part of the Vatican’s concern was to maintain the authority of the United Nations. This authority has been endangered by “those who demanded too much too soon” on a complicated question like disarmament in Iraq.

At the same time, the cardinal said, other members of the U.N. Security Council may have involuntarily weakened the pressure on Iraq to disarm by publicly opposing the United States. Cardinal Laghi said he told President Bush that the pope would no doubt keep up his strong antiwar statements if the United States attacks Iraq.

Vatican Official Decries French, U.S. Pressure Tactics in U.N.

A top Vatican official decried the efforts by the U.S. and French governments to pressure smaller U.N. Security Council members to their opposing sides in the Iraqi crisis, saying the “logic of domination” was undermining the U.N. decision-making process. In an Italian newspaper interview on March 13, Arch-bishop Renato Martino, head of the Vatican’s justice and peace council, also suggested that the United Nations could resolve the 15-member Security Council’s deadlock over Iraq by calling an emergency session of all 191 U.N. members.

Archbishop Martino, who until recently spent 16 years as the Vatican representative to the United Nations, said smaller U.N. Security Council members should be allowed to vote for or against proposed U.N. resolutions on Iraq “free from any interference.”

“When promises or threats regarding the future of a people are made—whoever is making them—the decisional process is falsified and damage is done to the principle of nations’ equal dignity,” he told the newspaper, Corriere della Sera. “The United Nations was born to guarantee freedom from oppression for all, and it is unacceptable that its functioning be subjected to the logic of domination,” he said.

News Briefs

• The Vatican said it would not close its embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, in the event of a war. Personnel from most countries have left the country. Catholic religious orders in Iraq have also pledged to remain in Baghdad.

• About $350 million in additional food aid is needed to prevent widespread famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea, said heads of U.S.-based international aid organizations.

• Several Cuban bishops said the Brigittine Sisters and President Fidel Castro went around them by getting permission from the Vatican to open a new convent before requesting it from Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana. Meanwhile, many religious orders and foreign priests have been waiting for years to get government permission to work in Cuba.

The bishops said that Castro used the ceremony, widely publicized by state television and the government-controlled press, to show that he has good relations with the Vatican and international church leaders, while his problems are limited to malcontents in the Cuban hierarchy.

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