Current Comment

Professionals and Patriots

Washington has rumbled for years with rumors of professional dissent at the Pentagon and C.I.A. from Bush administration policies in the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq. Occasionally the dissent has become public, as when Gen. Eric Shinseki, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was coaxed into admitting during a congressional hearing that to pacify Iraq hundreds of thousands more troops would be needed than the Pentagon planned. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz repudiated General Shinseki’s testimony, and the general had his wings clipped when Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld announced his replacement months in advance of his scheduled retirement date. Retired generals had Shinseki’s mistreatment for truth-telling in mind when they hit the airwaves and filled columns of newsprint last month in what Time magazine (4/24) described as the revolt of the generals, charging the defense secretary with arrogance and wrongheadedness in his conduct of the war in Iraq. Writing for, Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold called for Rumsfeld to be replaced.

Some questioned whether the generals should have gone public with their criticism during an ongoing war, but their statements only added authority to already well-aired complaints. The notion that retired military officers should continue to voice their opinions only in private is mistaken. The public requires the educated opinion of retired professionals, especially those who were required to implement a failed policy, to make informed judgments at the polls and otherwise to hold public officials accountable. The generals are rightly worried that the steely Rumsfeld is running the army into the ground. They gave their lives to military service, and in these dangerous times the military needs wiser leadership than Mr. Rumsfeld can provide.


The situation is somewhat more complicated at the C.I.A., where the veteran analyst Mary McCarthy was terminated days before her expected retirement. The grounds for firing her were that she had had unauthorized contact with reporters. Early reports suggested that Ms. McCarthy had been the source for prize-winning stories on secret C.I.A. prisons in Eastern Europe; but her lawyers denied the allegation, and the C.I.A. kept the charges general. Ms. McCarthy was duty-bound, like every agent, to keep state secrets. She may prove to be just a scapegoat in the efforts of C.I.A. director Porter Goss to plug leaks at the agency, but the case poses a larger question about conflicts between professional responsibilities and the duties of citizens.

Professional codes of conduct bind lawyers, psychiatrists, clergy and intelligence officers to secrecy, and society privileges secrets they obtain in the exercise of their profession. National security makes the burdens of intelligence secrecy especially weighty. But when an administration has abused the system of secrecy, leaking from the top but using secrecy to silence its critics, the situation becomes murky. When, moreover, the actions in question, like sending prisoners to secret prisons where torture is alleged to take place, are contrary to U.S. and international law, then it is reasonable to believe that the duty to secrecy cedes to the duty to prevent harm to persons and the common good. Like Socrates, who drank his hemlock, the leaker may have to pay a price. In due time, however, those who have authorized and carried out the alleged criminal activities ought to pay the much higher penalty they deserve.

Cardinal Epikeia

When American Catholics hear about bishops breaking the law, what first comes to mind are those in the chancery who shuttled sexually abusive priests from parish to parish. But breaking the law to adhere to an even higher law, what theologians call epikeia, has a long tradition in the church. A few weeks ago, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles indicated that he would support priests of his archdiocese who did not follow a law proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives that would penalize anyone who aided an undocumented immigrant. That bill has special import for the people of California, where last month hundreds of thousands of protesters marched in downtown Los Angeles in response to congressional efforts to crack down on illegal aliens.

In several interviews and an opinion piece in The New York Times, Cardinal Mahony pointed out that the church has long cared for the immigrant population in this country, and will continue to do so, legally or illegally. He follows in the footsteps of others, like Archbishop Oscar Romero, the martyred bishop of San Salvador, who defied government officials in El Salvador by speaking out against military repression, and, more famously, St. Thomas More, who died the king’s good servant, but God’s first. A few weeks ago Dennis Hamm, S.J., pointed out in these pages (3/27) that when it comes to the difficult Gospel passage about Caesar’s coin, Jesus probably did not mean that one should always defer to the state’s laws, but that God’s law is the foundation of all laws. In reminding us of this, Cardinal Mahony is God’s good servant. Insert text below the line. Do not remove this text. Do not remove the line.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
10 years 11 months ago
Your commentary “Cardinal Epikeia” (5/15) concerning civil disobedience by churchmen because of what they believe is a higher law, reminded me of another seven-letter word beginning with e: enabler.

Rank-and-file Catholics have no objection to bishops, priests and others practicing the corporal works of mercy—food, social services, health care and so on—with immigrants, legal or illegal (providing they are using their own funds for illegal immigrants, not taxpayer money). I do not think our legislators object either. What they do object to is anyone, including churchmen, hiring people who are illegal immigrants. That is called enabling. This form of epikeia is not different from churchmen deliberately shielding child-abusing priests. The law applies to everyone. I think if you polled the people in the pews you would find most believe that anyone, lay or ecclesiastical, who knowingly employs illegal immigrants or actively assists them in evading the law, should be prosecuted.

We are a nation of immigrants, and we already welcome more than one million legal immigrants a year. Almost certainly this number should be greatly increased. It seems to me the bishops and others would do better by working toward this end and calling for more legal immigration, including guest workers. They should also lobby for accompanying laws forcing all employers, including themselves, to pay these new arrivals a decent wage and give them health benefits.

By the way, Mexico, from which most of the illegal immigrants come, has immigration laws as strict or stricter than those of the United States. No country on earth allows people to simply walk in and set up residence.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

“Our country is so important to us. We carry the Dominican Republic in our hearts.”
J.D. Long-GarcíaJanuary 19, 2018
Pro-life advocates participate in the annual March for Life in Washington January 2017. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
Describing abortion as a “key social evil” in the United States, the Jesuits say: “The most fundamental building block of a just social order is respect for human life.”
America StaffJanuary 19, 2018
Men carry a replica of Peru's most revered religious icon, the "Lord of Miracles," during an Oct. 18, 2017 procession in Lima. Each year thousands of Catholics gather to commemorate the image's survival in a 17th-century earthquake that destroyed Lima. (CNS photo/Mariana Bazo, Reuters)
Father Ernesto Cavassa was provincial of the Jesuits in Peru from 1998 to 2004, and president of the Conference of Latin American Jesuit Provincials from 2005 to 2012.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 18, 2018
For over 45 years, Feminists for Life has been committed to ending the practice and legality of abortion and promoting the feminism of Susan B. Anthony.
Serrin M. FosterJanuary 18, 2018