Sydney
9 February 2003

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Morality ... and a war against Iraq

An Iraqi man and his children stand in the remains of their destroyed house in Basra, about 550km south of Baghdad. The home was hit in 1991 during the Gulf War. Photo from Reuters

By 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 US, even without UN endorsement?

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

Now President 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 he had not yet made the case for war.

The Washington Post reported in mid-January that Mr 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-Qaeda.

The Churches are now likely to mobilise their constituencies on what is one of the gravest 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.

This does not mean that the Church claims its judgments are automatically binding in conscience. Its views on such social and political matters are not core matters of faith, but depend on 'prudential' judgments about what should be done.

Hence they may be revised later, especially as new information becomes available or situations change, and Catholics may disagree for weighty and informed reasons.

But the Churches mean their views on such life and death issues for many thousands of people to be considered with the utmost seriousness.

CHURCHES MOBILISE

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 US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

In Australia leaders of many Christian traditions have been speaking conjointly. Indeed, 38 leaders of various Christian communities wrote to the Prime Minister, John Howard, in September questioning the morality of war with Iraq.

Mr Howard was later reported to have criticised 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.

He was an outspoken opponent of the 1991 Gulf War and has made repeated appeals for peace in Iraq and the Middle East.

It is reported that he has been engaging in diplomatic efforts to avert war, which may explain why his public statements have been somewhat muted.

In his address to the diplomatic corps, 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 efforts to foster deeper understanding and co-operation between Muslims and Catholics.

WIDESPREAD

The Catholic Church's views illustrate how widespread in Europe 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 from 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".

Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace, who spent 16 years as the Vatican's UN representative, said that the Pope was deeply concerned about the threat of war. Martino rejected 'preventative war' as a 'war of aggression' and not a 'just war'.

Reinforcing the views of other bishops' conferences, the German bishops also strongly oppose military intervention.

They support 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".

They said a preventative war "would promote political instability and finally shake the entire international system to its very foundations".

They also feared the consequences could destabilise an already inflamed Middle East, particularly relations between Muslims and the West, stir up more recruits for terrorism, and harm the alliance against terror.

They see continuing the containment of Saddam and restriction of his weapons capability as a viable alternative to war.

Other Catholic bishops' conferences are issuing statements opposing war.

The bishops of Malaysia and Singapore deny that military intervention meets the conditions for a just war and have called on bishops everywhere to speak up strongly on the issue.

In Pakistan, the leaders of the Catholic and Protestant Churches have condemned the notion of a pre-emptive strike, calling on 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".

US, UK BISHOPS

The views of the Catholic bishops in the US 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 US.

By an overwhelming vote in November of 228 to 14 with three abstentions, the US Catholic bishops strongly criticised the Bush Administration's rationale for war with Iraq.

The president of the US conference, Bishop Wilton Gregory, had earlier written to President Bush questioning the morality of any pre-emptive unilateral military strike to overthrow the government of Iraq.

He wrote: "We find it difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent as it is of 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 endorsed Bishop 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 US 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 to be 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 of Westminster said the dossier on Iraq published by Prime Minister Tony Blair failed to convince the bishops that the threat from Iraq justified war.

AUSTRALIAN BISHOPS

Toowoomba's Bishop William Morris, as chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, has 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, have expressed concern about Australia's 'unquestioning support' for unilateral US military intervention.

They argued that Iraq did not threaten to attack another country and there was no evidence it had been involved in the September 11 attacks.

The full Australian Catholic bishops' conference called - in November - 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.

Bruce Duncan CSsR co-ordinates the program of social justice studies at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne, and is a consultant at Catholic Social Services Victoria.