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Jason Holliston
Sunday, February 16, 2003  

A Catholic's Point of View

Lately, I've seen a lot of bashing of the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope making the circuit around some warblogger sites. I want to take issue with these people, and their venomous tone, but first I should give a little bit of history about myself and where I'm coming from. I'm an orthodox Catholic -- orthodox meaning that I accept all the religious teaching of the Catholic Church. I'm also a proud American, among other things, and I don't see a problem with giving due respect and authority to my government for matters temporal. You can have more than one allegiance in your life -- a spiritual and a political -- and not have any major conflicts of interest, depending on your choice of religion.

The role of the Church, with issues such as this, should be to, first and foremost, try to prevent war whenever it’s possible to do so. It’s rare that it’s justified to be the aggressor in a war. Think about all the wars in history, and then try and then count how many times the initiator was morally correct in starting it. A vast majority are started by greed, thirst for power, and visions of regional or global dominance. These aren’t morally sound reasons to send people to their death. Even though ultimately Iraq was the prime aggressor with its invasion of Kuwait, the United States is assuming the role of initiator of open hostilities in this stage of the game. In this case, St. Augustine’s tests of just wars need to be applied. That’s where the argument starts, and it still continues with Catholics all over the globe. Have these tests been met? Is this a just war? It’s not a mistake that the US Ambassador in Rome has talked about just this to the Vatican’s officials, attempting to convince them that they have indeed been met.

In this age, the Church is a moral compass for the world, giving its opinions about events in the political world, but not actively participating like in the past. During the times of the Holy Roman Empire, the Church took direct political action numerous times, sometimes even leading the troops directly against the invading Turks, or ordering his armies to restore order in Rome and in the Papal States. Many Pope had a direct hand in organizing crusades against the Moors in Spain, the Turks in the Byzantine Empire (even though it wasn’t much of an empire at that point) or to the Holy Lands themselves to establish a safe territory for Christian pilgrims. Historians argue today and will for centuries about the necessity and effect of these campaigns, and theologians are still arguing if the Church was right in doing so. I think most people can agree that the people of different times required different roles of their leaders, and there’s no denying that the Pope was more than just a religious leader at that time – he was the political keystone of the whole Western civilization. Times change, though, and in this case, it was a long time ago that this particular role of the Church was transformed through necessity. With the dawn of democracy, temporal power belonged not in the hands of Kings and Queens, Popes and Cardinals, but the people and their elected leaders. The reformation also had a hand in reducing the Pope’s political influence.

So, for the last few hundred years, the Church has pretty much stayed out of playing an active role in the political sphere of the world. It still plays a role, but vastly reduced one, and usually only to be a voice for the poor, hungry, and sick. It has spoken out publicly against communism, against the Nazis, and frequently against dictators around the world. Pope John Paul II publicly chastised Fidel Castro just a while ago, and in his tours in South America, constantly spoke out against oppressive regimes.

Very recently, he gave qualified support to the military operation in Afghanistan, recognizing that terror is a new type of threat, and new rules apply. He’s hardly a pacifist, but is much more reluctant to support wars that he sees as avoidable. With Iraq, he sees an avoidable war. By voicing this concern that this may be an unjust war, he is not voicing support for Saddam or his regime – he’s doing his best to help the world avoid unneeded suffering. That’s the Churches role, and a right one at that.

This said, the Bush administration is privy to intelligence that he is not. I think that the fact that Secretary of State Powell is so vocal in his support of this operation speaks volumes as to the quality of that intelligence. Personally speaking, I’m still uneasy about the impending war, and I’d be frightened if I wasn’t. But I trust my government, I trust our leaders, and I believe that they have made a convincing argument that the time Saddam has to comply with UN resolutions is nearing an end.

This brings me to my last point – a Catholic’s responsibility to the Church and their opinions such as this. With matters religious, the Pope and his bishops are the absolute authority. As I said before, I’m an orthodox Catholic, so I give them this authority freely and completely. With other matters, though, when the Pope does offer opinions – such as the impending war in Iraq – Catholics are to take it very seriously, and only after reflection and education, decide to disagree. I think this is fair – everything in life has a moral aspect, and any pope should be a powerful compass to use. In this, though, after months of consideration, I disagree with the Church, and the Church is OK with it.

Just War Doctrine

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

There must be serious prospects of success;

The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the 'just war' doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

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