Bishops & Their Critics

President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq was initially supported by a host of liberals, among them New Republic editor Peter Beinart and New Yorker writer George Packer. These commentators were convinced that Iraq posed an imminent threat to its neighbors and that Saddam Hussein’s regime had to be removed for both security and moral reasons.

As the administration’s case for war was gradually exposed as a fabrication and the botched nature of the occupation became clear, most of these liberals have admitted they were wrong.

No such admissions of error, or even regret, have been issued by outspoken Catholic neoconservatives who, using the most tortured just-war arguments, publicly defended Bush’s war of choice. Michael Novak, of the American Enterprise Institute, even flew to Rome to persuade the Vatican not to oppose the invasion. In First Things, George Weigel, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, memorably lectured religious leaders on the “charism of political discernment” enjoyed by those in the White House (“Moral Clarity in a Time of War,” January 2003). It was a charism, Weigel pointedly wrote, “not shared by bishops.” He assured the war’s critics that elected officials “are more fully informed about the relevant facts.”

Not all the relevant facts, evidently. Writing in the April 2007 First Things (“Just War and Iraq Wars”), Weigel revisits his argument for preventive war, and predictably finds it sound. In doing so, however, he concedes that tactical and strategic mistakes were made. He is silent on whether those mistakes cast doubt on his claim that the president’s “charism” made him a better judge than religious leaders of the morality and wisdom of war.

Weigel has long been a critic of positions taken by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) regarding the church’s just-war teaching. He is especially dismissive of the bishops’ insistence that just-war thinking begins with a “presumption against the use of force.” Weigel’s objection rests to some extent on an esoteric historical point. While the bishops concede that a presumption against the use of force was not a defining criterion of the traditional teaching, they nevertheless consider such a presumption to be a legitimate development of that teaching. In an age of nuclear weapons, the bishops reason, the consequences of armed conflict are exponentially more dangerous.

It is true that the moral responsibility of statesmen is different from that of bishops and ordinary Christians. Still, looking back at the many nuanced statements issued by the USCCB regarding the war in Iraq, it is hard not to conclude that the bishops’ charism, rather than the president’s, has better served the nation. As early as November 2002, the bishops wrote of their deep concern “about recent proposals to expand dramatically traditional limits on just cause to include preventive uses of military force.” Repeatedly, the conference expressed the gravest doubts about the moral justification for the Iraq invasion. The bishops also reiterated their support for the right of conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection. In a prescient February 2003 statement on the likely consequences of war, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who was then president of the conference, warned that “a postwar Iraq would require a long-term commitment to reconstruction, humanitarian and refugee assistance, and establishment of a stable, democratic government at a time when the U.S. federal budget is overwhelmed by increased defense spending and the costs of war.”

As the war dragged on, the bishops recognized that “a new Iraq cannot be imposed by the United States or any other occupying power” and that “our nation has to confront both our limitations and responsibilities in the extremely complex social, political, and religious reality of post-Hussein Iraq.” When evidence emerged that the United States was torturing prisoners, the conference condemned the practice in no uncertain terms. And last year, the conference issued two papers on making a “responsible transition” in Iraq. “Our nation cannot afford a shrill and shallow debate that distorts reality and reduces the option to ‘cut and run’ versus ‘stay the course,’’’ wrote Bishop Thomas G. Wenski, chairman of the Committee on International Policy, in January 2006. Wenski argued that U.S. forces should leave “sooner rather than later,” and noted that the key to any transition will be greater regional and international support and participation in forging a settlement. In a November statement, the bishops endorsed the idea of benchmarks to measure progress, recognizing that it is Iraqis who ultimately must make peace among themselves. If the Iraqis fail to meet those benchmarks, the United States must reevaluate its presence in Iraq.

For a group that is supposed to lack the charism to make sound judgments about war and peace, the bishops have acquitted themselves far better than their critics.

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