Politics & Policy

The Pious & The War

Iraq and justice.

With the exceptions of Archbishops O’Brien and Hannon, both military chaplains, and the generally positive statement of Archbishop Pell in Sydney, we have apparently a worldwide clerical chorus against war. The common theme is, “I don’t have enough evidence,” a theme echoed by French and German politicians, among others. A sub-theme is that things might get out of hand. Islam might “arise.” Or, all preemptive strikes are bad. The main problem is the wicked Americans and their pride. Danger is subjective. Iraq does not really exist as a threat. Terrorists are, at best, a minor danger.

In January, the Italian Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica published a screed against the hapless Americans. The Anglican Bishop of Oxford does not have enough evidence. The Vatican is against war. Several patriarchs are against war. The American bishops are against war. Every cleric who is anyone is against war. Solemn, apocalyptic words of warning come forth daily, as though orchestrated. Principles of morality are invoked as if they could only be used by one side. Suddenly, it seems to the pessimist, it is not just the Muslim world that is run by clerics. One hardly knows what to make of it all.

In our darker moments, we can imagine a discouraged American president, surrounded by clerical doubters, finally caving in at a Prayer Breakfast. “All right, Reverend Fathers and dear Pastors, since you know more about defending the rights of peoples and our country than I do, since you have more information than I do about what is going on in Iraq and the world, since your methods are more effective, I hereby turn the safety of the nation over to your competent hands.” Of course, it would not take a moment’s reflection to realize that we could not be safe in the hands of the no-war-at-this-time party, however well intentioned it may be. Their advice is just that — advice, not policy, let alone a basis for action.

Not only would such an alternative be unconstitutional and imprudent, it would be against the stated principles of most Christian social thought — that matters of war and peace are in the hands of chosen leaders who have a right and duty both to spell out their reasons and to act on them. The idea that no action can take place till the last cleric or moralist is convinced of a problem is a formula for disaster. But all human action takes place in some obscurity. And of course, this is not merely a “clerical” issue. Many a politician, journalist, and academic in various countries agree with it. And this is the rub. It is not just a “moral” statement. It is a moral statement enmeshed in political realities that have to be attended to. The opposite of these particular well-intentioned “moral” admonitions is not necessarily an “immoral” alternative.

There is a well thought out, clear, empirically based case that not to do anything in the present moment would be immoral. This case was made by President Bush in the State of the Union address and Secretary Powell in his speech to the U.N. It is impossible to read these statements without seeing that they are written and spoken with high moral purpose and their authors fully cognizant of the facts at issue. No side has a monopoly on the ethics of the matter: It is certainly not the exclusive preserve of the clergy. The American leaders do not conceive of themselves as operating in a moral vacuum. The “I-am-still-not-convinced” position has the advantage of not actually having to do anything to protect anyone from danger.

But the responsible politician has no such luxury. The president has spelled out the number of times since 9/11 that further attacks have been prevented. We live in a period of illusion if we think that further attacks have not come forth because bin Laden, wherever he is, or his friends, have changed their minds or their methods. Targets in Europe and the United States have been selected. Our efforts to defend ourselves have worked. The conclusion is not that no danger is near, but that danger has been thwarted and must continue so to be.

We are calmly but clearly told of biological and nuclear materials, of delivery systems, and of human bombers. The danger is not from mass armies crossing over the seas. It is about cowardly, vindictive, ideological movements whose personnel have managed to recruit mostly from within the Muslim world people to carry out their spite. There are many hiding places in our midst, many weapons, many volunteers. Our political ideology holds that everyone is equal and that all systems are equally different; we understand only with difficulty that we have enemies; we are reluctant.

What is remarkable to the clergy about the president, I suspect — what confuses those who have no real responsibility to protect anyone — is that he can act on principle. The clerical world is a world of inaction in that Aristotelian sense that “thought of itself causes no action.”

Putting the best possible light on the clerical voices, we might say that they have been helpful in making sure that the actors in war and peace make every effort to know the situation, the law, the principles, and the proper means. On the other hand, there seems to be a strange lack of reality coming from a quarter that has often spent the past decades warning us to see the actual problems. In part, we have absolutized “war” to the extent that it has become an abstraction of evil instead of an element in the analysis of justice.

The “humanitarian” war advocates of recent years have often made every effort to suggest that it is our “obligation” to intervene in extreme cases, any place in the world. We have been blamed mostly for inaction. Now, these same voices demand inaction. Perhaps it is true, as Franklin Roosevelt said, that we all hate war. But the question remains: Is there something worse than war, something worse than not preventing what needs to be prevented? If it takes a war to prevent this something worse, and we do prevent it, it will always seem, to the anti-war faction, that no real problem existed, because they could not see the evidence for it.

Those who do see the evidence are in charge. There is a certain comfort in that.

James V. Schall, S.J. is a professor of government at Georgetown University and a Jesuit priest.


The Latest