Iraq: Silence of the Catholics

Dorothy Day, anti-war Catholic (photo from the Milwaukee Journal).

When Tony Blair converted to Roman Catholicism last Christmas eve, there was a great hullabaloo in the press as to whether there was a contradiction between his new denominational identity and his support for liberal policies on abortion and gay rights. Joseph Devine, Bishop of Motherwell, went so far as to criticize Blair for leading “the most anti-family and anti-life government in recent history.”

Yet like many other Catholic critics, Bishop Devine was silent on an even more glaring contradiction: Blair’s most noteworthy political decision was his support of the American war effort in Iraq. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have both been strongly critical of this war, pointing out that it violates traditional Christian Just War doctrine. In 2002, before ascending to the papacy, Benedict flatly stated that the “concept of a ‘preventive war’ does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” More recently, Benedict has lamented that nothing good has come out of the Iraq war. 

When the history of the Iraq war is written, a chapter will have to be devoted to the silence of the Catholics. While the two Popes have been outspoken in decrying the policies of Bush and Blair, the Catholic church, both among the clergy and the laity, hasn’t played as significant role in the anti-war movement. (It is true that Michael Moore is a Catholic and he has cited his religion as a factor in his opposition to the war. But Moore’s Catholicism is hardly a significant visible part of his public identity, which is true of many other anti-war Catholics).

This relative silence is in striking contrast to both the Vietnam War and the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, when both ordained and unfrocked Catholics voiced significant dissent to American foreign policy: Dorothy Day and Father Daniel Berrigan was a fixture at Vietnam protest rallies and countless of churches in America heroically offered sanctuary to refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala. It’s hard to think of any successors to Day and Berrigan or the sanctuary movement. 

What accounts for the change?  An old article article  by Daniel McCarthy in the American Conservative offers a few clues:

1. One factor is the emergence of a group of prominent Catholic neo-conservatives (Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel) who have made rhetorically successful (although intellectually specious) arguments that Iraq is compatible with Just War theory. I don’t think the work of these thinkers will withstand scrutiny: they have an all too evident tendency to regard American nationalism as more important than Christian doctrine (as witness by Michael Novak’s complaint  that Pope Benedict sounds like a typical European eager to “stick it to the Americans.” As if American national pride was the most important consideration when dealing with a war that has cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives). However dubious they might be as thinkers, Novak and company have muddied the waters enough to quiet mainstream Catholics who might have otherwise questioned the war. 

2. McCarthy quotes an interesting observation made by the historian Andrew Bacevich, a conservative Catholic and eloquent opponent of American militarism, who noted that at the very time when the American church could have spoken out against the war, it was weakened by sex scandals. 

3. There is a third factor, which McCarthy doesn’t mention but makes sense when we consider Bishop Devine’s criticism of Blair. To a significant degree, clerical leaders in Europe and North America have forged alliances with conservative political movements opposed to abortion and gay rights. These political alliances have made clergymen very comfortable in speaking out on social and cultural issues but unused to voicing the church’s teachings on economics and foreign policy. Allied as they are with powerful social conservative politicians like Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, Catholic leaders in the United States are reluctant to take on positions that would challenge the Republican coalition. In effect, parts of the church have become Republicans with clerical collars. This alliance between organized Catholicism and the political right is fraught with contradictions which will, I think, become gaping in time.

13 thoughts on “Iraq: Silence of the Catholics

  1. More Germans died in Dresden alone. Unfortunately, Hitler needed taking down. War is hell. Just as WWII and David’s taking Goliath out were in balance good, so is what America the Brave is doing in Iraq. The one mistake was half-heartedness, unless one were to count not sending Sadam, along with Uday & Qusay, to live in the author’s neighborhood. Oh well, Sheol will have to do.

    1. Mr. Hill: You are a liar and and and an idiot:

      A Liar: As bad as the casualties were in Dresden they do not compare even circa 2008 to Iraq (by the way, the bombing of Dresden, the firebombing of Tokyo and the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasachi were also immoral and war crimes, just to enlighten you);

      An Idiot: War is Hell–a cliche used to justify the most vicious and brutal war crimes and crimes against peace–it was not our job to remove Hussein, even though we were largely respondsible for him being there in the first place–of course, the USA government being rife with hypocrisy denies that.

      Do not fret too much about Sadam and family not being sent to the author’s neighborhood; if your judgment is correct about their ultimate fate, I suspect that you will eventually will be shoveling coal for eternity right next to them. Please give your heroes WT Sherman, Bomber Harris, Mad Dog Curtis LeMay, and Harry Truman my regards upon your arrival.

    2. You are an idiot; you are also way outside the Catholic “Just War” tradition; you have great opportunity to be an American or Israeli politician.

  2. “More Germans died in Dresden alone.” That’s not true, simply on a factual level (we’ll leave the morality out of it).

    How many people were killed at Dresden? Best estimates put it at 25,000-35,000.

    How many Iraqis have died (in excess of those who would have died if there had been no war)? Estimates vary but the best studies put the numbers at 400,000 to 600,000, possibly more. To simply say “war is hell” doesn’t mean that all wars should be accepted: a cost/benefit analysis has to be done, and the lives killed should be a factor in judging the justness of any war.

  3. This seems to be a time when nobody speaks or acts out on anything – not Catholics and not anybody else. Why single out Catholics?

  4. I’m disgusted by the first two comments. Lives are worth much more than any other kind of factor. To say to someone that his life can be spared in the name of a greater good is intolerable. Why oppose terrorism if you agree to its premise.

  5. >It’s hard to think of any successors to Day and Berrigan or >the sanctuary movement.

    Members of Day’s Catholic Worker movement and Pax Christi USA have hardly been silent. Prominent anti-war Catholics include John Dear, Kathy Kelly, and Daniel Berrigan himself.

    The photo of Day should be credited to the Milwaukee Journal.

  6. Robert Hill: Your points are fair enough and well taken. The only thing I would add is that while there are still anti-war Catholics, they don’t seem to have the promience that they enjoyed during the Vietnam war or the sanctuary movement. This may be the fault of the media but I think it’s generally true that Catholic anti-war voices do seem somewhat diminished compared to earlier decades. I’ve added in the credit to the Milwaukee Journal.

  7. Pingback: Catholic Today
  8. Dear SANS EVERYTHING,

    I just came across your blog while doing some research.

    There are many Catholics who are crying out against this immoral and illegal war. Many of us are speaking out and doing it loudly. You are not capable of hearing all voices at once nor all voices everywhere. I believe that you are making a judgment based solely on your individual experience and individual experience is always limited.

    I just returned from a trip to the Middle East where I saw first hand the ravages of war. There are many Catholics who are speaking out and trying to do all they can. I have found that the media ignores the anti-war Catholics. I note a fact that out of dozens of anti-war op-ed pieces I have submitted over the past five years, only one was ever used by my local paper and that particular piece was very brief. Don’t presume it is silence. Take into consideration that the anti-war Catholics are being ignored by a public that doesn’t want to hear what we have to say.

    Peace,
    Fr. Jeff G.

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