At the beginning of this New Year, we find our nation engaged in wars on foreign soil. This time the enemies we face are more difficult to identify, and their weapons of choice are terrorism and chaos, mass atrocities and the radical violation of human rights.
We are presently engaged in battle with pernicious enemies, whose decentralized leadership and unbridled hatred of the West have rendered traditional avenues of dialogue and diplomacy ineffective or useless. We are at war with foes fueled by radical fundamentalism, and driven by sectarian hatred and the wholesale disregard for the value of human life.
At the dawn of the new year, some 160,000 American troops risk life and limb in Iraq alone, while thousands of others, stationed in war-torn regions across the globe, are separated from family and loved ones. They desperately need our prayers and support as they face imminent and daily danger, especially the wounded and the families who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
We must also consistently remember the embattled people of Iraq and of other war-torn nations in our prayers. The inescapable reality remains: the conflict in Iraq has internally displaced some two million civilians and another two million refugees have fled the country out of fear for their lives.
On the home front, we have become a nation divided and war-weary, a country deeply mired in partisan polarization and public distrust.
Thus, it is little wonder that among our people there is a growing sense of powerlessness and hopelessness regarding the Iraqi conflict, coupled with a tendency to evade the hard questions that must be posed in the face of a war that seems interminable.
In some circles we are witnessing the emergence of slogan-like and short-sided solutions on both sides of the continuum that fail to take into account the complex nature of these conflicts, with their deeply religious, ethnic and historic antecedents. Our faith and Catholic teaching offer principles to assist us as we discern the future together.
In his final statement as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop William Skylstad made an urgent plea for the renewal of bipartisan action among our nation’s leaders, based on honest and civil dialogue and a realistic assessment of both the successes and failures we have experienced in Iraq.
Our Bishops’ Conference encourages our national leaders to focus on the morally and politically demanding, but carefully limited goal of fostering a “responsible transition” and withdrawal at the earliest opportunity consistent with that goal.
“We do not have specific competence in political, economic or military strategies,” Bishop Skylstad wrote, “and do not assess particular tactics, but we can, as teachers, share a moral tradition to help inform policy choices.”
At its core, our Catholic teaching on war and peace offers hard questions, not easy answers. Nevertheless, they are questions that we must ask.
“How can we minimize the further loss of life in Iraq? What actions will do the most good and the least harm? What elements of a responsible transition are attainable? How can they be achieved? What actions should be avoided? How can decision-makers take into account both the realities and setbacks in Iraq and the likely human consequences of a rapid withdrawal? What are the final costs and global consequences of continued war and occupation? How can our nation effectively counter the perversion of religion and ideologies that support terrorism, which in all cases merit condemnation?”
The New Catholic Catechism also raises difficult concerns about the hidden and largely unreported toll of war on civilian populations.
This urgent call for bipartisan cooperation in Iraq must begin with the acknowledgement that peace is more than the absence of war. Peace-building recognizes that the responsibility for stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq rests primarily with Iraq’s own people. But the United States and its allies, as a result of our actions, have unique and inescapable obligations to assist with the resettlement of refugees and the reconstruction of the ravaged economic and civil infrastructure. But the task does not end there.
Pope Benedict XVI, long before he became Pontiff, wisely and consistently asserted that the Church must continually take up the torch of interfaith dialogue across the globe, convinced that there will be no peace among the nations until there is peace among the great religions of the world.
Furthermore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear and unrelenting in its insistence that the Church “urges everyone to prayer and action, so that divine Goodness may free us from this ancient bondage of war” (CCC 2307).
As pastors of the Church, in sum, the bishops of our nation once again urgently call for meaningful bipartisan action and the lifting of the political and partisan stalemate in Washington. In the words of Bishop Skylstad, “our country needs a new direction to reduce the war’s deadly toll and to bring our people together to deal with the conflict’s moral and human dimensions.” The current impasse and inertia must end. Nothing short of a new bipartisan approach to Iraq policy based on honest and civil dialogue will do.
At the beginning of 2008, we redouble our prayers for peace among the nations and for the safety of our troops. We have a particular moral obligation to care for these men and women. We must never lose sight of the sacrifices they have borne or of our nation’s moral obligations to assist and support them upon their return to their homeland.
We ask the Lord, the Prince of Peace, to raise up for us new prophets of peace across the globe – religious and civil leaders – who can serve as heralds of hope and catalysts of peace in a war-weary world.
We also ask the Lord to help us to elect and collaborate with such leaders, especially as another general election is on the horizon. Finally, we commit ourselves to participate in the ongoing work of active peace-making, remembering our Lord’s promise: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Published in The Montana Catholic, Vol. 24, No. 1, January 18, 2008.