War, Violence and Terrorism

1. What are your thoughts about the recent terrorist attacks? How should we as Catholics respond to the enemy?

2. I am a student in the ROTC program at USC. You have supported protests against the president’s military policies. I wonder how you can oppose and recommend that others oppose the leadership of the president of United States, especially since he has stated we must prepare for war? We have so little information compared to him. Surely he knows what is best for our country.

3. I have to know: what is it with the fundamentalists and this war with Iraq? Even my mom, a self-professed ex-hippie and wannabe first lady of the Vatican, is in full support of this war and believes its aims true, despite the denunciations of the pope (never mind the rest of the world's leaders). When I speak of the immorality of pre-emption and the just war doctrine, she seems fixated not only on justice (revenge?) against the terrorists, but mentions some connection to "Israel", which she elaborates on as a reference to Biblical prophecy. What is the merit of this view?

4. Personally, I am not sure if this war is a good thing or a bad thing. On one hand, Hussein murders people for sport, should we not help them? They have been suffering for a very long time. Am I not my brother's keeper? But on the other hand, we are blowing up a lot of people and we are experiencing casualties on our side, which really disturbs me. And so many people hate America now. I don't understand how anyone could be certain about how wrong (or right) this war is. I am vacillating on the issue. Why do you think it is so wrong?

5. I am doing a report on chemical warfare for school, and in my research I was curious to hear about what the church thinks about this topic. I personally am against it but I wanted to get another opinion on it.

6. I have been wavering back and forth on the issue of fighting. I feel that from within me there is a natural tendency to fight, but I am held back because I assume that Jesus was a pacifist. When I look around the world, I think that violence is all that some people understand. Can you help?

7. I was a USC student when you were at the Catholic Center. I come from a devout Catholic family but also an extremely patriotic one with a long tradition of military service. Following in my father and grandfather's footsteps, I have enlisted in the armed forces. I am proud of my family's history of military service and of my own decision. I also want to continue to be a devout Catholic and freely practice my religion while in the military.

I am concerned about some of the things you used to preach about war because I think that soldiers should be supported in their faith and have the opportunity to become more devout, just like everyone else. So I wonder if you believe that someone can be a devout Catholic and a soldier at the same time?

8. I have come a cross your website and discovered interesting topics you handle especially with regard to handling issues pertaining to our modern world. I wish to thank you very much and to seek your assistance.

I am currently grappling with the question of How the Catholic Church can be involved in the Conflict Resolution and Management today, owing to the fact that she has a prophetic role to play in society. Many of the conflicts we experience, especially in Africa, are ethnic-centered whereby some clergy and other agents of mission find themselves compromised due to their ethnicity and identity with their tribes. We have cases like Rwanda for example, where some clergy and the religious were apprehended for the role they played in the 1994 genocide. In Kenya's last elections, some priests were reported in the media for being partisan, etc. Exactly what should the Church do in such cases of conflicts?

9. Does the Catholic Church's Social Teaching have any reference to Conflict Resolution and Management in her designs of peacemaking?

Q 1: What are your thoughts about the recent terrorist attacks? How should we as Catholics respond to the enemy?

A 1: We as Catholics are no less, no more human than the other citizens of our country. The unconscionable attack on September 11th, 2001 cannot be tolerated and demands a response. Anger and frustration are natural reactions. For me, however, the real question is whether we have the spiritual reserve to draw from the teaching and example of Jesus. The first great discourse of Jesus in Matthew's gospel is called the Sermon on the Mount. It sets the scene for everything that Jesus is going to teach and to be. Difficult as it may sound, Jesus sets a new standard for dealing with enemies: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).

Certainly there are people who will suggest that these words are only an ideal or worse, that they are naïve in the modern world. But the sad truth is that people have been making that claim in every age and we still do not know if Jesus was right. All we really know is that hatred and violence do not work. So far, we have not heeded the words of Jesus nor put them into practice. If we do not try something different, then we, like previous generations, will consign ourselves to a future of unrelenting violence, hatred and war.

The Sunday following the attacks, I attempted to craft a response in my homily. It can be found on the homily page of this website. I hope that it proves of some assistance to all those who seek something other than violence for violence.

Q 2: I am a student in the ROTC program at USC. You have supported protests against the president’s military policies. I wonder how you can oppose and recommend that others oppose the leadership of the president of United States, especially since he has stated we must prepare for war? We have so little information compared to him. Surely he knows what is best for our country.

A 2: You are in a uniquely complex situation being in ROTC with the President of the United States being your commander-in-chief. That is true no matter who the president is. It seems to me that there is a fundamental question that underlies any particular question, namely, that no matter what issue we confront in our social or personal lives, we must bring the light of the Gospel to bear on our decision-making. It may be that some of us have differing opinions, but from a Christian perspective, those opinions are only valid if they have been informed by the values of the Gospel. It is very possible that sometimes our Christian convictions will bring us into conflict with social, governmental or even military decisions. At that point, resolution can be very complex.

As far as the possible war against Iraq, it is necessary for every Catholic and, indeed every Christian, to listen to the teaching of the Church and the witness of the leaders of the Church. In this case, almost every major world religious leader has come out in opposition to the policies of the United States government, in particular the policies of President Bush.

It is most notable that Pope John Paul II leader of the Roman Catholic Church and the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, leader of the worldwide Anglican Church, as well as the Catholic bishops of the United States have all spoken out against a possible war against Iraq. In thinking about and discussing this issue with others, it might be helpful to invoke the Church's Just War teaching. I refer you to Justice and Peace page of my website. On that page, there is a presentation about the Just War Doctrine of our Church. It is an apt document for discussing this issue. You will find from that teaching, that the current position of the U.S. government is not tenable. Just one principle that I would like to mention is the fact that in order for any war to be just it must be a defensive one. No offensive war is ever justified. And yet, the U.S. government has been speaking for several months about first strike options.

It is also worth noting that all seven principles of the Just War doctrine must be met for a war to be just. Even the absence of one principle would render a particular conflict unjust according to that teaching.

You mention in your question that we have so little information. All the information that we have so far, at least everything that can be verified, indicates that there is no sufficient reason for engaging in conflict. When it comes right down to it, even if the president is correct in claiming that Iraq still has weapons of mass destruction, that alone does not meet the criteria of the Just War Doctrine of our Church. From my perspective, this is reason to protest a possible war that has not been justified. And, in fact, hundreds of thousands around the country and millions more around the world have begun to do just that.

I do not envy your position of moral and intellectual conflict. I admire your willingness to engage in discussion, and I encourage you to use the fundamental values of the Gospel as the source of your decision-making.

Q 3: I have to know: what is it with the fundamentalists and this war with Iraq? Even my mom, a self-professed ex-hippie and wannabe first lady of the Vatican, is in full support of this war and believes its aims true, despite the denunciations of the pope (never mind the rest of the world's leaders). When I speak of the immorality of pre-emption and the just war doctrine, she seems fixated not only on justice (revenge?) against the terrorists, but mentions some connection to "Israel", which she elaborates on as a reference to Biblical prophecy. What is the merit of this view?

A 3: It is difficult to figure out how to engage people in discussion who are not willing to look at the deeper moral issues about any war, especially the Iraq War. As I have been telling people, it is necessary to keep the discussion going even though the president has declared the major fighting over. This is true for two reasons: 1) we cannot surrender the moral high ground or the principles of non-violence and peace to the military mindset; 2) unless we continue to debate the merits or non-merits of this war, we will find ourselves much more easily embroiled in future conflicts.

As for the Israeli issue and Biblical prophecy, that is just nonsense. Your mother has received some very bad information, most likely from people who want to justify the war. The fact is that there is nothing biblical about this war. As for the political justifications, e.g. the connection to the 9/11 terrorists and the weapons of mass destruction, they have been sufficiently discredited by numerous sources.

This war provides a prime example of why it is necessary to engage political and social reality in a dialogue with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Q 4: Personally, I am not sure if this war is a good thing or a bad thing. On one hand, Hussein murders people for sport, should we not help them? They have been suffering for a very long time. Am I not my brother's keeper? But on the other hand, we are blowing up a lot of people and we are experiencing casualties on our side, which really disturbs me. And so many people hate America now. I don't understand how anyone could be certain about how wrong (or right) this war is. I am vacillating on the issue. Why do you think it is so wrong?

A 4: In trying to figure out whether any war is a good or bad thing, we need some criteria. This is where the Church's Just War Doctrine comes into play. There are some, myself included, who do not think that any war can be justified--that war is a fundamental betrayal of the Christian message. Still, having a framework for evaluation is helpful. I won't go into all the elements of the Just War Doctrine (I have presented an explanation on the justice and peace page of my website), for now let me just say that the Doctrine was developed from a presumption in favor of peace. Over the years the Doctrine has evolved to take into consideration new ideas and possibilities for war. This evolution has attempted to make it ever more difficult to justify war. Currently, there are seven principles in the Just War Doctrine--all seven need to be met in order for a war to be justified. The current conflict in Iraq fails several criteria of the Just War Doctrine.

There are some people who will dismiss the Doctrine if it cannot support their desire for war. That's fair enough. But then we still need criteria to measure whether or not we should go to war. There are many reasons why the current war is wrong (and illegal), not to mention the fact the George Bush kept changing his reasons for wanting to go to war. If his first reasons were correct, he wouldn't have needed to find additional reasons. Let's look at a couple of those.

First, he told us we needed to go to war to disarm Saddam Hussein who had disregarded the United Nations resolutions. Well, there is some truth to that. However, precisely because the resolutions were passed by the United Nations, the UN was the proper authority to decide if conflict was necessary. The UN said no. So Bush had to come up with another reason. He claimed that Saddam Hussein had all these weapons of mass destruction, including seeking nuclear capability. While the inspections were going on, not only did the inspectors not find the weapons that many still believe he has (specifically chemical and biological), they specifically proved Bush wrong about the nuclear threat. Not only were the aluminum tubes that Bush touted the wrong type, there was no evidence at all that Saddam was pursuing a nuclear program, and still no concrete evidence that he possessed chemical and biological weapons, though that is still a suspicion.

While we are on the subject of UN resolutions, no country has ever violated or flouted more UN resolutions than Israel. Beginning with the right of the Palestinians to a State of their own, right through the continued settlements of the West Bank. Israel has thumbed its nose at the UN and violated no less than 70 UN resolutions.

Next, Bush decided we needed regime change in Iraq. It is not our right to decide who can rule any particular country. It is true that Saddam Hussein has done terrible things to his own people, including gassing the Kurds in Northern Iraq--something Bush continues to tout as the most horrific thing he has ever done. However, it is disingenuous for Bush to keep referring to that incident, because immediately after the gassing occured, Bush's father, at the time President of the U.S., tried to blame Iran for the gassing and extended to Iraq $1.2 billion in credits and loans. In 1983, Donald Rumsfeld, now Secretary of Defense, was sent by Ronald Reagan to assure Saddam Hussein that he would receive unwavering support from the United States to win his war against Iran.

As you can see, once again, it is failed and misguided United States foreign policy that has led inexorably to the current state of affairs. To blame Saddam Hussein for everything that led up to this war is dishonest. What's more, it is an unparalleled arrogance.

However, what I find particularly disturbing is the dismantling of all the principles and framework of civilization in this unprovoked war. One of the defining principles of the Just War Doctrine is that a war must be defensive. No preemptive war can ever be justified. Not only from the perspective of the Just War Doctrine, but as a matter of International Law, preemptive war is illegal. Now that we have set this precedent, any country can choose to invade another one on the pretense of national security. That path leads only to chaos. In this one act, Bush has betrayed everything that the United States has stood for, for more than 200 years. Unfortunately, the people are so misguided in their concern for the troops and blinded by false patriotism that they do not see how far we have fallen in the eyes of the International community. We no longer have the moral high ground to speak to anyone about democracy, truth or freedom. Bush has betrayed all these ideals in his infantile fit for war.

I know that my own frustration and depression comes through in these words, but I believe in the principles on which this country was founded. I believe in the necessity of International law and a United Nations. Most importantly I believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ, and I will not let the Gospel be hijacked by Bush and his band of right-wing fundamentalist Christians.

I hope that some of these thoughts can help you sift through the media hype to the truth about this war. Somewhere out there must be a truth that will lead ultimately to peace.

Q 5: I am doing a report on chemical warfare for school, and in my research I was curious to hear about what the church thinks about this topic. I personally am against it but I wanted to get another opinion on it.

A 5: Chemical weapons, like nuclear ones, are not morally acceptable in Catholic thought. One reason is that they are indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction. Indiscriminate because they cannot distinguish between civilians and soldiers; mass destruction because they cannot be limited to a sufficiently precise geography.

Chemical weapons are also opposed in Catholic thought because they are disproportionate. That is, they inflict a wound/pain or suffering that is greater than the proportional good to be gained from winning a battle or war. In that context, chemical weapons can be compared to cruel and unusual punishment. The effects of chemical weaponry are long lasting, often much longer than the war itself.

For these and other reasons, chemical weapons have been banned by international treaty, even though many countries, including the U.S., still possess them.

It is only fair to point out that the emerging Catholic theology and Church teaching about war and violence is becoming ever more strongly anti-war in general. Such positions would preclude the possession and use of chemical weapons on still broader theological grounds.

Q 6: I have been wavering back and forth on the issue of fighting. I feel that from within me there is a natural tendency to fight, but I am held back because I assume that Jesus was a pacifist. When I look around the world, I think that violence is all that some people understand. Can you help?

A 6: I would have to agree with you that Jesus was a pacifist. But the concept of pacifism can mean different things to different people. Jesus never stood by on the sidelines and watched injustice. When he met up with evil or sickness or injustice, he faced it head on and confronted it. So the call from within you to fight against injustice is very Christian. The real challenge is how to avoid violence.

There is a wonderful scene in the movie “Ghandi” that takes place in South Africa. Ghandi is addressing a large gathering of Indian men and explaining a new government policy that allows the police to enter a home without warning or warrant. A number of men voice very strong opposition to this and vow to fight and kill any man who so disrespects his family and home. When Ghandi finally speaks again, he says: “in this struggle I, too, am prepared to fight. But there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill.” He believed, lived and succeeded in fighting against injustice both in South Africa and India, but he never embraced or endorsed violence.

It seems that what you are looking for is something we all need—a commitment to fighting for justice without the violence that always breeds more violence.

Q 7: I was a USC student when you were at the Catholic Center. I come from a devout Catholic family but also an extremely patriotic one with a long tradition of military service. Following in my father and grandfather's footsteps, I have enlisted in the armed forces. I am proud of my family's history of military service and of my own decision. I also want to continue to be a devout Catholic and freely practice my religion while in the military.

I am concerned about some of the things you used to preach about war because I think that soldiers should be supported in their faith and have the opportunity to become more devout, just like everyone else. So I wonder if you believe that someone can be a devout Catholic and a soldier at the same time?

A 7: Thank you for your thoughtful question. It is obvious that this is a heartfelt issue for you and one that arises from a personal family history. Let me begin very simply by saying, "yes" you can be a devout Catholic and a soldier at the same time. However, let me also nuance the issue a little bit since I think that answer is too simplistic. First of all, I do not know what you mean by the word "devout". You may be suggesting a general commitment to faith and regular practice of your religion, such as going to Sunday Mass and praying daily. However, sometimes the word "devout" means arriving at a deeper commitment to Jesus and learning to live as Jesus lived and to make the choices and decisions that Jesus did.

I am not sure how often you went to the Catholic Center, but you may have heard me speak about a significant conflict in our lives. As I have said in preaching, our first allegiance is to Jesus Christ and his Gospel. That allegiance must take precedence even over long held patriotism. It is too easy (no matter what country or political system we come from), to let our patriotism dominate our lives. I have often suggested that it is an accident of birth what country we are born in. One country is not inherently better than another, and all people are loved equally by God. I also refuse to allow a president or congress to tell me who my enemies will be. I would like to go through life without enemies, but if I am to have any, then I and I alone will decide who they are.

I am also concerned that war and violence have proven themselves to be ineffective in establishing peace and securing justice. The Gospels lead us to the conclusion that only love can achieve these universal desires and build the Kingdom of God. In particular, we have been challenged by Jesus specifically to love our enemies. That is a love we can only learn from Jesus and a power we can only receive from God. But it is possible. Ultimately it is not in military operations that we achieve the good of the larger community, but in the love and peace of God. I am certainly convinced that Jesus would never serve in a military uniform. The idea of killing another person, or even threatening to do so, would be abhorrent to him. So how do you resolve this conflict in your own life?

Just as people of good will can disagree on a particular political system or structure to achieve the common good, so also people of good will can disagree on what methods are best for preserving the good of society. I do not believe that the military offers us any peace or future. For me, violence is never the way. It is, I believe, better to suffer even restrictions on the public exercise of our faith, than to engage in violence. You may disagree with me, and that is fine. By the way, as serious as the issue of free exercise of religion goes, you are not really free to exercise your faith in the military, either. For example, the Pope and the Catholic Bishops of the United States opposed the war in Iraq. In fact, the Pope specifically said that it was immoral. What do you think the military would do if a soldier said, "I won't go?" That is just one of the issues you need to be aware of. One dangerous pitfall that you will have to avoid is doing evil. Not every military command can be carried out just because your superiors tell you. You must always balance military directives against the law of God. Speaking for myself, I would not want to be in that situation.

Our church believes that people need to be ministered to in all kinds of situations, and so we have a concern for the spiritual welfare for men and women serving in the armed forces. I would hope that your faith is not compromised in the military. I also hope that while you serve in the military you will be served by chaplains who can help you grow in your faith and deepen your commitment to Jesus. I think the first steps toward achieving the devout status you mentioned in your question is to pray daily that you can accept the challenge of Jesus to learn to love one another, even your enemies, as a means toward building the Kingdom of God.

Q 8: I have come a cross your website and discovered interesting topics you handle especially with regard to handling issues pertaining to our modern world. I wish to thank you very much and to seek your assistance.

I am currently grappling with the question of How the Catholic Church can be involved in the Conflict Resolution and Management today, owing to the fact that she has a prophetic role to play in society. Many of the conflicts we experience, especially in Africa, are ethnic-centered whereby some clergy and other agents of mission find themselves compromised due to their ethnicity and identity with their tribes. We have cases like Rwanda for example, where some clergy and the religious were apprehended for the role they played in the 1994 genocide. In Kenya's last elections, some priests were reported in the media for being partisan, etc. Exactly what should the Church do in such cases of conflicts?

A 8: The background to your question is complicated, rooted as it is in historical reality. But let me being there. It is extremely regrettable that in some of the ethnic conflicts in Africa, members of the clergy have been involved in the violence. Not unlike other places in the world, ethnic history and past hostility are not easily put to rest. Although we might desire members of the clergy to live out and demonstrate the values of the Gospel, specifically forgiveness and reconciliation, the sad truth is that clergy are neither more, nor less human than anyone else. Tribal and ethnic conflict are often so deeply rooted in groups and individuals, that even after generations of apparent peace, the old divisions are easily inflamed. Human beings are also prey to mass hysteria. I believe this to be part of what happened in Rwanda and other places. This lapse on the part of the clergy does not, however, invalidate the values of Jesus and his Church. I have long preached that the first work of the Christian is reconciliation--even before so-called public witness. Everything in the Gospel hinges on the command to love, and the call to forgive and to heal is the first real challenge of love. 

As for conflict resolution, that is a specific approach for bringing warring parties together in an attempt to end hostilities. Quite often in human interaction (at least among between and among nations), it appears that the only true love affair in human life is with violence. Conflict resolution stands in stark contrast to our all-too-quick tendency to use violence as a means of solving disputes. In that regard, conflict resolution is not only a particular process. It also is much more closely aligned to the values of the Gospel than most other interaction. As such, it is entirely appropriate for the Church to endorse and further expound on conflict resolution. In a very true sense, that also is in keeping with the Church's prophetic role in this world.

Q 9: Does the Catholic Church's Social Teaching have any reference to Conflict Resolution and Management in her designs of peacemaking?

A 9: The language of "conflict resolution and management" is not the specific language of Catholic social teaching. However, the concept is rooted in the social teaching of the Catholic Church That teaching is a continually evolving theological reflection on the Gospel and its application in today's world. Having begun with Pope Leo XIII's encyclical "Rerum Novarum", the body of reflection has continued through the writings of successive Popes to deal with many of the significant issues facing modern societies including rights of workers, immigrants and peace. All of these embrace conflict resolution at one level or another.

The actual attempt to bring peace out of conflict has been frequently on display in the actions of various Popes and Papal representatives, even at the risk of ridicule, as when Pope John Paul II met with Yasser Arafat at the Vatican. Episcopal conferences and individual bishops have frequently stepped into the fray of conflict in an attempt to secure peace through negotiation. A number of lay Catholic organizations have also dedicated themselves to securing peace through non-violence. However, the term "conflict resolution" is not specifically a Catholic one and is not usually to be found in the official documents of the Church. Nevertheless, the idea of conflict resolution is deeply embedded in the Church's social teaching. Given its contribution to and effectiveness in the cause of peace-making it is entirely possible that the term may find its way into future Church reflections and writings on peace, and as such may become a term that is indispensable in the Church's continued work for peace in the world.