Late Edition: The Greater Evil

In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the Holy See launched an unprecedented diplomatic offensive in opposition to the national security policy of the United States. The first public expression of this tension appeared in a statement issued last November by the executive committee of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Stripped to its essentials, that document suggested that the idea of preventive war was unconscionable and that any war undertaken without the sanction of the United Nations (other than war in response to direct aggression) was of doubtful legality.

These propositions merit serious discussion but hardly exhaust Catholic teaching on the subject. Many were surprised, therefore, when similar arguments were reiterated by senior Vatican officials, some of whom sharply criticized American policy even as they underplayed the sadistic brutality of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the threat to peace posed by his efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Even harsher versions of the argument appeared in quasi-official publications such as La Civilta Cattolica and L’Osservatore Romano, which lent their pages to anti-American rants indistinguishable from those found in the secular European press.

The Holy Father, characteristically, was far more circumspect in his statements, but as the deadline for war approached, he departed from his prepared remarks on more than one occasion to utter passionate personal appeals for peace. Meanwhile, a virtual parade of prime ministers and foreign ministers passed through the papal apartments. (Their number included the odious Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s deputy foreign minister, who interrupted his obsequies to Saddam Hussein to make a very public display of piety at the shrine to St. Francis in Assisi.) Special papal emissaries were dispatched to President George W. Bush and to the Butcher of Baghdad himself.

This full-court diplomatic press by the Church has puzzled American Catholics, who support Bush’s war efforts roughly two to one. Were they being asked to choose between their pope and their president?

The depth and sincerity of John Paul II’s yearning for peace are not to be questioned, nor are his words to be lightly treated. As the moral teacher par excellence of our time, his instruction deserves the particular attention not only of Catholics but of all people of good will. He is right to temper jingoistic enthusiasms and to remind us of war’s moral degradation and physical horrors. But as head of the juridical entity known as the Holy See, the pope must also superintend a worldly agenda that seeks to protect the long-run diplomatic interests of the institutional Church. The most important of these at the moment appears to be to deflate the notion that the Iraqi incursion portends a modern Christian crusade to crush Islam.

It makes good moral and diplomatic sense for the Vatican to distance itself from war in general and, in particular, from an American-led military incursion into the Mideast. But American foreign policy imperatives—over-heated clerical rhetoric to the contrary—have a moral dignity of their own, even if they do not always coincide with those of the Holy See. President Bush no more wants a war of civilization between Islam and the West than does the pope, but as the political leader of the free world, he has a different set of moral responsibilities. Is there a risk that war against Iraq might lead to a broader conflict? Certainly. Is it a morally irresponsible risk? No. The president has concluded after careful deliberation that the greater moral risk lies in Saddam Hussein’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.

Religious fanatics and political opportunists will undoubtedly try to encourage a worldwide Islamic jihad, but President Bush believes that the projection of military force into Iraq and the reconstruction of an acceptably democratic regime will do more to cabin radical Islamism than exhortations to peace or continued reliance on a demonstrably ineffective, even dangerous UN “peace process.” American policy can be faulted on prudential grounds, but to accuse the president of moral indifference or recklessness does him a grave injustice. A decision for war is easily enough faulted by those who do not bear direct responsibility for protecting the lives and liberties of actual human beings. Catholics who are troubled by clerical condemnations of American policy in Iraq need to remember this: The president, unlike Vatican diplomats, must worry not only whether there is adequate moral justification for war but whether greater evil will accrue if he decides against war.


  • Michael M. Uhlmann

    Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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