Seeing Things: Catholic Pacifism?

In the hoopla over the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’s unusually strong remarks during their annual meeting late last November about the life issues (“Living the Gospel of Life”), another serious remarkably weak statement passed virtually unnoticed. In his presidential “Statement on Iraq,” Bishop Pilla of Cleveland again brought the bishops’ conference close to endorsing a dangerous pacifism.

Just before the bishops met, the United States had come within minutes of launching new strikes against Baghdad for refusing U.N. inspectors access to weapons-manufacturing facilities. It was the fifth time in five years that President Clinton had ordered a military buildup without going on the attack. Saddam Hussein once again headed off the immediate threat with promises, which he promptly broke.

By the time this column appears, President Clinton may have ordered a military response. But the issues raised by Bishop Pilla’s statement will be with us for a long time as we seek to deal with a world in which small countries may pose large threats.

Bishop Pilla repeated earlier NCCB/USCC calls for “political solutions rather than military force.” He even cited the Holy Father’s remarks after the Gulf War:

[N]ever again war, which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution Ito] the very problems which provoked the war.

Serious concerns. But with all due respect to both the pope and the bishop, what they are proposing—force only in immediate self-defense—may lead to even worse atrocities than another strike against Hussein. In this century, the blood spilled in the two world wars and the development of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction have stretched the old just war principles to the breaking point. Still, these moral tensions cannot simply paralyze us when there is no alternative to the legitimate use of force. Otherwise we will allow those with no such scruples to dictate terms.

Bishop Pilla rightly remarks that the embargo against Iraq has been a failure. Embargoes usually fail except where, as in South Africa, the nation under embargo shares Western moral assumptions. Otherwise, as the histories of Cuba, North Korea, and Iraq show, embargoes typically produce suffering among the people, but no real change of heart for the dictators. If dictators cared about people, they wouldn’t be dictators.

Where Bishop Pilla’s analysis itself may fail is in its assumption that the force we applied in 1991 or may apply in the future is futile or unjust, for we have another set of historical examples. The West let Hitler get up a good head of steam before realizing that only force would stop him. In Bosnia and Kosovo, European and Vatican diplomats talked the language of peace and at the same time allowed terrifying atrocities to occur within the European continent. It is no wonder that in places like Rwanda genocide still occurs.

Europe, the Holy Father, Bishop Pilla, and many others would like to make negotiations a substitute for war. In many cases, that may be possible; in many others, it may be asking for even greater horrors. The bishops seem unable to find circumstances in which force is justified. But our time may call for many such judgments. The Israeli air force preemptively destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear weapons plant in 1981. At the time, it seemed excessive; today, we can only be grateful that Saddam Hussein possesses no nuclear warheads.

Our bishops conclude with the hope that

the United States, working with the international community, will pursue what will continue to be a painstaking and frustrating process of pressing the Iraqi government to live up to is international obligations through a military embargo, political sanctions, deterrence, and much more carefully focused economic sanctions which do not threaten the lives of innocent Iraqi civilians.

A noble vision, but as Aristotle said, no man becomes a tyrant merely to keep warm. Believing that we can deal with evil men as if they had the same rational interests as everyone else may produce worse evils than the necessity of using force. Unless the civilized world can come to a better understanding of its responsibilities than it has shown since the end of the Cold War, we are in for some terrible consequences.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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