LITURGY AND WAR AND THE UNITED STATES CATHOLIC BISHOPS

"Jesus said, Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint, and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law - judgment and mercy and fidelity. . . you strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel!" (Matthew 23).

By Robert Waldrop, Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House

Director of Music, Epiphany of the Lord Catholic Church, Oklahoma City

Comes now the United States Bishops, in collegial dialogue with their brethren at the Vatican, bearing gifts for United States Catholics in the form of a new translation of the texts of the Mass.

This is the result of an intense, five-year liturgy conversation which has been conducted in a context of war. I am referring not to the commonly used term "liturgy wars" but to the present world political and economic context.

Attacked by stateless terrorists in 2001 - the same year that Liturgium Authenticum was published - the United States invaded and conquered two nations who had not attacked us. These wars fail the significant tests of just war doctrine. They were not declared by proper authority (no declaration of war has ever been voted by Congress as required by the Constitution).They were not proportional to the damage inflicted or the real and actual dangers that we faced. We refused to negotiate with the Afghan government before launching that war. There were other less drastic means available that were not pursued before the wars were launched. War was not our "last resort", but rather our "first resort". The outcome of our wars has not been what we supposed it would be. Terrorist violence continues unabated throughout the world, and there is no sign that anything that we are doing now with our military will have the slightest impact on that level of violence, except to increase it.

Both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were launched during times of intense national paranoia. Instead of a rational debate on the alternatives, our media and public rhetoric was saturated with propaganda that was rooted in outright lies and distortions of the truth. Civilian casualties have been horrendous and ordinary civilians continue to bear the brunt of the violence. These events followed a decade of injustice waged against the people of Iraq via the sanctions war, which caused hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties.

This is the violent orgy of death and destruction within which Rome and the United States bishops decided that we needed new, "more literal" translations of our liturgical texts. They promise us catechesis and that they will work with pastoral musicians and liturgists in order to gain full acceptance for these changes from the Catholic people of the United States.

As a director of music of a Catholic parish of 1600 families, I confess to you my sisters and brothers that I am not excited about abandoning the music and texts for the various parts of the Mass that we are accustomed to singing and praying. Who knows what the promised texts and the catechetical effort will look like? The past history of the United States Catholic Bishops doesn't promise much, especially when we think about the bishops' catechetical effort in response to the wars on the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, which has been effectively nothing. I am certainly in favor of more liturgical catechesis, but I think we ought to spend at least as much time, effort, and money on catechesis regarding war and peace as we do on these new literal translations of the Latin Mass texts. That, of course, would require a commitment to moral orthodoxy regarding the Church's teachings on war and peace and life from the United States bishops, and pigs will fly before that happens.

That is undeniably a crude and uncharitable thing for me to say. However, because of my vocation as a Catholic Worker, following however imperfectly in the charism of our founders the saints Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, I habitually look at such situations from the ground up, not the top down. From this grassroots viewpoint, it appears to me that the bishops of the United States have certainly been less than charitable to the victims of the pro-war policies of the politicians so many of our bishops are so enthusiastically promoting. Indeed, some bishops (and other Catholic leaders) are demanding political support for those who are primarily responsible for waging these unjust wars.. I am reminded of the Catechism's statement that we gain responsibility for the sins of others when we "cooperate with them . . . by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them; by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so; by protecting evil-doers." (1868)

Shortly after the Bishops blessed the Afghan war as "just", the whole world discovered how corrupt many of our bishops were as the latest iteration of the clergy sexual abuse cycle blew into full public view. It is ironic (but not surprising) that the leader of the movement to endorse the war on the people of Afghanistan as just - Cardinal Law of Boston - turned out to be one of the most egregious enablers of clergy sex abuse.

Since Rome wants us to be more literal in our translations of our liturgical texts, I think it would be useful to apply that same methodology to the rhetoric of our bishops regarding war and peace. Let us first consider the statement regarding the present situation in Iraq, made by Bishop Thomas Wenski, chairman of the United States Bishops' Committee on International Policy, in January 2006. Using the new Roman literal translation methodology, we see that he called for a continuation of our violent and murderous occupation of Iraq, he demanded that we impose our will upon the Iraqi people, and he demonized those who advocate the immediate withdrawal of United States troops from Iraq and Afghanistan (which includes, among many others that could be mentioned, the entire Catholic Worker movement). Bishop Wenski teaches that our violence now gives us the responsibility to wield even more violence to achieve our goals. From his social position - rich, powerful, white, learned - I suppose that is the way things look. However, I think that if in solidarity we look at this from the viewpoint of the poor and the marginalized - the victims of our state terrorism and violence - the situation looks entirely different. We should trust the Iraqi people to manage their own affairs and immediately withdraw all of our troops and fleets from their nation.

Bishop Wenski's statement says that the bishops warned of the moral problems of the Iraq war, but there is less here than his text suggests. Skipping over the fact that the bishops endorsed the Afghan war as just, over the last five years the bishops' statements regarding Iraq were weak, they were not given with a united voice, there was no organized catechesis (or even disorganized catechesis, for that matter) and the conference and leadership's statements were almost immediately contradicted and rendered meaningless by the many bishops who supported the Republican and Democratic parties in the 2004 election. Some of these bishops depersonalized the victims of our war policy in order to justify their support for a bi-partisan regime that had waged two unjust wars! The deaths of those innocent people weren't so bad, they said, because while deaths of unborn children are always morally wrong, deaths of innocent people in war aren't always morally wrong if it is a just war. Their implication was clear and often explicit - the Afghan and Iraq Wars are just wars!

If we continue to use the new Roman policy of literally translating texts, the executive summary of their message is a triumphalistic "Onward Christian soldiers, bomb and loot and kill! We will defend the unborn in the United States by violently terrorizing and sacrificing the poor of other nations on Molechian altars dedicated to America's Manifest Destiny!" My question is: since when did the Catholic Church endorse the use of immoral means to attain moral ends?

Only one Bishop had the courage to speak the full truth about the Iraqi War, and that was the Most Reverend John Michael Botean, of the Rumanian Catholic diocese of Canton, Ohio, who said: ". . . any direct participation and support of this war against the people of Iraq is objectively grave evil, a matter of mortal sin. Beyond a reasonable doubt this war is morally incompatible with the Person and Way of Jesus Christ. With moral certainty I say to you it does not meet even the minimal standards of the Catholic just war theory. Thus, any killing associated with it is unjustified and, in consequence, unequivocally murder. Direct participation in this war is the moral equivalent of direct participation in an abortion. For the Catholics of the Eparchy of St. George, I hereby authoritatively state that such direct participation is intrinsically and gravely evil and therefore absolutely forbidden."

Perhaps a clue to the bishops' behavior can be found in the report of the now-defunct Task Force on Catholic Politicians. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick says that they talked to their brother bishops. They consulted with leading moral theologians and canonists. They spoke with leaders of state Catholic Conferences and retired Catholic politicians. They contacted the episcopal conferences of other nations. They were in regular discussions with the highest levels of the Vatican. They met separately with "significant numbers" of Catholic Democrats and Republicans in the United States Congress. It all sounds so civilized and thorough.

Notice, however, who these bishops did NOT talk to. They did not interview one single victim of the policies and votes of Catholic politicians. They talked to no mothers whose children were incinerated by American bombs in Afghanistan or Iraq. They spoke with no people from Third World countries who had been dispossessed by the globalization policies of Catholic Republican and Democratic politicians. The Bishops did not meet with any Catholic politicians or political activists of third parties or minority political movements. They spoke with no Libertarians, Socialists, Greens, Independents, anarchists, personalists, or distributists. In other words, they spoke with people they were comfortable talking with - the rich, the powerful, and the learned. They did not speak with the poor, the dispossessed, or with those who stand against the culture of death orientation of the Catholic politicians of both the Republican and the Democratic parties.

Sure, the bishops can always be counted on to mouth the proper phrases. "Preferential option for the poor" - they are certainly for it, as long of course as this doesn't get in the way of controlling the oil fields of the Middle East. "The gospel presumption is always for non-violence" - as long of course as we don't need to conquer a nation in order to control its resources, in which case state violence is fine and if innocent civilians get killed, well, what's more important? The right to life of poor people in third world countries, or the right of Americans to cheap oil to facilitate our gluttony and greed? The answer is clear: the moral confusion of our bishops regarding war and peace teaches US Catholics that our demand for cheap resources trumps the right to life of the poor in foreign countries.

If this irritates you, don't blame me, I'm just applying the new Roman policy of literal translations to the religious gobbledegook about war and peace that our bishops have been handing out since September 2001.



I am actually in favor of obedience to Rome - as long as it is an obedience formed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This discipline applies to the bishops and the clergy as well, not just to the laity. Our bishops should be obedient to what the Catechism teaches about war and peace, and this is also true for Rome itself. Rome should replace bishops who are morally confused about issues of war and peace or who used deception to conceal criminality and immorality in the priesthood. We need devout pastors and shepherds, not hungry wolves. Roman inaction on these issues is a major problem for the Church in the United States, especially when we consider how insistent Rome has been about the translation of liturgical texts.

The present college of United States bishops is a cross on which Christ is daily crucified. We should pray for our bishops, we should treasure those who are humble and devout and faithful, and we should speak truth to those who are not humble, not devout, and not faithful. We should intensify our own personal, family, and community efforts towards a holiness that lives the Gospel every day in real life, especially the hard and difficult parts like "love your enemies and do good to those who curse you." Our duty as lay Catholics is to remain faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, all of it, even when bishops defend and promote the culture of death..

It would have been a glorious moment in American Catholicism if the Church had chosen to stand courageously against the demonic culture of death that controls our government and culture and is driving us towards collapse and ruin, but that is not to be. Our choice was for death, and we will all reap the bitter consequences of the moral confusion and cowardice of the Catholic people and clergy of these United States for decades to come. When the United States of America ends up on the ash heap of history, we will all wish we had made better choices.

Meanwhile, back at the liturgy wars, we will one day receive our new literal English translations of the Mass together with the bishops' promised major catechetical effort. How sad that at this critical moment in history, our most important religious leaders have chosen to strain at such gnats, while swallowing camels.

Bob Waldrop, on the Feast of St. Benedict, 2006

N.B.: This essay represents the official opinion of the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House, but it does not represent an official statement by Epiphany of the Lord Catholic Church.

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