An Open Letter to the Most Reverend Pietro Sambi, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States of America,
on the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, 2008,
concerning his defense of the moral relativism of the U.S. Catholic Bishops regarding the unjust war on the people of Iraq.
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who change darkness into light, and light into darkness, who change bitter into sweet, and sweet into bitter!
I read your interview with John Allen in the National Catholic Reporter. In response to his question about criticism of the United States Catholic Bishops' actions regarding the Iraq War, you said:
"The American bishops took a very clear position. They were not in favor of the war, but once it happened, they supported a 'responsible transition' out of Iraq. . . They articulated that position very clearly. It's not the bishops who declared the war, and it's not the bishops who can conclude the war. They've done what it is the mission of the bishops to do."
I must respectfully disagree with this analysis of the record of the United States Catholic Bishops on the Iraq War. Because I am a plain spoken man in such matters, it may be that my disagreement may be perceived as disrespectful. If so, then I must disrespectfully disagree with your analysis.
Each of the four major statements on Iraq by either the full Bishops' Conference or its president, preached a doctrine of moral relativism. "People of good will may and do disagree on how to interpret just war teaching and how to apply just war norms to the controverted facts of this case." This sentence, from the March 19, 2003 statement of the Most Reverend Wilton Gregory, then president of the USCCB, is found in one form or another in each of their major statements on Iraq.
This sentence is a pernicious declaration of moral relativism.
The Iraq War has an objective moral reality that is not dependent upon our perception of it.
The Iraq War is either a just war - or it is an unjust war. It is not "both-and", it is "either-or".
Those who claim that the war on the people of Iraq is just were and are to this day wrong.
Their counsel is to commit mortal sin by waging unjust war.
The former Archbishop for Military Services, now the Archbishop of Baltimore, His Excellency Edwin Frederick O'Brien, advised the Catholic members of the Armed Forces of the United States to commit mortal sin by willing participation in an unjust war. The fact that he may have thought that this war was just is no more material to this analysis than the belief by many that their choice for abortion is not sin. The justice or injustice of the Iraq War is an objective moral fact independent of our perception or observation of the facts and history. Just like many people who choose abortion, Archbishop O'Brien made what he thought was his best choice at the time, and as with abortion, that choice was and remains to this day a gravely evil tragedy. http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/peace/obrien.shtml The bishops are apparently proud enough of his decision that they publish it to the four corners of the earth at their website.
The Catechism clearly and without any ambiguity whatsoever teaches that we can gain responsibility for the sins of others:
"Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them: - by participating directly and voluntarily in 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.
So, at minimum, we can understand from this that bishops have moral, religious, and canonical responsibility and authority to hinder evil. They, as is true for all Christians, must not order, advise, praise, or approve of sin - for example, unjust war.
Last year I personally reviewed the websites of every diocese in the United States. I did extensive internet searches on the names of all the U.S. Bishops responsible for dioceses in conjunction with the phrase "Iraq War". I did separate searches of the archives of the major secular newspaper of each diocese.
Here is what I found.
+ Only 39 diocesan bishops made public statements calling for prayers for the people of Iraq.
+ Twenty publicized or endorsed the various statements of the bishops' conference on Iraq.
+ Twenty-eight provided some sort of catechesis about just war teaching.
+ One hundred forty-six of the bishops responsible for dioceses had nothing to say about Iraq (that can be found on the Internet, retired and auxiliary bishop statements were not researched.)
The website of the United States Catholic bishops has links to statements of only 12 U.S. bishops about Iraq. http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/peace/churchleaders.shtml .
It has links to only three diocesan resources about the Iraq War. http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/peace/dioceseandparishes.shtml .
There are five issue campaigns listed - the Iraq War is not a listed campaign.
While it is true that absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence, I did find significant remarks by all of these bishops regarding the sexual abuse crisis. Every diocese, without exception, had extensive information about the response of the diocese to the sexual abuse crisis. So I tend to think that if these bishops had in fact been doing extensive catechesis regarding unjust war, it would be as visible on the internet as their comments on the sexual abuse crisis are.
Only one bishop responsible for a diocese issued a canonical declaration against involvement with the war in Iraq, the Most Reverend John Michael Botean of the Romanian Catholic diocese of Canton, Ohio. With great moral clarity, he told his people that willing participation in the Iraq War was the moral equivalent of willing participation in an abortion. http://centerforchristiannonviolence.org/downloads/Pastoral_Letter_Iraq_War.pdf
His declaration is not posted or linked at the US Catholic Bishops' website, but they do publish Archbishop O'Brien's gravely evil advice to Catholic members of the Armed Forces, referenced above..Since the bishops were supposedly of the opinion that the war was unjust, isn't it odd that Bishop Botean's statement is not published at their website?
Consider this page at the USCCB's website: http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/peace/military2.shtml, which says, in part, (emphasis is mine):
"With regards to conscientious objection to particular wars, however, the matter is more complicated, for the assumption of our military is that our forces would not be ordered to engage in an unjust war. Hence, traditionally it is more difficult to make the case for conscientious objection to a particular war when the individual is not opposed in conscience to all forms of war. Still, it is true that any nation, including our own, can act unjustly against human life--as is clearly the case in the murder that is abortion. Hence, the Magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church has the right and even duty in cases in which an unjust war is proposed or entered into to speak on the matter and if necessary, to oblige Catholics in conscience to object and refuse to participate. As to the present crisis, many Catholic leaders have spoken against a War on Iraq, yet they have stopped short of insisting upon a course of action for Catholics in the military."
Sine poena nulla lex - without penalty, there is no law. As the bishops' response unfolded over time, the refusal of the other bishops to issue similar canonical declarations turns out to be the moral equivalent of tacit ecclesiastical approval to wage an unjust war against the people of Iraq.
This refusal is actually used at the United States Catholic Bishops' own website to discourage members of the Armed Forces from becoming conscientious objectors to the unjust war on the people of Iraq! Note that the statement at their website isn't even completely truthful, since one bishop did in fact issue a canonical declaration against participation in the unjust Iraq War. At minimum, their website should include a notice that Catholics subject to the jurisdiction of the Romanian Catholic Diocese of Canton, Ohio, have been forbidden by their bishop to participate in the Iraq War.
So it came to pass that the bishops' "wink wink" message was clearly understood by everyone concerned then and now: do what you will to the people of Iraq, we will not use our canonical authority to stand in your way. We will thus make it easy and morally comfortable for you to kill hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom will be women and children.
Just as we sometimes "damn with faint praise", the United States bishops praised the war with their faint condemnation of it.
I have lived in several different dioceses. In one of them, on the Sunday of the diocese's fund-raising appeal, there is no homily at the weekend masses. Instead, during the normal time of the homily, they play a tape recorded fund-raising appeal from the bishop. The congregations then sit in silence for about five minutes while they fill out their pledge cards. Leaving aside the question of the liturgical legality of this practice, I will simply note that this is a bishop who knows how to get people's attention for something important. I certainly do not begrudge him his annual appeal, but I think that given the gravity of the unjust Iraq War, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people as a result of that war, at least as much attention should have been paid to catechesis on unjust war as is given to the typical diocese or parish fund-raising appeal.
I know bishops are responsible for many issues and duties, but their duty to protect life from the moment of conception to the time of natural death is not a minor aspect of their ministry as bishops. The evidence of history is that they did not do all within their power to stop this gravely evil unjust war. Their failure to follow their words with authentic action in accordance with their canonical responsibilities rendered their message ineffective and meaningless.
This failure is a scandal as egregious as that of the clergy sexual abuse. I fear that it stems from the same root cause - the inability of many of the United States Catholic Bishops to see all human persons as true human persons. You and the bishops will no doubt protest that this is an outrageous accusation, but with persons of authority, I think it is important to study their behavior as closely as their words. Consider their vigorous and canonical defense of unborn children in the United States. Compare that to their canonical cowardice when it came to the lives of the children in Iraq. They had the authority to do more than they did and that authority gave them the responsibility to act. If they truly saw the people of Iraq as human persons, they would have come to their assistance with all of their authority.
With one exception, they did nothing.
Archbishop Romero of El Salvador said that going to hell was not only a matter of things that you do - like adultery or murder of the innocent - but also a matter of things that are not done. At this critical time in history, instead of being a shining beacon of truth, the U.S. Catholic bishops are just another gang in the crowd outside, chanting "Crucify him, Crucify him, give us Transition!"
The Bishops of these United States are therefore guilty of material cooperation with the objective moral evil of unjust war. T hey share in the responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of human deaths and all of the other evil that has been the bitter fruit of this wicked and unjust war.
The Vatican itself must accept some of the blame for the moral cowardice of these bishops.
Every one of these bishops was selected by and formed for their ministry by Rome. It seems to me that given this history - and other issues, such as the clergy sexual abuse crisis - Rome has too often done a poor job of this important ministry. Let us contrast the vigorous and strict Roman supervision of the U.S. bishops new translation of the Roman Missal, with the apparently complete absence of interest at the Vatican in the U.S. bishops' dereliction of their duty relating to the Iraq War.
Your defense of the U.S. bishops' moral relativism was a shallow insult to the intelligence of anyone who can read the plain evidence of this matter for himself or herself. You distorted history for the sake of ecclesiastical propaganda. You and the bishops speak as imperialists, casually disposing of the lives of the people of Iraq as though they had no say in the matter.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. These bishops will raise their hands to elevate the Bread and the Cup as it becomes the Body and Blood of our Lord. Those with discerning eyes to see, and hearts open to the will of God, will bow their heads in sorrow and shame as they see the blood of the innocent of Iraq flow from those holy hands onto the altar.
How the demons who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls must rejoice at the moral timidity and incestuous involvement with political authorities that is so evident among the U.S. bishops and their supporters at the Vatican!
It is said that those who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them. That will be as true for the Catholic Church as it is for anyone else. It's not a pleasant thought to contemplate.
I fear the just judgment of a holy God, who hears the cry of the poor, and returns a seven-fold harvest to those who so willingly sow seeds of injustice.
For the Lord of all shows no partiality, nor does he fear greatness, because he himself made the great as well as the small, and he provides for all alike; for for those in power a rigorous scrutiny impends.
Your little brother in the Lord,
Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House, www.justpeace.org
1524 NW 21, Oklahoma City, 73106, firstname.lastname@example.org