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Threat of war

American Catholic leaders protest Novak visit to Vatican


A letter signed by more than 60 American Catholics, including prominent laity and men and women religious, protests the decision of the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican to bring Michael Novak, a conservative Catholic intellectual, to Rome to argue for the morality of a “preventive war” in Iraq.

The letter was faxed to the U.S. embassy to the Holy See in Rome Feb. 4.

“As leaders of Catholic organizations, religious orders, theologians, educators and pastoral workers, we have dialogued and reflected on the current situation in light of our rich tradition of Catholic social teaching and our practical experiences,” the letter states. “Our reflection, guided also by the clear and consistent statements from our church leaders, including Pope John Paul II, have led us to conclude that any military action against Iraq at this time is not morally justifiable.

“We are very concerned that you have selected one theologian to represent the U.S. Catholic community’s position on the morality of this war without any consultation with recognized Catholic leaders in the U.S. who have helped many of us craft our clear and consistent message against the administration’s actions,” the letter reads.

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson told NCR Feb. 4, however, that the letter is based “on a misunderstanding of the nature of Novak’s visit to Rome.”

“Novak is coming to Rome as a private citizen to present his own views on the relation of the current crisis to traditional notions of just war theory, which have been the focus of considerable discussion in Europe and the United States,” Nicholson told NCR. “He is not coming here to represent Catholic teaching or the conference of U.S. bishops; he is also not representing the U.S. government.

“He is participating in the Department of State’s International Speaker program, which seeks to bring leading American scholars and experts from many walks of life to address foreign audiences on issues of priority concern to the United States.”

Novak was expected to meet with Vatican officials in the Secretariat of State and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace Feb. 8, and to give a public lecture at Rome’s Center of American Studies Feb. 10.

“In a country where we have a time-honored and legally protected right to the separation of church and state, the appointment of a theologian seems to us to violate that separation,” the letter says. “In addition, we are concerned that this action could actually lead to a misrepresentation of the teachings of our bishops, religious leaders and theologians, who have worked in concert to educate the entire Catholic community in the United States.”

Signatories include the president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the chief umbrella group for men’s religious communities in the United States; the national coordinator of Pax Christi USA, a Catholic peace group; the executive director of the U.S. Catholic Mission Association; and leadership figures in a variety of men’s and women’s religious orders.

Novak, the George F. Jewett scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is best known for his moral defense of capitalism. He has argued that war in Iraq may be justified as a form of defense against terrorism.

In a cover sheet accompanying the fax to Nicholson, Trinitarian Fr. Stan DeBoe of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men says Novak represents “a thread of Catholic teaching that is dissenting from current statements from our recognized teaching office in the church.”

DeBoe wrote: “In his book Tell Me Why, Mr. Novak explains to his daughter that to be ‘fully Catholic’ one must hold to the teachings of the church, and if one holds ‘x when the church teaches non-x, are you fully Catholic? The obvious answer is no.’ I hope that you and he will not be presenting this as a Catholic analysis of a war on Iraq, since it is not in keeping with current statements and teachings, it is a dissident voice.”

“While dissent is always welcome, it should not be confused with the clear statements made by church leaders and theologians regarding preemptive strikes, use of nuclear weapons, and the current situation,” De Boe wrote.

Nicholson said he hopes Novak’s presentations will help clarify the moral issues involved in a possible war.

“It is our hope that Mr. Novak’s presentations and meetings will broaden the debate and clarify the just nature of U.S. policy in Iraq,” Nicholson said. “We expect his presentations will help stimulate thinking about the very complex political, legal and moral issues involved in responding to the continuing threat from Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address jallen@natcath.org

The full text of the letter and DeBoe’s comments are available in the “Documents” section of NCR’s Web site, www.natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 2003