National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 1, 2003

Did WMD threat tip moral evaluation on Iraq war?

Like the rest of us, the U.S. bishops were forced to weigh the arguments for and against war in the months leading up to the Iraq conflict. Their reflections took on a special urgency in light of the Bush administration’s unprecedented policy of preemptive war. The notion of beginning a war to avoid greater violence at some possible future moment had taken analysis of traditional Catholic “just war” thinking into a new arena.

To plausibly consider it moral to initiate massive violence against another nation entailed relying heavily on the evidence of imminent danger that first-strike proponents offered. By far, the most significant and compelling argument the proponents of first strike offered was that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was preparing to use his weapons against the United States.

“He [Saddam Hussein] is moving ever closer to developing a nuclear weapon,” President Bush stated flatly.

The Bush administration pressed this argument in the months leading up to the war, creating a climate of fear and uncertainty within the United States. It was within that climate that the U.S. bishops pondered the moral arguments.

In recent weeks, however, it has become increasingly clear that the administration’s arguments were based on faulty evidence and a misrepresentation of intelligence information.

A close reading of the U.S. bishops’ Iraq reflections reveals they were torn between two poles: the Catholic church’s traditional presumption against the use of force, and the imminent threat allegedly posed by Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. The bishops’ statements show that the unquestioned certitude of the Bush administration’s declarations on the threat posed by Hussein’s weapons weighed heavily in their considerations and their reluctance to condemn outright a first strike against the Iraqi regime.

Before the war the bishops several times issued statements concerning Iraq. Their first statement came in September 2002 following a meeting of the 60-member administrative committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The conference president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, wrote a letter to President Bush outlining the bishops’ objections to a war with Iraq. Wrote Gregory: “We find it difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent clear and adequate evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks of Sept. 11 or of an imminent attack of a grave nature.”

The letter accepted the troubling Bush administration premise of the threat posed by Hussein. “We have no illusions about the behavior or intentions of the Iraqi government,” Gregory wrote.

In a Nov. 13, 2002, statement the full body of bishops again reiterated their opposition to an attack against Iraq, supporting the church’s traditional presumption against the use of force. “Based on the facts that are known to us, we continue to find it difficult to justify the resort to war against Iraq, lacking clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature.”

However, the bishops did not question the premise, then looming ever larger among first-strike advocates, that Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction and was connected to the international terrorist network.

The bishops stated: “The Iraqi leadership must cease its internal repression, end its threats to its neighbors, stop any support for terrorism, abandon its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, and destroy all such existing weapons.”

In fact, the bishops’ words seemed to reflect the conventional wisdom of the time -- the product of years of tracking the Iraqi regime’s spotty record on inspections augmented by growing charges of imminent danger stemming from the White House.

In the final analysis, however, it was the perceived imminent threat posed by a menacing Hussein -- communicated through the administration -- that kept the bishops from a condemnation of the Bush first-strike Iraq war policy. Instead of holding to the traditional presumption against the use of force, as taught by the church, the bishops wrote, in what seemed to many war critics as a cop out, “We offer not definitive conclusions, but rather our serious concerns and questions in the hope of helping all of us to reach sound moral judgments.”

As the Bush administration edged closer toward war, the bishops apparently had resolved in their own minds any lingering questions they might have had about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or would use them if necessary. Gregory again stated: “We have no illusions about the behavior and intentions of, or dangers posed by, the Iraqi government.”

As we entered 2003, the world held its breath and the climate in favor of war became so heated that a Feb. 26 statement issued by Gregory no longer attempted to offer a separate episcopal judgment on the war. Instead, he wrote: “As pastors and teachers, we understand that there are no easy answers. People of good will may differ on how traditional norms apply in this situation. The gravity of the threat and whether force would be preemptive are matters of debate, as are the potential consequences of using or failing to use military force.”

On March 19, Gregory issued yet another statement, admitting war was inevitable, but suggesting only that violence and its effects be limited.

Looking back and absent any substantial evidence of a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction or even a program to develop them, we must conclude that many Americans were fooled. So were nearly all of the U.S. bishops. (One bishop not fooled was Thomas Gumbleton. He talks about government lies in his July 20 homily. Read it at And as the story continues to unravel, it seems increasingly likely that President Bush and his administration intentionally misled the American public on the most serious of matters -- arguments taking our nation into warfare. The intellectual authors of the plan to misrepresent intelligence must be held to account. And the bishops should consider at least one more letter to the administration -- this time expressing their outrage at having been misled.

National Catholic Reporter, August 1, 2003

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