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Posted July 27, 2006

Interview with Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., chair of the Committee on International Policy for the U.S. bishops, about the administration's policy toward Lebanon.

By John L. Allen Jr.
NCR senior correspondent

Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., chair of the Committee on International Policy for the U.S. bishops, issued a statement July 17 calling for a cease-fire in Lebanon, faulting Hamas and Hezbollah for triggering the crisis, criticizing Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure, expressing solidarity with the Lebanese, and asking the United States to exercise greater leadership to bring a halt to the violence.

The full text of Wenskiís statement can be found here:

Following the July 26 Rome Summit on Lebanon, involving diplomats from 15 nations along with the Holy See and two other international organizations as observers, NCR interviewed Wenski by phone regarding the latest developments.

NCR: Your statement, along with that of Pope Benedict, called for an immediate cease-fire. The summit could not agree on that point due to opposition from the United States, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arguing that a cease-fire must be meaningful, i.e., it cannot be a return to the status quo ante. How do you react?
WENSKI: The Americans put a lot of emphasis on that adjective ďmeaningful.Ē Weíve been calling for a meaningful cease-fire too, but in our view itís meaningful when people stop dying. Neither the Holy See nor the conference of bishops wants a return to the status quo. We were careful in our statement to point out the difficulties with the weakness of Lebanon, and that allowing the existence of a state within a state in the form of the Hezbollah is not sustainable. We want Lebanon to be strengthened as a sovereign nation. But above all, the fighting should stop. These are not mutually exclusive goals Ö we can both stop the fighting and continue the disarmament of Hezbollah. Some people seem to want the fighting to continue until there is no Hezbollah left to disarm, but thatís not the right way to reduce the number of mothers who have to mourn the loss of their sons and daughters.

The summit did agree on the creation of an international force for Lebanon, a point your statement did not touch. What do you make of that?
Our call is for a cease-fire. We condemned the actions of Hezbollah and Hamas for starting this crisis, and weíve called for the current fighting to stop. Weíve got to break the cycle of violence with a cease-fire, and then move to real negotiations between Israel and Palestine, as well as to assure the independence of Lebanon. Itís not clear whether a peacekeeping mission right now can help achieve these goals. To the extent it might or could, I think we would be supportive.

But thatís the $64,000 question -- can it work? NATO has the capacity to do it, but has said it doesnít feel such an undertaking is within the scope of its mission. They donít want to extend that mission beyond their historic territory. U.N. peacekeepers generally donít engage in disarmament. Itís a real quandary.

What weíre trying to say is this: the more people who are killed, the more the fighting escalates, the more infrastructure is destroyed, the more difficult it becomes for all sides to find common ground to negotiate. Thatís why the cease-fire is so important. It would allow us to take a deep breath, to let reason direct policy rather than reactions of anger to hurts old or new. The escalation of violence will not bring us closer to a resolution which is just, but [a cease-fire] will take a lot of moral courage.

What are the bishops doing to get their message out?
We issued this statement last Monday, and there were two reasons we wanted it out that day. First, Cardinal [Nasrallah Pierre] Sfeir of Lebanon was in Washington, and he expressed gratitude and appreciation for it. He had a meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney and took the statement with him, so this was a way of raising the awareness of the White House. Also, Cardinal [Theodore] McCarrick was going to the White House that evening for a farewell dinner, along with Archbishop [Donald] Wuerl. We wanted to be sure the statement was in their hands as they went to that dinner with President Bush. I have the sense that the White House listens to us Ö even if they donít agree, they take it into consideration.

Some have criticized statements from the Vatican, especially from Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, for implying a sort of moral equivalence between terrorism and a stateís right to self-defense. Do you see it that way, or do you think the Vaticanís been on the money?
I think theyíve been pretty much on the money. Sometimes, this is a question of differing perspectives. I used to live in Miami, and between Miami and New York we in the United States have the highest concentration of Jews outside of Israel. Our radar is more sensitive about not giving a perceived or unintended slight to the Jewish people. I think Sodano made it clear later on that he was not trying to take sides on the issue.

Itís also true that sometimes the Israeli government will play to these sensitivities in order to deflect attention or questions that can rightly be raised about their policies. I think the lack of proportion in some of Israelís responses can fairly be questioned by anybody.

In general, do you find a pro-Palestinian tilt in Vatican foreign policy?
I wouldnít say itís a question of a lack of balance, but just a different perspective. Itís the same situation with Cuba. In Miami, many Cubans react just like the Jewish community to some statements. They have a heightened sensitivity to these things, and might find a lack of balance. Really, I think itís usually a matter of differing perspectives that can generally be clarified.

On the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the church has long favored a two-state solution, and has clearly called for the State of Israel to be recognized and to survive whatever accommodation needs to be made with the Palestinians. Perhaps weíre more keenly aware of the justice issues involved and the many legitimate grievances that the Palestinian people have, in part because thereís a significant constituency of Palestinian Christians, Palestinian Catholics. This is not a question of being biased for or against one or the other group, but of trying to be a prophetic voice calling for justice. Sometimes people would rather take umbrage than examine their conscience.

Whom does your July 17 statement speak for?
Itís the Committee on International Policy. We try to follow a very strict policy with this sort of statement Öthe best that bureaucracy can create! When a statement is issued under my signature, itís been carefully vetted by different policy people within the conference, by staff, by the president of the conference and by the general secretary. In this case, we also consulted the papal nuncio, though it wasnít because we had to. Archbishop [Pietro] Sambi was based in the Holy Land, so we ran it by him to ask if there were any nuances he felt could be sharpened. We also consulted Catholic Relief Services, who have people in the Middle East. In other words, this isnít just me mouthing off. Itís a statement of a standing committee of the bishopsí conference, and we can be sure the bishops will stand behind it.

What kind of authority does the statement have? Are Catholics obliged to accept it?
This isnít something thatís going to be added as an appendix to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It does not bind the consciences of American Catholics, but it helps them to form their consciences. Many Americans are troubled by the situation in the Middle East, and are looking for their shepherds to say something. Of course, there will be people who donít agree with us. Some may say that weíre just trying to ďbash BushĒ and so on. Actually, I suspect that sometimes his cheerleaders get more upset than he does. Weíre not trying to bash anybody, we just want to contribute to the debate.

So Catholics are free to disagree?
I donít know if theyíre free to say, for example, ĎIsrael should bomb Lebanon back to the Stone Age.í I donít see how they can find any comfort for that view. The Catechism doesnít say anything about bombing back to the Stone Age.

So the burden is on them to show how a different conclusion would flow from the teaching of the church?
Yes, thatís right. Our statement also called upon the United States to exercise greater leadership, and there might be some Catholics who are isolationists who might not welcome that, but I donít think they can find much support for that.

I know this is a very difficult situation, and itís easy for me in Orlando to write and say things. But we also have to remember that there are patriarchs and a cardinal in Lebanon who are dealing with this on the ground; itís very tough for them.

What about the popeís comments?
I thought Benedict XVIís intervention last Sunday was a very positive one. You remember when he was elected, there was a lot of talk about his name as a reference to Benedict XV, who was a ďpeace pope.Ē When you look at the beginning of the 20th and the 21st centuries there are a number of interesting parallels. At the beginning of the 20th century, the world found itself in a war started when the Austrian prince was shot in Sarajevo by someone then called an ďanarchist.Ē Today we would call him a terrorist. Then too, the world was undergoing an accelerated process of globalization, thanks to the steamship, the telegraph, and the industrial revolution. Many of the anarchists of the day were anti-globalists, so then as now terrorism is, in a sense, a reaction to globalization.

Not exactly a promising precedent, since Benedict XVís appeals for peace went largely unheard.
Itís still early with this Pope Benedict, but Iím encouraged.

National Catholic Reporter, Posted July 27, 2006

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