National Catholic Reporter
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Posted Wednesday, November 12, 2003 at 12:26 p.m. CST

War and Peace

Twenty years after U.S. bishops issued peace pastoral new approaches needed


It was 1980-something. Ronald Reagan was in the White House -- tired of playing for a tie in the 35-year-old Cold War. U.S. deployment of intermediate nuclear missiles in Europe ignited a "nuclear freeze" movement embraced by millions on each side of the Atlantic. Mikhail Gorbachev, a balding middle-aged apparatchik, was the Soviet agriculture minister.

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That the world has changed in the 20 years since the U.S. bishops issued their pastoral letter on peace -- The Challenge of Peace -- was undisputed Nov. 9 when a group of academics, activists, and bishops gathered to discuss the document's impact and "the new challenge of peace." The full body of bishops continued the discussion Nov. 10, hearing from Diarmuid Martin, the coadjutor archbishop of Dublin, Ireland, and until recently the papal representative to the United Nations in Geneva.

"No one could have imagined the end of the Cold War, nor could one have imagined it would have been replaced by a war on terrorism," said Pensacola-Tallahassee Bishop John Ricard, chairman of the bishops International Policy Committee.

Even the vocabulary is altered. Debates over the morality of "deterrence" -- the maintenance of a nuclear stockpile designed to prevent the other side in the bi-polar world from initiating a "first strike" -- have given way to discussions of "preventive war." Proxy conflicts designed to bolster Soviet communism or western influence have been supplanted by calls from both the left and right for "humanitarian [military] intervention" in such hotspots as Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Liberia.

And the utility of traditional church teaching on conflict, embodied in the just war theory, is increasingly challenged by stealthy non-state terrorists who invoke God and don't play by the old rules.

Among the key questions: What role should the United Nations play in this evolving environment? Is it the only entity with the "legitimate authority" -- a key requirement of just war teaching -- needed to invoke a call to arms?

"Apart from the case of self-defense in the face of clear aggression, only the [U.N.] Security Council can, in particular circumstances, decide that there exits a real threat against peace," Martin told the American bishops.

"For the Holy See," Martin continued, "any state or group of states which turns unilaterally to the use of force would be acting outside international legitimacy." Absent U.N. authority, said Fr. Bryan Hehir -- who as director of the bishops' Office of Social Development and World Peace in the 1980s was a chief architect of the bishops' peace pastoral -- the United States risks becoming "the prosecuting attorney, the jury, the judge and the sheriff."

In 1983, Michael Novak -- a Reagan-administration insider and leading conservative Catholic intellectual -- was among those who disagreed with the American bishops and their approach to war and peace. The bishops questioned the morality of nuclear deterrence, offering conditional support for the policy based on progress in reducing the number of nuclear weapons. Novak, and a group of Catholic laypeople he worked with to counter the peace pastoral, defended deterrence.

Twenty years later, Novak once again finds himself running counter to hierarchical thinking on war and peace.

Because many U.N. member nations are dictatorships which act out of "sheer self interest" and without the support of their populations, said Novak, the institution "can give cover, but it can't give legitimacy." To Novak, times have changed but the essential ingredients that ended the Cold War are still valid. Belligerent policies will give way to stability only "if [we] change minds." The "work of peace is basically the work of politics," said Novak.

At the local level, retired Richmond, Va., Bishop Walter Sullivan said bishops need to talk about peace. "We kind of rely on the pope too much," said Sullivan. One bishop, said Sullivan, recently told him that he could not address issues of war and peace from the pulpit out of fear of offending "all my best givers." Notre Dame Sr. Mary Evelyn Jegen urged the bishops to implement and promote pastoral care plans for conscientious objectors.

And what of the viability of the just war theory?

"Some have begun to ask," said Martin, "has Pope John Paul II assumed a pacifist approach? Has he abandoned the just war theory? Is he -- or someone in his name -- attempting to change it or does he read that theory with the lens of a particular viewpoint?"

The church has "not renounced the just war theory," said Martin, but "Catholic reflection has clearly moved in the direction of the affirmation of an imperative towards peace and a presumption that the non-recourse to force is the most appropriate way to resolve disputes between nations, except in the cases foreseen by the United Nations Charter and by the principles of international law."

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 2003

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