Statement on Iraq, 2002

Year Published
  • 2011
  • English
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Washington, D.C.
November 13, 2002

As we Catholic Bishops meet here in Washington, our nation, Iraq and the world face grave choices about war and peace, about pursuing justice and security. These are not only military and political choices, but also moral ones because they involve matters of life and death. Traditional Christian teaching offers ethical principles and moral criteria that should guide these critical choices.

Two months ago, Bishop Wilton Gregory, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote President George Bush to welcome efforts to focus the world's attention on Iraq's refusal to comply with several United Nations resolutions over the past eleven years, and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. This letter, which was authorized by the U.S. Bishops' Administrative Committee, raised serious questions about the moral legitimacy of any preemptive, unilateral use of military force to overthrow the government of Iraq. As a body, we make our own the questions and concerns raised in Bishop Gregory's letter, taking into account developments since then, especially the unanimous action of the U.N. Security Council on November 8th.

We have no illusions about the behavior or intentions of the Iraqi government. 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. We welcome the fact that the United States has worked to gain new action by the UN Security Council to ensure that Iraq meets its obligation to disarm. We join others in urging Iraq to comply fully with this latest Security Council resolution. We fervently pray that all involved will act to ensure that this UN action will not simply be a prelude to war but a way to avoid it.

While we cannot predict what will happen in the coming weeks, we wish to reiterate questions of ends and means that may still have to be addressed. 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. People of good will may differ on how to apply just war norms in particular cases, especially when events are moving rapidly and the facts are not altogether clear. 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. With the Holy See and bishops from the Middle East and around the world, we fear that resort to war, under present circumstances and in light of current public information, would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for overriding the strong presumption against the use of military force.*

Just cause. The Catechism of the Catholic Church limits just cause to cases in which "the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations [is] lasting, grave and certain." (#2309) We are deeply concerned about recent proposals to expand dramatically traditional limits on just cause to include preventive uses of military force to overthrow threatening regimes or to deal with weapons of mass destruction. Consistent with the proscriptions contained in international law, a distinction should be made between efforts to change unacceptable behavior of a government and efforts to end that government's existence.

Legitimate authority. In our judgment, decisions concerning possible war in Iraq require compliance with U.S. constitutional imperatives, broad consensus within our nation, and some form of international sanction. That is why the action by Congress and the UN Security Council are important. As the Holy See has indicated, if recourse to force were deemed necessary, this should take place within the framework of the United Nations after considering the consequences for Iraqi civilians, and regional and global stability. (Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, 9/10/02).

Probability of success and proportionality. The use of force must have "serious prospects for success" and "must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated" (Catechism, #2309). We recognize that not taking military action could have its own negative consequences. We are concerned, however, that war against Iraq could have unpredictable consequences not only for Iraq but for peace and stability elsewhere in the Middle East. The use of force might provoke the very kind of attacks that it is intended to prevent, could impose terrible new burdens on an already long-suffering civilian population, and could lead to wider conflict and instability in the region. War against Iraq could also detract from the responsibility to help build a just and stable order in Afghanistan and could undermine broader efforts to stop terrorism.

Norms governing the conduct of war. The justice of a cause does not lessen the moral responsibility to comply with the norms of civilian immunity and proportionality. While we recognize improved capability and serious efforts to avoid directly targeting civilians in war, the use of military force in Iraq could bring incalculable costs for a civilian population that has suffered so much from war, repression, and a debilitating embargo. In assessing whether "collateral damage" is proportionate, the lives of Iraqi men, women and children should be valued as we would the lives of members of our own family and citizens of our own country.

Our assessment of these questions leads us to urge that our nation and the world continue to pursue actively alternatives to war in the Middle East. It is vital that our nation persist in the very frustrating and difficult challenges of maintaining broad international support for constructive, effective and legitimate ways to contain and deter aggressive Iraqi actions and threats. We support effective enforcement of the military embargo and maintenance of political sanctions. We reiterate our call for much more carefully-focused economic sanctions which do not threaten the lives of innocent Iraqi civilians. Addressing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction must be matched by broader and stronger non-proliferation measures. Such efforts, grounded in the principle of mutual restraint, should include, among other things, greater support for programs to safeguard and eliminate weapons of mass destruction in all nations, stricter controls on the export of missiles and weapons technology, improved enforcement of the biological and chemical weapons conventions, and fulfillment of U.S. commitments to pursue good faith negotiations on nuclear disarmament under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

There are no easy answers. Ultimately, our elected leaders are responsible for decisions about national security, but we hope that our moral concerns and questions will be considered seriously by our leaders and all citizens. We invite others, particularly Catholic lay people -- who have the principal responsibility to transform the social order in light of the Gospel -- to continue to discern how best to live out their vocation to be "witnesses and agents of peace and justice" (Catechism, #2442). As Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Mt. 5).

We pray for all those most likely to be affected by this potential conflict, especially the suffering people of Iraq and the men and women who serve in our armed forces. We support those who risk their lives in the service of our nation. We also support those who seek to exercise their right to conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection, as we have stated in the past.

We pray for President Bush and other world leaders that they will find the will and the ways to step back from the brink of war with Iraq and work for a peace that is just and enduring. We urge them to work with others to fashion an effective global response to Iraq's threats that recognizes legitimate self defense and conforms to traditional moral limits on the use of military force.


*"Just war teaching has evolved…as an effort to prevent war; only if war cannot be rationally avoided, does the teaching then seek to restrict and reduce its horrors. It does this by establishing a set of rigorous conditions which must be met if the decision to go to war is to be morally permissible. Such a decision, especially today, requires extraordinarily strong reasons for overriding the presumption in favor of peace and against war. This is one significant reason why valid just-war teaching makes provision for conscientious dissent." The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response (1983), #83.