Statement on the War in Iraq, March 19, 2003

Year Published
  • 2013
  • English

Most Reverend Wilton D. Gregory
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

March 19, 2003

Our nation is on the brink of war. We worked and prayed and hoped that war would be avoided. The task now is to work and pray and hope that war's deadly consequences will be limited, that civilian life will be protected, that weapons of mass destruction will be eliminated, and that the people of Iraq soon will enjoy a peace with freedom and justice.

A time for prayer and solidarity. In time of war, our first obligation is prayer and solidarity. We pray for all those most directly affected by this war: the men and women who risk their lives in the service of our nation, their families and loved ones who face such fear and anxiety at this time, and the chaplains who serve them; the long-suffering people of Iraq, and those who labor to provide for their humanitarian needs. All of us should do what we can to reach out in solidarity to all those who will suffer as a result of this war.

Iraq's obligation to disarm. Since the Gulf War, we have been clear in calling on the Iraqi leadership to abandon efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction and to meet its obligations to destroy such weapons. We have also been clear that the international community must ensure that Iraq complies with its obligations under UN resolutions. As the Holy Father said last Sunday, "the political leaders in Baghdad have an urgent duty to cooperate fully with the international community, to eliminate any motive for armed intervention."

Deep regret that war was not averted. Our nation's leaders have made the momentous decision to go to war to address the failure of the Iraqi government to comply completely with its obligations. We deeply regret that war was not averted. We stand by the statement of the full body of bishops last November. Our conference's moral concerns and questions, as well as the call of the Holy Father to find alternatives to war, are well known and reflect our prudential judgments about the application of traditional Catholic teaching on the use of force in this case. We have been particularly concerned about the precedents that could be set and the possible consequences of a major war of this type in perhaps the most volatile region of the world. Echoing the Holy Father's admonition that war "is always a defeat for humanity," we have prayed and urged that peaceful means be pursued to disarm Iraq under UN auspices.

The decisions being made about Iraq and the war on terrorism could have historic implications for the use of force, the legitimacy of international institutions, and the role of the United States in the world. The moral significance of these issues must continue to be assessed given their importance in shaping a more just and peaceful world.

The role of conscience. While we have warned of the potential moral dangers of embarking on this war, we have also been clear that there are no easy answers. War has serious consequences, so could the failure to act. People of good will may and do disagree on how to interpret just war teaching and how to apply just war norms to the controverted facts of this case. We understand and respect the difficult moral choices that must be made by our President and others who bear the responsibility of making these grave decisions involving our nation's and the world's security (Catechism #2309).

We affirm the words of the Catechism: "[t]hose who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace" (#2310). We also affirm that "[p]ublic authorities should make equitable provision for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms" (#2311). We support those who have accepted the call to serve their country in a conscientious way in the armed services and we reiterate our long-standing support for those who pursue conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection.

The moral conduct of war. Once the decision to use military force is taken, the moral and legal constraints on the conduct of war must be observed. The United States and its allies are at war with a regime that has shown, and we fear will continue to show, a disregard for civilian lives and traditional norms governing the use of force. All the more reason that our nation upholds and reinforces these values by its own actions. While we recognize and welcome the improved capability and commitment to avoid civilian casualties, every effort must be made to ensure that efforts to reduce the risk to U.S. forces are limited by careful judgments of military necessity and the duty to respect the lives and dignity of Iraqi civilians, who have suffered so much already from war, repression, and a debilitating embargo.

Any decision to defend against Iraq"s weapons of mass destruction by using our own weapons of mass destruction would be clearly unjustified. The use of anti-personnel landmines, cluster bombs and other weapons that cannot distinguish between soldiers and civilians, or between times of war and times of peace, ought to be avoided. In all our actions in war, including assessments of whether "collateral damage" is proportionate, we must value the lives and livelihood of Iraqi civilians as we would the lives and livelihood of our own families and our own citizens.

Humanitarian concerns and post-war obligations. An already vulnerable Iraqi population could face terrible new burdens during this war, and a region already full of conflict and refugees could see more conflict and many more displaced persons with nowhere to go. Even amidst the chaos of war, every effort must be made to prevent internal strife and to protect vulnerable groups. We are deeply concerned that adequate resources and effective plans be put in place to address the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, which, at least in the short term, will be worsened by war. The United States, working with the United Nations, private relief organizations, and all interested parties, bears a heavy burden, during and after the war, of providing for POWs and the civilian population, especially refugees and displaced persons. Catholic relief agencies will continue to do all that they can to respond to the needs of the Iraqi people.

The United States also must accept the long-term responsibility to help Iraqis build a just and enduring peace in their country, while also addressing the many serious unresolved issues in the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. War and reconstruction in Iraq must not result in an abandonment of our nation's responsibilities to the poor at home and abroad, or a diversion of essential resources from other humanitarian emergencies around the world.

At times like these, we turn to God and ask for wisdom and perseverance, courage and compassion, faith and hope. We Christians are called to be "sentinels of peace," the Holy Father reminds us. We join with him in urging Catholics to dedicate this Lenten season to reflection, prayer and fasting that the trials and tragedy of war will soon be replaced by a just and lasting peace.

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