The Quandary for Catholics: Part Three

The following is the third in a three-part series. Read part 1 and part 2.

Saint Faustina Kowalska writes in her Diary of a terrifying prophecy that she received from Jesus:

One day Jesus told me that He would cause a chastisement to fall upon the most beautiful city in our country [probably Warsaw]. This chastisement would be that with which God had punished Sodom and Gomorrah. I saw the great wrath of God and a shudder pierced my heart. I prayed in silence (39).

Experts on St. Faustina and her Diary are convinced that what she was shown was the terrible destruction that would soon be unleashed on the city of Warsaw by the Nazis just a few years later, during World War II.

Saint Faustina shudders at the horrors of war. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church says "because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war" (2307).

It would be a damning moral indictment indeed if one of our two presidential candidates could legitimately be charged with being a "war-monger," given that war usually leads to the widespread loss of innocent human life. In fact, supporters of Sen. Barack Obama (at least those on the far-left of the political spectrum) will sometimes see this as a key moral reason why they have to support him, rather than Sen. John McCain, in the upcoming election.

There is no question that in the light of Catholic Social Teaching regarding war and peace, the U.S. decision to invade Iraq was a controversial one.

Let's just stick to the facts that are not really disputed by anyone: The government of Saddam Hussein was one of the most oppressive and tyrannical regimes of the 20th century. His government murdered somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 of his own people for political reasons during his 25-year reign of terror, including slaughtering whole villages with chemical weapons (and not including the two international wars that he started, which, combined, resulted in well more than 1 million casualties). His security forces were infamous for their torture chambers, horrific methods of execution (putting prisoners alive into plastic shredding machines, for example), and "rape rooms." Saddam was openly promising and paying financial compensation to the families of Palestinians terrorists if one of their family members died as a suicide bomber in Israel; he was training his own home-grown terrorist group, Ansar al-Islam, in the hills of eastern Iraq, and he would not and could not account for the whereabouts of part of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction arsenal (the U.N. had required that it be destroyed after the first Gulf War), despite 17 United Nations resolutions requiring him to do so. Remember that at that time, every major intelligence service in the world (U.S., British, Israeli - even the French) believed that his government certainly, or at least probably, still possessed these weapons.

In these circumstances, the U.S. government (with the support of Sen. McCain) believed that it was morally right to invade Iraq to change this tyrannical regime, and remove the threat of a terrorist group being given weapons of mass destruction by Saddam for possible use against innocent people in the Middle East whom he considered his enemies, or indeed, against the people of the United States. In short, they believed he was a major terrorist attack just-waiting-to-happen, a "ticking time bomb," so to speak. They believed that not to strike against this regime would have been a moral failure to defend the innocent against likely attack on a massive scale (see Catechism, 2309 on the requirements for a just military action).

On the other hand, at that time there was also a strong case to be made against military action. First of all, the evidence that Saddam had been able to re-establish an advanced nuclear weapons program after the first Gulf War was extremely thin. There was no firm evidence that he was cooperating in any significant way with Al-Qaeda (the main Sunni international terrorist group) so his capacity to strike outside his own country with the chemical or biological WMDs (that most countries believed he still possessed) also was not clearly established. Moreover, the State Department seems to have issued warnings to the Bush Administration that the occupation and pacification of a post-war Iraq could be a long and difficult affair. For reasons such as these, Sen. Obama opposed the invasion of Iraq. He has been quoted as saying:

I thought the priority had to be on finishing the war in Afghanistan. I spoke out against what I called "a rush to war" in Iraq. I worried about "an occupation of undetermined length, with undetermined costs, and undetermined consequences."

Again, see Catechism, 2309, and ask yourself if the conditions for a just recourse to arms had been met by the U.S. and its allies in this case. It's certainly what football fans would term "a tough call"!

Notice that the Catechism states that "the damage inflicted by the aggressor ... must be lasting, grave, and certain." Was it "certain" that Saddam intended to use his weapons of mass destruction on other nations?The Catholic tradition has held that a "pre-emptive" strike against another nation (that is, attacking another nation before it has a chance to attack you) can only be morally right if attack by that other nation is "imminent" and "certain" (for example, when another nation is gathering its military forces on your border, obviously in preparation for an attack). Was attack by Iraq on the U.S. or other nations "imminent" and "certain"?

On the other hand, when terrorist groups and weapons of mass destruction are factored into the equation, it is hard to know what constitutes an "imminent" and "certain" state-sponsored terrorist attack, because such groups operate by definition "under the radar screen," so to speak. As 9-11 demonstrated only too clearly (with Al-Qaeda operating under the sponsorship, and with the assistance, of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan), state-sponsored terrorists can wreak terrible destruction upon thousands of innocent lives with hardly any prior warning. In modern circumstances, the combination of WMD's with a state that sponsors terrorism is the ultimate threat to civilization. Therefore, some Catholic thinkers (like me) believe that a regime that actively supports terrorism and possesses weapons of mass destruction, or is seeking and about to obtain weapons of mass destruction, is already an incredibly dangerous threat to world peace and the lives of the innocent. Therefore, such a situation may, indeed, morally justify pre-emptive military action.

In addition to all that, there is a question of whether a regime can become so tyrannical that it is virtually at war with its own citizenry and whether that morally justifies other nations with the military capacity to intervene to stop the killing. The Vatican, for example, supported U.S. and U.N. military intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s to put an end to the brutal policy of "ethnic cleansing" as a "humanitarian" military intervention.

At least with regard to the invasion of Iraq, who was right here? Was it a morally justifiable humanitarian intervention and necessary pre-emptive strike? Most Catholic theologians, along with the Holy See, believed that the invasion of Iraq was not morally justifiable. Some notable Catholic theologians (such as George Weigel and Cardinal George Pell of Australia) seemed to think that it was.

Again, even in hindsight, it was a "tough call" for sure.

One thing that everyone with a commitment to the facts should agree on, however, is that this was not a war of conquest (i.e., simply to gobble up another country and extend U.S. territory) and not primarily a "war for oil." There is no evidence of that at all. All of the public and documented private statements by President George Bush, Britain Prime Minister Tony Blair, and other world leaders and government officials clearly shows that they supported the war to take away at least the chemical and biological WMDs that they really believed Saddam still had, topple his tyrannical government, and put a democracy in its place. There is no evidence at all of a secret plot to seize ownership or control of Iraqi oil. In fact, the U.S. never lacked access to Iraqi oil, so there was no reason to seize it. (The U.S. was always one of Saddam's biggest oil customers.) If the U.S. wanted to seize another country's oil, there were easier ways to do it than a risky and costly military adventure in the Middle East (for example, Venezuela's oil was a lot closer, and virtually undefended back in 2003). Moreover, since the end of the Iraq war, the U.S. has not, in fact, seized Iraqi oil. It was, and has remained, under Iraqi ownership to this very day. To be sure, supporters believed that one of the "fringe benefits" of this military action was that it would ultimately lead to an oil-rich, western-friendly, model democracy right in the heart of the Middle East. But while a bit naïve, perhaps, that was hardly an intrinsically evil intention.

In short, as a Catholic, whether or not you believe that the invasion of Iraq was a just and prudent military action, Sen. McCain simply cannot be accused of supporting a war of conquest, deliberately seeking to kill innocent people to extend U.S. power. Thus, Sen. McCain can hardly be construed as a "war-monger," whose moral failings on this issue can be held as the moral equivalent of Sen. Obama's appalling support for the legal right to kill unborn children.

What has happened since the decision to invade Iraq back in 2003? Here is what I wrote back in early 2007:

The invasion of Iraq was a brilliant and quick military campaign, executed with the help of the British, the Poles, and the Australians, a strategy designed to keep the Iraqi oilfields from being torched and to prevent a humanitarian (refugee) crisis from taking shape. And it worked. A few weeks after the war, Gallup took a nationwide poll of Iraqis and found that 70 percent supported the U.S. invasion - and then, through sheer bungling, pride, and naiveté, we largely failed that 70 percent in their hopes for democracy and peace. We failed to put enough troops in to close the borders to terrorists, to preserve law and order, and to keep the insurgent militias from forming. We failed to arrest radical Shiite leader Mutqada Al-Sadr when we had the chances to do so. We totally disbanded the Iraqi army, and then had to rebuild it from scratch. When the situation really began to deteriorate in 2005, the Bush Administration operated in a state of denial, convincing itself that mostly symbolic acts such as capturing Saddam, killing Al-Qaeda leader Al-Zarqawi, and holding national elections would be enough defeat the insurgency. In short, we rescued the people of Iraq from near total tyranny, only to plunge them into near total anarchy. And yet a recent major survey by a British press team in Iraq (a survey twice as large as any done by any U.S. press agency) reports that roughly 64 percent of the Iraqi people still want a united, democratic Iraq, and 49 percent still support the U.S.-backed Iraqi government - after all these mess-ups!

What was the response of our two presidential candidates early in 2007 to this dire situation?

Senator McCain, who had for years criticized the Bush Administration's war effort because he believed we lacked enough troops on the ground to get the job done, supported President Bush's proposed troop "surge" as the best chance to win the war. He did so even though at the time it was a politically unpopular stance to take. Senator Obama, on the other hand, opposed the troop surge, arguing bluntly, "it will not work," and he co-sponsored legislation in January 2007 (the same month that President Bush announced the troop surge) to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by March, 2008. He has continued to pledge to remove almost all U.S. troops within 16 months of taking office, oddly reaffirming that pledge just a few days prior to visiting Iraq for the first time, and meeting for the first time with the U.S. commander in the region, Gen. David Petraeus.

Of course, it would be easy to criticize Sen. Obama in hindsight on this matter, for since the summer of 2007, the troop surge policy has been a dramatic success: Monthly U.S. military and Iraqi civilian casualties have dropped by about 80 percent since the dark days when the surge policy was first announced, Al-Qaeda has been largely defeated and discredited, Al-Sadr's militia has been partially neutralized, and the Iraqi government has now met 15 of the 18 benchmarks for the establishment of a stable democracy that the U.S. government set when the surge policy began. In other words, Sen. Obama was just plain wrong on this matter of the surge.

What concerns me most, however, is not the fact that he made a misjudgment of military strategy, but that it was morally short sighted of him not to at least support giving the surge a try back in early 2007. Here is what I wrote about both Obama's and Hillary Clinton's "cut and run" policy at that time:

And now are we just going to turn our backs on these people, these 64 percent of Iraqis who still yearn for a united and democratic Iraq, and tell them: "Sorry, we messed up; have a nice life; good-bye"? Some people say, "this is like another Vietnam." If that is true, then don't we have a moral obligation to try to leave Iraq in a better state than when we finally cut and ran from Vietnam? Do we forget what happened to those who supported us in Southeast Asia when we failed to leave it in at least some kind of stable order: 2 million dead in the "killing fields" of Cambodia and another 2 million boat people on the ocean fleeing for their lives? Even if you argue that it would have been impossible to prevent those things from happening in Southeast Asia, don't we still have a moral obligation to try to do everything possible to keep such a thing from happening in Iraq? ...

A precipitate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could result in an all-out civil war there, because there is both the military capacity and the political and economic motive for each side (Sunni and Shia) to try to win it all. Along with Shiite Iran, Iraq has the world's largest oil reserves. If the Shiites could gain control of Iraq's oil, too, through the total victory of Al-Sadr's Shiite militia backed by Iranian weapons, they would have effective control of the entire Persian Gulf. The president of Iran has even publicly bragged about the power that Iran will be able to wield in the region once the U.S. is gone. That will be power exercised at the end of a gun barrel, and it could easily lead to an all-out regional war between Sunni and Shia. ...

I do not know whether or not President Bush's "troop surge" strategy will work toward establishing order and security. My guess is that it is too little, too late. But the commanders say that it has at least a chance of working, and that it will take until at least early 2008 to know. Why don't we just support that policy wholeheartedly on the grounds that it is worth "one last shot," since the stakes for those who support democracy in Iraq are so high, the stakes for democracy in the Middle East in general are so high, and the stakes for peace in both Iraq and the wider Middle East are so high? If it works, then we can pull back from Iraq gradually, leaving the democratically elected government there with a fighting chance to survive.

In short, I just cannot understand the moral blindness of the "cut-and-run" crowd, Sen. Obama included, in 2007. Whether or not the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do back in 2003, the fact that the U.S. did, in fact, invade Iraq and topple Saddam's regime there leaves us with huge moral responsibilities to the majority of people in Iraq and to those U.S. servicemen and women who have given their lives in that conflict so that the terrorists might suffer a major defeat there and that Iraqis might be free.

I am still not sure that Sen. Obama understands the moral issues here. His recent speech on the Middle East claims that the real "front" in the war against terror is in Afghanistan, and that is where we should be concentrating our attention. Perhaps so, but that still does not relieve the U.S. of the moral obligations we incurred from our military invasion of Iraq. I believe we have a moral duty to bring that war to a successful conclusion and not to leave the people of Iraq largely at the mercy of the terrorists and the Iranian-backed militias. There is no U.S. military commander, to the best of my knowledge, who believes that those goals can be accomplished if U.S. troops are steadily pulled out within 16 months, as Obama has repeatedly insisted. Indeed, Gen. Petraeus has termed the U.S. and Iraqi gains there since the surge "fragile and reversible," and surely they would be placed in jeopardy by an over-hasty withdrawal. Moreover, victory in the global war on terror inevitably will involve U.S. engagement on a variety of "fronts" simultaneously. We do not have the luxury of choosing just one "front" at a time. Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, the Iranian regime and the Taliban have not left us that option.

To sum up, it seems to me that on this matter of war and peace in the Middle East, Sen. Obama cannot really claim the moral high ground. If he was morally right that we should not have invaded Iraq in the first place, he was morally wrong not to support the troop surge back in early 2007, and wrong not to see clearly the moral obligations we have in Iraq now. Perhaps Sen. McCain is more likely to lead us to stumble into war by being overly aggressive with U.S. power. But, in my opinion, Sen. Obama seems more likely to lead us to stumble into war through policies of weakness and appeasement. Recall his pledge in the Democratic primary debates to be willing to meet with the president of Iran, the world's chief state sponsor of terrorism - head-of-state to head-of-state - without preconditions. He defended his position by arguing, "That is what Kennedy did with Kruschev [in 1961]." Right, and it is a matter of historical record that Kruschev believed as a result that Kennedy was "too weak." Later that year the Soviets built the Berlin Wall, and the year after that they began deploying missiles into Cuba, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, putting the world on the brink of World War III. Appeasement does not prevent conflict, it encourages it. That is the clear lesson of history.

Now our survey of the three life-and-death issues of "moral urgency" in this presidential campaign (abortion, health care, and war and peace) has come to a close. What is the verdict for Catholics?

Deacon Keith Fournier summed it up best for Catholic Online: Sen. Obama's support for the legal permission to kill children in their mother's wombs is "the 800-pound Gorilla in the room" of this election. It amounts to clear and unequivocal support for an "intrinsic evil," as defined by the Church's Magisterium. In my opinion, there is nothing in Sen. McCain's policies or background that is the moral equivalent of Sen. Obama's clear legal backing for this deliberate, life-destroying violation of the dignity of the human person. It is no defense of Sen. Obama to say that he does not really want abortions, only "choice." We do not grant every individual the "choice" to decide what does or does not constitute child abuse, because the protection of the rights of innocent children is too important a matter to be left to the whims of every adult. In fact, to defend the right of the innocent to life is the first and primary purpose of human government (which is why it is mentioned first in The Declaration of Independence), and without this right safeguarded, all others are surely in jeopardy (for dead people cannot exercise any other human rights at all).

As a Catholic, you may, if you wish, conclude that Sen. Obama's other policies make practical and even moral sense. But a Catholic with a well-formed conscience will know that our moral values must be prioritized if we are to apply them wisely to the social order, and the "right to life," as the Church clearly teaches, must come first. For this reason, after wrestling with this quandary myself over the past few weeks, and sharing my thoughts with you (my readers) here in print, there is no longer any doubt in my mind that as things now stand, if Sen. Obama does not change his mind and heart on the abortion issue, then I think those who understand and accept the Church's Social Teachings, with its recognition of human life as an absolute value and priority, simply cannot support his candidacy in the upcoming presidential election without seriously violating their conscience.

This is not necessarily an endorsement on my part of Sen. McCain whose record on the Life issues is not "squeaky clean." While Sen. McCain has always voted against abortion, he has at the same time supported embryonic stem-cell research and experimentation on human embryos - a clear contradiction of his stated Pro-Life principles. With such choices before me, is this perhaps the moment in our history when it is necessary to apply the principle of choosing the lesser of two evils, or to cast a protest vote for one of the third-party candidates on the ballot, or to write in a candidate? One thing is clear - we need God's gracious assistance. We should pray for Sen. Obama's heart and mind to be touched by the Holy Spirit so that he gains the discernment and courage to see the truth on the most serious moral issue facing our nation. We should pray for Sen. McCain that he realize that human embryos are human beings at their earliest stage of life and they are sacred. Indeed, however you decide to vote, you ought to pray for the one you choose. Neither of them are saints. Not many of us are!

Now go back to the quote by St. Faustina at the start of this article. She shuddered at the destruction that was soon to come upon the city of Warsaw. But why was Warsaw headed for destruction in God's plan (I say God's plan given that He would permit it to be destroyed by the Nazis)? Our Lord does not tell her. Instead, He tells her to unite herself closely to Him during the Sacrifice [of the Mass] and to offer His Blood and His Wounds to His Father in expiation for the sins of that city (see Diary, 39). Though Christ doesn't give an explanation for the destruction of Warsaw, historians know that Warsaw was actually the abortion mill of central Europe between the two world wars.

What could be more outrageous than for a Christian people to permit this daily "slaughter of the innocents" in their midst? Perhaps our merciful God would sometimes sooner see a city or nation collapse than to allow such cities or nations (that claim to be "Christian") to continue committing such moral crimes against the innocent and helpless. It's not too difficult to see here a sign of what God's moral priorities are. Perhaps they should be ours, too.

(Editor's note: Dr. Stackpole's conclusion here represents his own personal conviction as a Catholic theologian and is not an official statement of the Congregation of Marians of the Immaculate Conception.)

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at [email protected].


You might also like...

One of the principal intentions of the personal prayers of St. Francis of Assisi (feast day: Oct. 4) should sound familiar to Divine Mercy apostles. This is no surprise.

Wow, have you ever considered all the things Pope St. John Paul II had to say about Divine Mercy? As we celebrate his feast day on Oct. 22, take another look.

Let us ask Jesus and His saints to help us take up our crosses and follow them on the well-worn path to Heaven.