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November 14, 2007
Column #1,368
Catholic Bishops on Iraq
by Mike McManus

America's Catholic bishops raised "grave moral concerns" about the Iraq war before it began. They were "highly skeptical" of the concept of a "preventive war without clear proof that an attack is imminent."

So it was no surprise that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops addressed the "dangerous political stalemate in Iraq" this week.  However, they fashioned language which  respected both sides of the issue, and said something fresh.

"We are alarmed by the political and partisan stalemate in Washington.  Some policymakers seem to fail to recognize sufficiently the reality and failures in Iraq and the imperative for new directions. Others seem to fail to recognize sufficiently the potential human consequences of very rapid withdrawal. These two forms of denial have helped contribute to partisan paralysis."

That is an apt description of the roots of today's poisonous political climate in Washington.  Democrats want to pull out quickly but appear to be oblivious of the danger of a rapid draw down of troops.  The White House has found success in the troop surge that has reduced casualties and is loathe to make any troop reductions. Even Republican presidential candidates seeking  primary voter support seem stuck like tar babies unable to offer new ideas.

Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane and President of Catholic bishops issued a "Call for Bipartisan Cooperation."  While admitting that the bishops have no "specific competence in political, economic and military strategies," he said he spoke from a moral tradition of Catholic teaching on war and peace.

He urged national leaders "to focus on the morally and politically demanding, but carefully limited goal of fostering a `responsible transition' and withdrawal at the earliest opportunity consistent with that goal."

Skylstad put it differently, "Our nation must now focus more on the ethics of exit than on the ethics of intervention."  He raised moral questions for national leaders to answer:

"How can we minimize the further loss of human lives? What actions will do the most good and least harm?  What elements of a responsible transition are attainable?"

The Democratic Presidential candidates come closest to outlining a "responsible transition" from Iraq.  However, Wednesday's Washington Post examined the top four candidates positions on the issue, with this headline, "Democrats' Bold Statements on Ending Iraq War Don't Square with Details."

For example, Sen. Hillary Clinton has said, "If this President does not get us out of Iraq, when I am president, I will." The Post called that an "obvious exaggeration" since she only proposes to begin a phased withdrawal of troops but has not been specific on the number of troops she would pull out, or the timetable. "Clinton is trying to have it both ways."

Catholic bishops urged the U.S. to initiate  a comprehensive political, diplomatic and economic strategy that would include collaboration with other nations, including Syria and Iran, and asked the  U.S. to "advance a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians."

Bishop Skylstad also focused on a neglected policy priority, the "suffering of the Christian community." Iraqi Christians, many of whom are Chaldean Catholics, are caught in a squeeze between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, persecuted so severely that high percentages are among the two million Iraqis who have fled Iraq or the two million more who fled their homes for safer areas within Iraq.

Not all bishops agreed with the consensus of opposition to the war. Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki rose to say, "Our statements tend to focus on American action and American restraint, yet I don't know if we're taking into account Islamic jihadism.  I'd like our statements to reflect a little more balance to reflect that reality."

Such dissent may come as a surprise to Catholics, and especially to Protestants who view Catholic bishops as monolithic, acting on orders from Rome.  However, in the 26 years I have covered these meetings, I am struck by the healthy debate I witness.

The bishops are also careful not to endorse any candidates or party.  Their opposition to abortion is passionate "to protect the weakest in our midst - innocent unborn children," and appears to be supportive of Republicans.  However, their opposition to war and support of initiatives to help "families and children overcome poverty" leans toward Democrats. They support comprehensive immigration reform championed by Bush but opposed by most Congressional Republicans. Their positions are thoughtful and nuanced.

"Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God's truth," they said in a recent statement on "Faithful Citizenship."  They recognized that the "responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience."

Catholic bishops take their role as moral teachers seriously.

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