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Gerard Powers
Gerard Powers
Confronting Iraq Special Report
Confronting Iraq Transcripts
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Web Site
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Confronting Iraq:
Catholic Church View

With Gerard Powers
Director, Office of International Justice and Peace,
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Friday, March 7, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

Cardinal Pio Laghi, a personal envoy from Pope John Paul II, visited the White House Wednesday and urged President Bush to work through the United Nations to disarm Iraq, saying war would be "illegal" and "unjust" without further U.N. authorization. The visit was part of a Vatican diplomatic campaign that has strong popular support in Europe but has divided Roman Catholics in the U.S.

"The meeting has contributed to the moral debate about a possible war with Iraq. With the Vatican and many religious leaders around the world, the Catholic bishops in the U.S. have concluded that, in this case, resorting to war would not meet the strict conditions that must be met for military force to be morally justified," said Gerard Powers, director of the Office of International Justice and Peace at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an interview with washingtonpost.com,

Powers was online Friday, March 7 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss the Catholic perspective on a possible war with Iraq and the moral and religious questions it raises.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Columbia, Md.: Why does not the Pope voice his opinion strongly: You are either for the war or NOT. The Pope has to deliver that message himself. Otherwise everything is open to interpretation and this gives the image that he has no stand on the issue? Any topic can be debatable but a leader has to take a stand such as Bush and Sadam have! I think it is time for the Pope to do so. My question is which one is it? For war or not and why?

Gerard Powers: The Pope, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Church leaders throughout the world have been very clear that they believe that war should be avoided and that alternatives to war still offer a reasonable way to ensure that the Iraqi government disarm. The Holy Father has said many times that war would be a "defeat for humanity." No one doubts his strong opposition to a war against Iraq at this time.

There are two moral challenges here: to ensure Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions and to do so in a way that conforms with international norms.

President Bush has rightly focused the world's attention on the need to do much more to address Iraq’s repression and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in defiance of the UN. As Cardinal Laghi said in his statement on Ash Wednesday: “the Iraqi government is obliged to fulfill completely and fully its international obligations regarding human rights and disarmament under the UN resolutions with respect for international norms.”

The Holy See has also been clear that governments should continue to work through the UN framework and international law to pursue inspections and other means short of war to achieve Iraqi compliance with its obligations. As the Holy Father said on Ash Wednesday: “Everyone has to knowingly assume their responsibility and make a common effort to spare humanity another dramatic conflict.” While Cardinal Laghi, the Pope's Special Envoy, was in Washington this week, he said that a war against Iraq without UN approval would be "immoral, illegal, and unjust."

In a February 26th statement by Bishop Wilton Gregory, President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, he concluded: “we believe that resort to war would not meet the strict conditions in Catholic teaching for the use of military force.”

Here are some excerpts from recent Vatican statements that might be of interest:Pope John Paul II, Greeting a group of Polish pilgrims, Vatican City, March 5, 2003

I ask all of you for this prayer and fasting….May these be concrete gestures of the involvement on the part of those who believe in the mission to remind the world that it is never too late for peace

Pope John Paul II, Speech to the Sant’Egidio Community, February 8, 2003

Peace is in danger. We need to multiply our efforts. One cannot be immobile in the face of terrorist attacks, nor when faced with the threats that are being raised on the horizon. One should not give up, as if war is inevitable.

Pope John Paul II, Address to the Diplomatic Corps, January 13, 2003

And what are we to say of the threat of a war which could strike the people of Iraq, the land of the Prophets, a people already sorely tried by more than twelve years of embargo? War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations. As the Charter of the United Nations Organization and international law itself remind us, war cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations.

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, Vatican spokesman, Interview with Catholic News Service, March 5, 2003

The Vatican sees the United Nations as the guarantor of international law, and so it would view any action outside U.N. authorization as very dangerous….[T]he concept of ‘preventive war’ is not found in the moral principles of just-war theory—not even if it is authorized by a vote of the United Nations.

Archbishop Jean Louis-Tauran, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, Conference at Rome hospital, February 24, 2003

A war of aggression would be a crime against peace….No rule of international law authorizes one or more states to intervene unilaterally….The resources of international law must be fully employed, and the consequences of an armed intervention on the civilian population must be carefully weighed.

Fairfax, Va.: I hope you can make it clear that the Pope, when speaking against this war, was NOT speaking ex cathedra. I have heard too many Catholic talk show hosts (among others)accused of violating their religion (by non-Catholics, as usual) because they disagree with the Pope. I am a faithful Catholic with a particular affection and respect for John Paul II, but I think he is wrong on this issue.

Gerard Powers: Church leaders have been clear about their moral concerns about resort to war in this case, but, you are correct, the Pope is not speaking ex cathedra. The U.S. Bishops have also been clear that Catholics of good will may – and, as you point out, do – disagree about how just war criteria apply to this particular case. For example, whether Iraq, in fact, poses an imminent threat and whether inspections and other measures short of war will work are obviously matters for public debate that depend on one’s assessment of the facts. That said, there is not room for disagreement, for example, about whether one may intentionally/ directly target civilians or civilian infrastructure (we must watch carefully to ensure that this principle is not violated if there is a war) and to subscribe to a doctrine of preventive war would represent a radical departure from current Catholic understanding of just cause.

Catholics, especially lay men and women who are called to be "leaven" in society, should continue to think deeply about the choices our nation faces, to reflect on the teaching of the Church and the reasons why Church leaders believe there are alternatives to war with Iraq, and discern carefully what their conscience calls them to do in this case.

Fairfax, Va. : Mr. Gerard,
Let's acknowledge that there is a huge divide among American Catholics on this issue, with the conservative and liberal wings for once lining up opposite their traditional sides of support for the Holy Father's pronounced policies. (i.e., liberals advocating waiting and hands-off, with conservatives more staunchly behind the Administration's policies)

To what do you attribute this?

Gerard Powers: Church leaders hope to help shape public opinion on Iraq. As you point out, there is a divide between Catholics, just as there is in the general population. Recent polls have shown, however, that Catholics in the United States are significantly less likely (10-15 percentage points) to support war than the general population and that Catholic opposition to war has increased significantly since October (see, eg, Wall Street Journal/ NBC News poll cited in a February 13th article in the Wall Street Journal.)

I would attribute the divide to two factors: First, a legitimate difference of opinion about how just war norms apply to the facts in this case. For example, the Bishops restate the norm that the threat must be imminent before an attack is justified; many Catholics do not believe the threat is imminent; many others do see it as imminent. Second, there is a more fundamental debate about some of the principles themselves. For example, some would argue, as the Bush Administration does, that a world of rogue states with weapons of mass destruction and possible ties to terrorists requires a new doctrine of preemptive – really preventive – war. Church leaders and many Catholics are deeply concerned about the moral and legal implications of such a radical departure from the norm that just cause for war is limited to defense against actual aggression. There are similar debates about whether UN Security Council approval is required in this case under international law.

Obviously, Chruch leaders are urging government leaders to find alternatives to war in Iraq. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that a major concern of Church leaders is that they use this "teachable moment" to remind Catholics and others that morality matters in grave decisions about war and peace. The fact that Cardinal Laghi’s visit attracted so much attention around the world is just one indication that someone is listening to the Church’s basic message – which is that war is far too important to be decided only based on political, economic, or military factors; it must include moral considerations.

Alexandria, Va.: If war against Iraq is immoral, then is the status quo moral? I (a practicing Catholic) find a hard time believing that leaving a person in power who has started not 1 but 2 wars of aggression against his neighbors, has used chemical weapons against his people and his enemies, and who continues to be in violation of UN demands, how leaving this person in power can be considered moral. So, that leaves us with a choice of choosing between 2 immoral actions: the status quo or war.

The church has said that war should be the last option. I ask: "What hasn't been tried over the last 12 years?"

The immoral status quo has gone on for 12 years and shows no sign of ending anytime soon. An immoral war would be over pretty quickly. Between the two wrongs, I choose the shorter one.

Gerard Powers: As I said in response to an earlier question, there are two moral challenges: (1) Protect the common good against any Iraqi threats to peace and (2) to do so in a way that conforms with fundamental moral norms governing the use of military force.

Iraq has not complied fully and completely with UN resolutions since the end of the Gulf War, that is certainly true. Much has been done and is being done -- and more could be done through the current inspections -- to contain and deter Iraq and to enforce the UN resolutions. For example, because of this policy, Iraq's military is a shell of its former self (which is one reason military planners expect a war to be short)and far more weapons of mass destruction were destroyed through inspections from 1991-1998 than during the Gulf War. Moreover, the Kurds enjoy an unprecedented degree of autonomy due to the safe haven in the North.

As frustrating and difficult as it may be, we believe that the challenge of maintaining broad international support for constructive, effective and legitimate ways to contain and deter aggressive Iraqi actions and threats is far better than pursuing a major war in perhaps the most volatile region of the world, a war whose consequences are hard to predict.

Greenbelt, Md.: A thought experiment: Obviously we have the benefit of hindsight, but wouldn't a decision in 1937 by British Prime Minister Chamberlain and French Premier Daladier to respond with force to Hitler's re-occupation of the Rhineland (thus forestalling World War II) have been a violation of just-war theory according to the particular norms of that theory as peddled by the bishops in 2003?

Gerard Powers: If Iraq tried to reoccupy Kuwait, protecting Iraq with military force would be a classic case of defense against aggression.

Gaithersburg, Md.: Is there a point where a war of "agression" would be justified to stop/ease the suffering of people? In other words, why can't an arguement be made that we are coming to the defense of the Iraqi people? Must the criteria for a just war always be defense of yourself or can it not allow for a nation to come to the defense of another much like the U.S. protecting Kuwait in /90?

Gerard Powers: Your question refers to humanitarian intervention. In many respects, humanitarian intervention represents St. Augustine's classic case: love may require force to protect the innocent. Military intervention to overthrow a regime should be the exceptional case that requires a very high threshold to justify – such as genocide, mass starvation, or similar mass suffering.

There is no doubt that the Iraqi people and the world would be far better off if the current Iraqi regime were no longer in power. That said, humanitarian intervention has already taken place in Iraq, at least insofar as the international community has provided a safe haven for the Kurds, who were victims of a genocidal campaign in 1988 that included the use of weapons of mass destruction. Those still under the Iraqi government’s control face gross human rights abuses, especially if they oppose the regime, but those abuses do not meet the high threshold that should be required for military intervention to overthrow a government. Other non-military efforts to address Iraqi repression must be pursued, however. The fact that the United States was supporting the Iraqi government in the 1980s when the most egregious human rights abuses took place raises questions about appealing to those abuses as justification for using force more than a decade later.

Ocean Pines, Md.: I believe you, and perhaps the Pope, are not getting to the heart of the question: is a preemptive war by the most militarily powerful nation on earth against a nation, already humbled by Gulf War I and 12 years of sanctions which have prevented it from rebuilding its infrastructure, moral, weapons inspections notwithstanding?

Gerard Powers: The Vatican and the U.S. bishops have been very clear that a preventive war is not morally justified; as Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, has said the concept of preventive war cannot be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Spartanburg, S.C.: Gerard,

It seems to mee that Pope John Paul and the Vatican are displaying a high profile in opposition to this particular war. Not only in what is said but in how it is being said they are giving this war very special treatment not applied to other conflicts either in recent decades or certainly in the long history of the church. Do you agree that this is case, and if so, why?

Gerard Powers: Clearly, the Vatican is engaged in a vigorous effort to find a peaceful way to ensure that Iraq complies fully and completely with its international obligations to disarm, and it has been very clear about its opposition to war in this case. Much the same was true in the case of the Gulf War in 1991, when the Pope issued some one hundred appeals to avoid war.

Washington, D.C.: Greetings, and thanks for taking questions!

U.S. officials argue that Iraq is a serious threat and offer that as a (partial) justification for going to war. It would seem, however, that neither the U.S. Bishops nor the Vatican has access to the classified information that would reveal just how much of a threat Iraq is. If that's correct, then one might wonder how they can be in a position to judge that just war criteria have not been met. Is the idea that it isn't relevant how much of a threat Iraq is, because 'other' criteria haven't been met? If so, then what are those criteria, and why are they so stringent that failing to meet them makes the threat irrelevant? Thank you!

Gerard Powers: Obviously, the Church does not have access to intelligence information that governments do. That is why, in all the U.S. Bishops statements, they have been careful to say that their prudential judgment is based on the information that is available. One argument that the Bush administration has made in support of war is that unilateral, preemptive war is justified even if there is not an imminent threat. The Church's opposition to preemptive or preventive war is not dependent upon its access to intelligence information; it is based on opposition to a policy of preemptive use of military force to deal with potential dangers.

The other criteria that are of concern include legitimate authority -- the Vatican says a war not approved by the UN would be illegal and unjust -- and the moral consequences of a major war in Iraq.

Sacramento, Calif.: Will the Pope travel to Iraq, if necessary, to stop the U.S. government from mass murder?

Gerard Powers: The Pope tried to go to Iraq a few years ago and was denied by the Iraqi government. Cardinal Etchagaray, his personal representative, went to Iraq recently to try to convince Saddam Hussein of the urgency of the situation and the urgent need to comply fully and completely with UN resolutions. There are many appeals for the Pope to travel to Iraq, to meet with the UN Security Council, etc. I have no knowledge of any plans at the moment to do so.

Oakland, Calif.: Mr. Powers,

If war does begin, what would the church think about the tactic of massive bombings that has been described by the administration?

Gerard Powers: The bishops have not addressed specific strategies. What they have said is that if the decision to use military force is taken, the moral and legal constraints on the conduct of war must be observed. This is expected of every civilized nation. It surely is expected of ours. We are threatened by regimes and terrorists who ignore traditional norms governing the use of force; all the more reason that we must uphold and reinforce them through our own actions. Any implied or express threats 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, should also 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.

Alexandra, Va.: The United States is claiming that Iraq is not complying with the UN resolutions. And the U.S. is trying to force Iraq into compliance. However, the U.S. is willing to go to war with Iraq regardless the U.N. resolutions. Aren't we being hypocritical?

Does the U.S. have weapon of mass destruction? If we do, are we willing to destroy them to show the world that we don't have double standards?

Gerard Powers: It would make sense that the UN be the body that enforce its own resolutions. If the UN refuses to do so, that is one matter. If the UN instead chooses alternatives other than war to do so, that is another matter.

Washington, D.C.: Why is the Pope not against all wars, all the time? The just war principle clearly conflicts with Jesus' teachings on how we are to treat our enemies and those who persecute us. Are Augustine's principles more sacred than the Gospels?

Gerard Powers: There are two legitimate traditions within Christianity: principled non-violence and just war. Both begin with a common presumption against the use of force. Pacifism is not passive about injustice to be sure, but the just war tradition asserts that the presumption against military force may be overridden for extraordinarily strong reasons. While non-violence is a legitimate approach for individuals, governments have an obligation to defend the common good, even with military force in cases that meet just war criteria.

Gerard Powers: I wish I could have responded to all of the questions that were submitted and I wish I could have gone into more detail in response to the many legitimate concerns that were raised.

There are no easy answers to the problem of rogue regimes with weapons of mass destruction who might be tied to terrorist networks. This threat to global peace and security has to be addressed.

At the same time, how our nation, the world's dominant power, and other nations respond to this challenge will have enormous implications for international peace and stability. That is why the Church is so concerned that any action that is taken be in accord with moral and legal norms, therefore buttressing the international institutions and norms. Obviously, people of good will can and do disagree about many aspects of this debate, not least the moral dimensions. Our hope and prayer is that governmental leaders around the world will find effective ways to contain and disarm Iraq and step back from the brink of war.

Thanks to all of you for an interesting discussion.

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