Denver´s Archbishop Chaput Views Sept. 11 and Its Fallout

«No Government Can Keep Its Legitimacy If It Fails to Defend Its People»

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DENVER, Colorado, NOV. 1, 2001 ( In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and the U.S. military action in Afghanistan, ZENIT asked Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput to comment on the moral principles — and reactions — that have arisen.

Q: Many Church leaders and leading Catholic thinkers in the United States have strongly defended the U.S. use of military force in the wake of Sept. 11. Yet outside the States the talk is less about just-war and more about economic and social inequalities. How would you account for the differences?

Archbishop Chaput: The first and overriding inequality Americans face at the moment is this one: The real murderers, the architects of these murders, are alive and determined to kill again, while the murder victims have been robbed of their lives, their futures, their hopes, dreams and families.

More than 5,000 innocent people died at the hands of extremist killers in a single day in September, and others continue to die through what appears to be bioterrorism.

Americans see this more clearly, and feel it more keenly, than outsiders because Americans are directly engaged as the target of the violence. Outsiders are not, so their perspective is predictably different.

I think that reminders of the social and economic inequalities in the world serve an important purpose. But no government can keep its legitimacy if it fails to defend its people.

The injustices in the world can never be used to «contextualize» or excuse mass murder. And the United States is by no means the only source of the world´s social and economic inequalities.

America bears heavier moral obligations for its actions because of its prosperity and power, but in the Muslim countries and throughout the Third World, rulers have consistently exploited their own people, with or without Western involvement. Sin isn´t a monopoly of the developed countries.

Q: Would you say, then, that the split between U.S. leaders and non-U.S. leaders on Christian principles is more apparent than real?

Archbishop Chaput: I don´t know. Outsiders have an emotional and intellectual distance from these events that Americans don´t share.

American Catholics are trying hard to root their actions in their faith and in their commitment to the larger Church. We listen very carefully to what the Holy Father has to say because he´s the Successor of Peter and because he has lived through terrible suffering himself. He has a double credibility — his teaching office, and the witness of his personal experience.

Q: Has the Afghan refugees´ suffering changed the justification for the war? Is it justified to continue bombing the Afghan cities given that already a number of noncombatants have died due mistakes in targeting?

Archbishop Chaput: The Afghan refugee problem existed long before Sept. 11. Looking back, the United States made a very serious moral error in helping the Afghans against the Soviets but then simply walking away from the country when the Russians were defeated.

In effect, we used the Afghans as a Cold War weapon and then discarded them. Now we´re dealing with the consequences.

But the factionalism, killing and refugee problems in Afghanistan preceded American involvement, and the chaos since 1989 cannot be laid exclusively, or even primarily, at America´s doorstep. Certainly the world´s wealthy Muslim countries have not seemed to distinguish themselves in solving Afghanistan´s troubles.

Regarding the conduct of the U.S. bombing campaign: Any innocent Afghan life lost is a tragedy. The United States has the obligation to take every reasonable step to avoid noncombatant deaths. I believe the American military has been trying to do that to an extraordinary degree.

The Taliban created the conditions that led to this fighting, and the Afghan people now bear the burden of the Taliban´s criminality.

Q: Is talk about inequalities in the world best left for after the fighting ends? What if the fighting goes on for years?

Archbishop Chaput: Each Catholic individually should examine his or her conscience every day. Living the Gospel means reviewing and correcting our actions in the light of Jesus Christ as part of our daily routine. If that´s good advice for individuals, it´s good advice for nations as well.

No purely military solution to terrorism can ever work without simultaneously seeking to address the deeper injustices in the world and our nation´s part in them.

American Catholics need to reread Vatican II´s «Gaudium et Spes» [the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World] and apply it to the way they live their citizenship. I can´t think of a better guide to living the Gospel in the modern world. In fact, «Gaudium et Spes» is a worthy examination of conscience for our entire culture.

At the same time, self-examination can´t be allowed to paralyze and prevent the United States from defending its own people. And unfortunately, I do believe the fighting will go on for years. Given the nature of terrorism, it´s naive and dangerous to assume otherwise.

Q: Should the attacks prompt soul-searching in the West? If so, in what respects?

Archbishop Chaput: The Church has been begging people in the developed countries to turn away from greed, self-absorption and the idolatry of material comfort for decades. Sept. 11 can serve as a wake-up call.

God has given the West enormous advantages. Too often, we haven´t used those advantages to help the world´s poor. The internal logic of greed is that it destroys itself. Americans need to reflect on that with a new humility.

Q: Is enough is being done by the Church within the United States to avoid sentiments of revenge and animosity toward Arabs and Muslims?

Archbishop Chaput: American Catholics still have recent memories of the discrimination and hatred they themselves experienced as immigrant outsiders in a predominantly Protestant country.

So yes, I think the Church has done a very good job of sensitizing people to the rights of Arabs and Muslims in the United States. Christians, Jews, Muslims and all human beings are equally the children of God. They have the same dignity and the same right to a life without fear.

The irony, of course, is that hundreds of thousands of Arab-Americans are actually Christians whose families often came to the United States to escape economic discrimination and religious intimidation in the Muslim countries of the Middle East.

I believe that despite our flaws and sins, Americans are a good people — and also a great people. We have a chance in the United States to show the world that Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of other faiths and no faith can live together in mutual respect and peace.

Whether Americans today have the character to accomplish that goal remains to be seen. It has to be proven again in every new generation.

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