Russell Shaw on Iraq, Just War and Prudential Judgments

Tells Where the Vatican and White House Concur — and Differ

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NEW YORK, MARCH 13, 2003 ( As part of its ongoing survey of commentaries on the Iraqi crisis, ZENIT turned to American writer Russell Shaw for his perspective on U.S. military action against Saddam Hussein.

Shaw is author of «Papal Primacy in the Third Millennium» and «Ministry or Apostolate: What Should the Catholic Laity Be Doing?» (both from Our Sunday Visitor).

ZENIT: The Vatican has said explicitly that the Holy Father is not a pacifist, and the Pope himself has called for Iraq to give up its prohibited weapons. Nevertheless, the Pope has repeatedly come out against a military solution to the issue. What are the main factors behind the different views of the U.S. administration and the Church?

Shaw: The main reason for the difference lies in differing prudential judgments.

President Bush and his people believe the consequences of not going to war — especially, the risk that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction would end up in the hands of terrorists — would significantly outweigh the bad consequences of war itself.

The Holy Father and his people plainly believe that at this time whatever good might come from overthrowing Saddam Hussein would not be proportionate to the bad results, such as provoking more terrorism, adding fuel to the Christian-Muslim conflict between played out in many parts of the world, and doing long-term damage to the United Nations.

For the most part, I think, the Vatican and the White House are operating on the same moral principles, but they disagree about the likely outcomes of various courses of action. On the whole, I think the Vatican’s view is the correct one.

Q: The «war on terrorism» seems to have fueled the moves against Iraq. Does the need to defend the United States against terror attacks, together with fears over the weapons of mass destruction possessed by Iraq, change the way in which traditional just war principles should be applied?

Shaw: Traditional formulations of just war theory don’t make provision for preventive war — that is, for military action in anticipation of aggression that hasn’t yet occurred but is deemed likely.

Adding this element to just war theory is in the nature of a refinement of what the theory already says about the legitimacy of self-defense, but it is something new, and in that sense it’s a change. In principle, too, I think it is a reasonable change.

A nation does not have to wait until it is attacked before initiating military action to defend itself. But even if one accepts that idea in principle, it does not follow that the principle applies now in the case of Iraq. That has simply not been established up to now. The argument that Iraq poses a clear and present danger to the United States is too hypothetical for my taste at this point.

Q: Some orthodox Catholics, especially in the United States, insist that the final decisions on military action are a prudential judgment that lies with civil authorities, not Church authorities. Where is the dividing line here between God and Caesar?

Shaw: There are several ways of responding. For one thing, the United States is hardly the only country that will be impacted by what does or doesn’t happen in Iraq, so it is unilateralism to say the only prudential judgment that counts rests with the civil authorities of the United States. Many nations have interests at stake here and have a right to be involved in the decision.

As for the right of Church authorities to speak out, even if one holds, as I do, that the judgments they express are prudential judgments, one must recognize that they bring a special, and highly relevant, dimension to this matter that legitimates their participation in the debate.

They are far more politically disinterested than the civil authorities can possibly be, and they also are, as one might expect, much more in touch with the Christian moral tradition.

When, responding to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States attacked al-Qaida and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the Holy See supported that action as legitimate self-defense — and I don’t recall that people who now invoke the dividing line between God and Caesar did so then.

Q. How should Catholics in the armed forces react concerning a possible war against Iraq?

Shaw: Catholics in the armed forces should react on this occasion as they always should react — by forming their consciences in light of sound moral principles, the counsel of prudent moral advisers including especially those who speak for the magisterium of the Church, and their best understanding of the facts, and then doing what their well-formed consciences tell them to do.

I suppose most if not all will elect to carry out the orders of their military commanders to the best of their ability. If they do so on the basis of sincerely formed judgments of conscience, they won’t hear any criticism from me.

Q: Regarding the role of the United Nations in authorizing any military action: In the past the Church has been a strong critic of the United Nations in areas such as family planning, abortion and feminism. Some also fear the loss of legitimate national sovereignty by handing over all military decisions to a sort of unelected world government. How do you see the role of the United Nations?

Shaw: Yes, the Church has been a critic of the United Nations in the areas you mention — and yet the Holy See has remained a strong supporter of the U.N.

I think the fundamental reason can be found in Blessed John XXIII’s «Pacem in Terris,» whose 40th anniversary we are observing this year.

Pope John spoke of the need for an international «public authority» — not in place of, but in addition to, existing nation-states — committed to the international common good; and he made it clear that, although the U.N. was not that body, nevertheless it was an important, necessary step on the way — see «Pacem in Terris,» 136-145.

In the unstable, highly dangerous, and increasingly interdependent world of 2003, that clearly remains the view of Pope John Paul II and the Holy See. And I think it is eminently correct.

If the U.N. didn’t now exist, we would have to create it, though I hope it would then be a U.N. without all the faults of the present one.

And while neither the United States nor any other country can entirely give up its right to act alone, if need be, to defend itself — or to defend the international common good — acting outside or in defiance of the U.N. except in case of clear necessity is a very dubious procedure indeed.

That, after all, is just what Saddam Hussein has been doing. We should seek ways to reform and strengthen the U.N., not undermine it.

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