- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 14, 2002

U.S. Catholic bishops yesterday urged the United States to pursue every means possible to disarm Saddam Hussein before going to war, saying clear moral grounds for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq did not yet exist.

"We continue to find it difficult to justify the resort to war against Iraq, lacking clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature," the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement approved yesterday at its annual meeting being held in the District.

They said they were "deeply concerned" about the new doctrine of a pre-emptive strike, which says a nation may attack another before it's own borders are threatened. "Existence" of a bad regime does not justify offensive action, the statement said.

"We're not saying there's no just war," said Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

In anticipation of the bishops' statement, an ad hoc group of conservative lay Catholics last week issued a letter supporting a hawkish approach to a "regime change" in Iraq.

The letter, sent to President Bush, agreed with the bishops on many points but disagreed with their caution and argument that Iraq was not yet a threat.

"If a regime's murderous aggression cannot be prevented without changing the regime, nothing in the theory of just war excludes effort by force, if necessary to change the regime," the lay letter said.

The bishops, who have spoken on war and peace regularly since the 1980s debate over the U.S. missile buildup in the face of the Soviet Union, said "there are no easy answers" but moral justifications for war must be considered.

"Ultimately, our elected leaders are responsible for decisions about natural security, but we hope that our moral concerns and questions will be considered seriously," they said.

The bishops' statement, adopted by a 228-14 vote, reflects a letter the president of the bishops sent to President Bush in September.

The statement yesterday was drafted rapidly as the United Nation's Security Council's deadline for Iraq to allow full weapons inspections approaches. The bishops acknowledged that the facts are changing every day.

The bishops lauded the Bush administration's working with the U.S. Congress and the United Nations to impose a disarmament deadline on Iraq. But using just-war measurements, they questioned whether military action might create more problems than it solves.

"War against Iraq could have unpredictable consequences not only for Iraq but for peace and stability elsewhere in the Middle East," they said. The aftermath could put "terrible new burdens on an already long suffering civilian population."

They also worried about the deaths of civilians, which is part of the just war theory that the Catholic Church has built upon over several centuries.

Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law said yesterday, "This is a modest statement given the facts as we know them at this moment."

Pacifist Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit urged the bishops to include in their statement recognition of the right of Catholics in the military to dissent if they do not feel an invasion of Iraq is a just war.

"We teach it and we claim to follow it, but we often don't support those who dissent," he said.

Other bishops said the document covered the right of Catholics to follow their conscience.

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