Towards a Catholic Foreign Policy

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For decades, American foreign policy has been off track. The United States has launched wars in far-flung corners of the globe that have not only killed and wounded thousands of brave members of the American military, but our foreign interventions have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of others, many of them innocent civilians. The Catholic Church in America, as a singular voice of moral authority in the nation, needs to say, enough.

Consider the moral disaster that was the Iraq War. As of February 10, 2020, the Department of Defense reported that 4,432 Americans have been killed in Iraq with 31,994 wounded in action. Brown University estimates that from 2003 to 2018 at least 182,000 civilians were killed by violence in Iraq, and war costs in the Iraq–Syria theater have totaled $880 billion. Tragically and ironically, the one community devastated most by the invasion of Iraq has been Christians. In 2003, there were an estimated 1.5 million Christians who lived in many vibrant communities in Iraq; today only 250,000 remain. And the American invasion unshackled numerous fanatical groups, which led to persecutions, murders, torture, and other atrocities committed against those Christians who chose to stay. More generally, American intervention has destabilized the region and dislocated millions of innocent people.

In the lead-up to the war, the great Pope Saint John Paul II was well aware of the perils of invading Iraq, and he warned world leaders, calling the march to war a “defeat for humanity” that would have terrible “consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations.” During a 2003 interview, then-Cardinal Ratzinger backed up the Holy Father: “This judgment of the Holy Father is convincing from a rational point of view… reasons sufficient for unleashing a war against Iraq did not exist.” As pope, Benedict XVI told world leaders in 2007 that it was time to end these “useless slaughters.”

American Catholics, however, must acknowledge that we did not heed the Vatican’s warnings and, since the Iraq invasion, we have not spoken with one voice in calling for an end to these interminable wars.

 

To their credit, the U.S. Catholic Bishops did write to President Bush on September 13, 2002, warning the president to “step back from the brink of war.” But an honest assessment of American Catholic leadership during the pre-Iraq War period would indicate that many Catholic leaders were reluctant to oppose aggressively a military invasion that was quite popular with the electorate. Moreover, some “conservative” lay Catholic leaders fully embraced neoconservatism in foreign policy, an ideology that has more in common with French Jacobinism than with traditional Catholic thinking on war and peace.

In fact, these neoconservative Catholics made arguments in favor of the war based upon dubious interpretations of the Catholic just war doctrine. The just war doctrine is more than a legalistic checklist of the specific conditions necessary to justify a war; the just war doctrine tells leaders to pause before they act, and only to act with restraint and circumspection after a genuine examination of their conscience. Intemperance in the soul, not incorrect reasoning, is the true origin of unjust wars, and the invasion of Iraq was an intemperate act.

Twenty-five percent of the U.S. military consists of Catholics, meaning hundreds of thousands of Catholic lives are exposed if our leaders pursue reckless foreign adventures. The good news is that American public opinion is not where it was in 2002, and many millions of our fellow citizens are now skeptical of war.

The American bishops have issued a number of recent statements exhibiting their increasing discomfort with the seemingly endless American wars and violence. On January 8, in the wake of the recent assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement urging “necessary diplomacy and courageous dialogue” and criticizing “further violence and military action.” That statement also linked to an article in Crux magazine in which Bishop Richard F. Stika questioned the morality of drone strikes and pointed to all the trauma caused by these wars: “I think about all of the individuals I have known who have been harshly affected by being in wars. The PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), lost limbs, trauma.”

One can hope and pray that the bishops find their voice, not only to criticize individual attacks that are problematic, but more broadly to question the recent American wars of choice in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The bishops must also work to shepherd lay Catholics, especially those in leadership and governmental positions, to make them aware that their Church is increasingly skeptical of recent American foreign policy.

What would an American foreign policy look like if it were compatible with the Catholic tradition? It would not be a dreamy, sentimental policy that was unrealistic about the presence of evil in the world; a sound policy must be hard-headed and realistic. In contrast to our recent policies, however, it would also be magnanimous, temperate, moderate and decent, exhibiting good toward all peoples and cultures.

Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images News

William S. Smith

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William S. Smith is Senior Research Fellow and Managing Director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. He is the author, most recently, of Democracy and Imperialism (University of Michigan Press, 2019).

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