Catholic soldiers face no crisis of conscience on war

Published on National Catholic Reporter Conversation Cafe (http://ncrcafe.org)

Catholic soldiers face no crisis of conscience on war, Bush official says

By John L Allen Jr Daily
Created Oct 10 2006 – 11:04
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.

New York

Catholic veterans of the Iraq war have generally not been troubled by the church’s moral criticism of the conflict, according to the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs and a former ambassador to the Vatican – in part, he said, because they believe that under church teaching, the decision to fight was not up to them.

In an Oct. 6 interview with NCR, James Nicholson, a Catholic, said that while he’s heard concerns from veterans about criticism of the war in secular political debate, he’s not found any crisis of conscience among Catholic soldiers related to the church’s moral critique. Nicholson also said he’s not heard of any such struggles among Catholics from military chaplains.

For those familiar with the church’s opposition to the Iraq war, such a claim may seem counter-intuitive.

In the months before the war in 2003, Pope John Paul II repeatedly warned against the use of force in Iraq, and senior Vatican officials bluntly termed the proposed war both illegal and immoral. Church leaders supported the possibility of conscientious objection, and a small number of soldiers with a Catholic background – including public examples such as Stephen Funk, Camilo Mejia, Ann Marie Tate, Joshua Casteel and Jeremy Hinzman – have applied for objector status. Mejia and Funk were both sentenced to prison terms for refusing to fight, while Hinzman is seeking refugee status in Canada. (In 2004, a total of 110 soldiers filed for conscientious objector status, and half of those requests were granted).

Nicholson, however, said he’s not heard such moral doubts from the Catholic veterans with whom he’s spoken. He said his sense is that Catholic soldiers by and large believe that the decision to go to war was “not their call.”

“Under the structures of the church, they have no burden of conscience,” Nicholson said.

“According to church teaching, it’s up to the prudential judgment of the person duly selected to be the civil leader.”

That understanding, Nicholson argued, “frees” Catholics to serve without pangs of personal doubt.

Nicholson, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See from 2001 to 2005, is among the most prominent Catholics in the Bush administration. When he’s in Washington, he attends daily Mass at the Catholic Information Center on K Street, an Opus Dei-run center which has become a popular gathering place for Catholic politicians and lobbyists.

A West Point graduate and decorated Vietnam veteran, Nicholson said he regularly visits Walter Reed Hospital in Washington to meet injured veterans, many of whom have served in Iraq. The day before his interview with NCR, Nicholson said he spent the morning meeting with a group that included a solider suffering from severe burns and a traumatic brain injury.

He acknowledged that such experiences take an emotional toll.

“I wish that these people and their families didn’t have to suffer like this,” he said.

Yet Nicholson said he has not wavered in his support for the war.

“I believe in the mission. There are misguided, evil forces out there, and you don’t have to be clever to interpret what they want. They clearly state their intention to bring down our country, to deprive us of our way of life and our freedoms.”

“We can’t just sit there and let that happen,” he said.

Despite repeated condemnations of the war from church leaders, Nicholson – as he did as ambassador – strove to play down differences between the Vatican and the Bush administration over the use of force.

For example, he said that John Paul II recognized the need to defend innocent people from terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a position that Nicholson said was “very helpful and supportive to us in Afghanistan.”

In addition to being a staunch Catholic, Nicholson is also the former head of the Republican National Committee and enjoys a reputation for acute political instincts. Looking to the 2006 and 2008 elections, he said he hopes the American bishops will not back down from strong stances on moral and social issues.

“The church ought to advocate forcefully what it believes,” he said. “That’s how policy ends up being developed. Everything goes into a big mixing bowl, and it comes out as policy.”

At the same time, he said, the bishops “need to respect the system,” understanding that “they won’t always prevail.”

On the vexed question of denying communion to Catholic politicians who don’t support church teaching, Nicholson said he didn’t want to take a position. Yet he appeared sympathetic, saying that he would find it “legitimate” if bishops challenged him to follow church teaching, for example, in the administration of Veterans Administration hospitals. (In fact, Nicholson said, VA hospitals neither perform abortions nor distribute condoms, so the question may be largely hypothetical).

“They have both the right and the responsibility to speak up if they thought we were doing something contrary to their belief,” he said, indicating that he was sure the Bush administration would “pay heed” to such a stance.

If his agency ended up with a policy the church could not support, he said, “Then I would have to make a personal decision about whether I could accommodate that in my conscience.”

Asked if disciplining public figures with whom the church disagrees risks being politically counter-productive, Nicholson said his advice is that it’s not the church’s role to be concerned about “political fallout,” but rather to defend principled positions.

Nicholson also expressed concern about the fracture in Christian-Muslim relations created by Pope Benedict XVI’s Sept. 12 comments on Islam.

“It’s so unfortunate, because I don’t think the pope intended to be provocative,” he said.

The papacy, he said, “is one of those rare positions in the world that can be an agent of reconciliation and understanding, trying to defuse this zero/sum notion that you’re either with us or you’re worthy of being destroyed, such as you find in the radical elements of Islam.”

In this regard, Nicholson said the recent crisis was a “setback,” and he hopes Benedict will take steps to “recapture that ground.”

Nicholson was in New York Oct. 6 to receive an award from the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, also known as the Graymoor Friars, for his efforts to raise consciousness in the struggle against human trafficking.

Human trafficking, a priority of Nicholson’s term as ambassador in Rome, is one of the few areas where Nicholson offers an indirect critique of existing government policy.

“The United States needs to stiffen its spine with regard to standards and reporting,” he said. “This means moral suasion, but also the leverage that comes from how they classify a country.”

Nicholson noted there are “a lot of pressures” against imposing sanctions on countries with which the United States has important diplomatic or trade relationships, but added, “This is slavery.”

Finally, Nicholson said his experience with the Vatican taught him much about the patience required to produce change in a large bureaucracy, something he’s drawn on as a cabinet official. He recently faced criticism for perceived slowness, for example, in responding to a scandal following the loss of a laptop computer by a VA official that resulted in exposure of veterans’ private data.

“I learned that you have to accept the fact that people and systems don’t change quickly,” he said of his stint in Rome.

“We’re trying to bring the VA into the 21st century, including things like data security,” Nicholson said. “You can be a change agent, you can get things done, but it takes time. It takes patience, persistence, and persuasion.”