By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In a brief discussion this morning of the Iraq war, the American bishops appeared supportive of a proposed statement that “the current situation in Iraq remains unacceptable and unsustainable,” but two members pushed from the floor for stronger language on the dangers of Islamic radicalism.
The draft statement from Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, would reiterate the bishops’ support for a “responsible transition” in Iraq, and opposes what Skylstad calls “two forms of denial” – one that ignores the human consequences of the current stalemate, the other that would opt for immediate pullout.
Skylstad’s proposed statement says the national debate should now focus on “the ethics of exit rather than on the ethics of intervention,” and asserts that the United States has a “unique and inescapable obligation” to offer major support for reconstruction in Iraq.
The statement calls upon the United States not to seek permanent military bases in Iraq, nor control over the country’s oil resources. It also calls for greater attention to refugees and internally displaced persons, and investments in the care of veterans.
Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Skylstad goes on to say, “would help the region and deprive extremists of a cause they exploit to promote hate and violence.”
Skylstad’s draft statement also stresses that “ethical norms require protecting civilians, using proportionate and discriminate force, rejecting torture, and fighting terrorism with nonmilitary means and the legitimate use of force when necessary.” Observing those norms, the statement says, is essential for “winning hearts and minds.”
The statement is accompanied by a question-and-answer document from Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, chair of the bishops’ Committee on International Policy, setting out the basic content.
From the floor, Bishop Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo, Texas, proposed that the conference sponsor a “day of penance for our country” relative to the Iraq conflict. While supporting the draft statement’s reference to the hardships faced by Christians in Iraq, Pfeifer also said that it should not come at the expense of an equally strong reference to the suffering of the general population.
Bishop John Ricard said that the bishops’ original statement on the war, which raised questions about its moral legitimacy, “still serves us well,” and suggested that perhaps Skylstad’s statement could be made a document of the entire conference. (Shylstad indicated that given the complexities involved, it would be swifter to keep the document as his statement.)
Two other bishops raised questions about whether the statement adequately reflects the reality of Islamic terrorism.
Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Chicago said that statements from the conference on the war sometimes fail to do justice to “the reality of Islamic jihadism.” Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City-Kansas echoed the sentiment, saying he would like to see “more balance” in such statements, and added that he would also like to see stronger support for American troops, calling their sacrifice “a true act of generosity and heroism.”
Archbishop Daniel DiNardo of Houston, who will become a cardinal on Nov. 24, called for a specific acknowledgement of Catholics in Iraq, such as the Chaldean and Syrian Catholic communities. Under the impact of the war and a rise in Islamic extremism, Christian communities in Iraq and across the Middle East have been decimated as Christians flee the region.
Archbishop John Nienstedt, coadjutor of St. Paul-Minneapolis, suggested that the statement make some reference to the current discussion in policy circles about hostilities with Iran. In response, Wenski said that he had sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice raising concerns about the situation with Iran.
Skylstad asked for a vocal indication of whether the bishops supported issuing his statement after taking into consideration the comments from the floor, and no one voiced objection.