Bishops call for change on Iraq policy

Bishops call for change on Iraq policy

Catholic leaders stress need for justice, peace

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff | November 14, 2006

BALTIMORE — The nation’s Catholic bishops, saying the United States needs to move past the “shrill and shallow debate” of last week’s midterm Congressional elections, declared yesterday that the goal in Iraq should be justice and peace, rather than victory, and that the nation should withdraw its forces at the earliest opportunity, consistent with a responsible transition.

Meeting here in the aftermath of the election in which American voters, in part because of anger over the Iraq war, handed control of the House and Senate to the Democrats, the bishops unanimously authorized a public statement calling for the nation to “seriously examine alternative courses of action” in Iraq.

The bishops, who have consistently expressed moral concerns about the war, did not call for immediate withdrawal, saying the United States now has “moral responsibilities to help Iraqis to secure and rebuild their country.” But the bishops said the “terrible toll” in Iraqi and American lives now requires a discussion driven by “moral urgency, substantive dialogue, and new directions.”

“Because the war was such an election issue and became very partisan, our hope is, now that the elections are over, that all of the national leaders will come together and try and work together for a reasoned solution and transition out of Iraq without abandoning the people of that country,” Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston said in an interview after the vote. “We asked them not to go in in the first place, but now that we’re there, we’re looking for a withdrawal that would be as soon as possible, but at the same time without abandoning the people that are there and causing a worse situation.”
O’Malley said the United States should do a better job getting assistance from the international community, particularly Muslim nations, in securing Iraq. He added that lasting peace in the region will require finding a way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The bishops, who are the spiritual leaders of the nation’s largest religious denomination, are joining a chorus of religious leaders speaking out against the Iraq war. Yesterday’s statement — issued by the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane — is the 18th such attempt by the Catholic bishops to influence the debate over Iraq.

“We hope our nation has moved beyond the divisive rhetoric of the recent campaign and the shrill and shallow debate that distorts reality and reduces the options to ‘cut and run’ versus ‘stay the course’,” said the statement. “Our nation needs a much more substantive, civil, and nonpartisan discussion of ways to plan and secure a responsible transition in Iraq.”

Although the bishops’ previous statements have not had a discernible impact on public policy, their declaration was made as the Bush Administration, chastened by the Republican Party’s electoral defeat last week, appears to be considering a new approach in Iraq. Last Wednesday, the day after the election, President Bush accepted the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H . Rumsfeld. A study group headed by James Baker, former secretary of state, and by Lee Hamilton, former US representative, has been formed to recommend ways to proceed in Iraq.

Asked in Washington yesterday about the possibility of a phased withdrawal from Iraq, Bush said, “I believe that it’s important for us to succeed in Iraq, not only for our security, but for the security of the Middle East, and . . . I’m looking forward to interesting ideas. In the meantime, General Pete Pace is leading investigations within the Pentagon as to how to reach our goal, which is success, a government which can sustain, govern, and defend itself, and will serve as an ally in this war on terror.”

“I believe it is very important, though, for people making suggestions to recognize that the best military options depend upon the conditions on the ground,” he said.

Catholics, though traditionally Democratic voters, have been an increasingly important political constituency for the Republican Party in recent years and helped Bush win reelection in 2004. But this year, Catholics favored Democrats in the midterm elections, according to exit polling.

In their statement, the bishops suggested that the United States and other nations should help Iraqis establish security, the rule of law, a rebuilt economy, and the development of political structures “that advance stability, political participation, and respect for religious freedom and basic human rights.” The bishops have been particularly concerned about the plight of Iraqi Christians, many of whom have fled the country.

Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, chairman of the bishops’ committee on international policy, said the bishops are wary of aligning themselves with any particular interest group and deliberately chose not to endorse a timeline for withdrawal, but rather to outline a series of goals for the nation to meet as part of a “responsible transition” out of Iraq.

“As people are grappling with these issues of war and peace, we have to look at more than just utilitarian criteria — what works, or what’s in our self-interest — we have to look to the very human issues of basic human rights and dignity,” he said.

The bishops normally meet every fall in Washington, but this year moved their gathering to Baltimore to mark the 200th anniversary of the Baltimore Basilica, which was the country’s first cathedral and has just been elaborately restored.

In other business, the bishops agreed to fund the initial phases of a study of the historical context and possible causes of clergy sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, including an examination of societal change and overall abuse patterns during the second half of the 20th century, a review of the institutional response to abuse allegations by church leadership, and a study of how priests accused of abuse differ psychologically from other priests. The first phases of the study are expected to be made public in 2008.

Today, the bishops plan to vote on documents explaining the church’s continuing opposition to the use of artificial birth control, providing guidelines for diocesan ministries to gays and lesbians, and explaining under what circumstances Catholics should not seek Communion. Taken together, the documents imply that sexually active gays and lesbians, as well as heterosexuals who have sex outside marriage and anyone who uses artificial birth control should not seek Communion unless they have been absolved through confession, according to Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., chairman of the bishops’ committee on doctrine.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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