By NANCY SCHWERIN
CHARLESTON — The adult formation group at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist recently initiated a timely discussion. As part of their weekly workshops during Respect Life Month, Bishop Robert J. Baker was invited to share his thoughts on the death penalty. In light of recent events, the topic for the Sunday morning gathering was expanded to include the doctrine of just war, safeguarding peace and avoiding war.
The 60 or so participants in the adult group were generally of the same mind. The United States should be doing something to stop terrorist acts, but when is the taking of human life justified?
The bishop began with a brief discussion of the death penalty. He shared his personal experience of ministering to death row inmates in the late ’70s and early ’80s. One story was particularly pertinent to the discussion. An inexperienced guard in transporting an inmate handcuffed the man in front of his body, and the guard escorted the inmate by walking in front of him. The inmate able to maneuver his arms and hands killed the unsuspecting guard with a homemade knife.
The bishop used this example as a possible instance where humane imprisonment may not be enough to protect man from man or himself. Bishop Baker said the principle behind Catholic teaching of the death penalty is similar to that of the just war theory. On the death penalty the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (2267).
“Can you stop a terrorist?” the bishop asked. “I don’t know that answer; you may know better than I.”
What we do know, he said, is the teaching of Pope John Paul II — there cannot be peace without justice.
The bishop said that government officials should expend their energy discovering the facts of a situation and the possible solutions, which should begin with efforts working toward peace. Only after exhausting all peace efforts is a nation then morally justified in defending its people and homeland.
The problem is, said the bishop, “We’re often putting a Band-Aid on things with war.”
Acquiring government submission under fire doesn’t begin to answer centuries-old issues between Muslims and Israelis, doesn’t begin to end the inhumanities present throughout the Middle East and doesn’t begin to end U.S. involvement for which terrorist nations are angry.
The bishop praised President Bush for offering time to Afghanistan to comply with U.S. demands and for looking to religious leaders for guidance. But he also inquired if time and “fair warning” was enough.
“Perhaps we could have said we’re not offering our weapons (to one or the other parties of the Middle East conflict, and) set a deadline on the involvement of American people until Israelis and Palestinians begin to work on their differences,” said Bishop Baker.
Sharing articles and passages from the Catechism, the bishop laid out the church’s teaching and his own desires for the people of the Diocese of Charleston.
Each of the criteria for just war, as explained in the Catechism, must be present: “the damage inflicted by the aggressor must be lasting, grave and certain”; all other peaceful means of rectifying the situation must be exhausted; there must be a high level of assurance for success; and “the use of arms must not produce evils graver than the evil to be eliminated” (2309).
This last item delves into the harshness and permanent destruction of modern weapons. Some pacifists use the capability of mass destruction of chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry in their platform against war. They say that with the existence of these weapons no nation can be free from grave harm; therefore no war is just. Their platform is based on Scripture as the just war theory is based on Scripture. Dating back to the early centuries, each idea has its own interpretation of God’s will for his people.
The bishop said the church recognizes both the pacifist and the supporter of just war. The faithful can choose their position, while leaving room and understanding for their counterpart.
While our destiny is in the hands of God, we are called to be instruments of his peace, the bishop said. “We believe in Scripture, so we must listen, pray and meditate to find God’s will for us.”
Scripture gives us a nonviolent Christ on the cross as well as passages like Romans chapter 13, verse four, in which nations are called to defend themselves.
Along with war comes an endless and unthinkable round of moral dilemmas, some of which were discussed at the Cathedral: women and children being used as human shields and destroying hijacked commercial airplanes.
One participant at the meeting shared a personal story. She and her mother were Japanese prisoners of war during World War II, and after all they endured her mother told her some things were necessary. “She told me we should feel blessed to be citizens of this country, and it’s OK if we die, because that’s the cost of freedom.”
Civilian casualties have already occurred in the American attack on Afghanistan, even while the United States has carefully considered their operative moves. But it’s written in history, civilian casualties have always been and will be a devastatingly crude result of any war.
“We must be conscious of civilian casualties and be openly apologetic,” Bishop Baker said.
President George H.W. Bush in 1991 made a list of principles based on the just war theory, which he used during the Gulf War. Among the principles was number seven: “Right spirit. War must be engaged only with an attitude of regret.”
Bishop Baker has drawn three conclusions for these thought-provoking times: “support continued and concerted efforts at the elimination of the word ‘war’ from the vocabulary of international relations; continued support for those who take a Christian pacifist position in their efforts for peace; and support a moral reaction to aggression by application of the just war theory, carefully considered and accurately applied.”
As Christians, as Catholics, we pray for understanding, for our enemies and for ourselves. As our Lord carries us through battle, he also carries our enemies in their own internal strife.
“Hear, O Israel! Today you are going into battle against your enemies. Be not weakhearted or afraid; be neither alarmed nor frightened by them. For it is the Lord, your God, who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies and give you victory” (Deuteronomy 20:3-4).