U.S. Catholic bishops have for the first time raised moral objections to the possible use of military force by the United States in the Persian Gulf.
Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony, acting as chairman of the bishops' international policy committee, warned Secretary of State James A. Baker III in a letter Wednesday that a war "would jeopardize many lives, raise serious moral questions and undermine the international solidarity against Iraq."
Archbishop Mahony "strongly" urged the Bush administration "to stay the course" with multinational economic sanctions against Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait.
The bishops, whose 54 million Catholics constitute the nation's largest religious body, have joined a growing number of mainline Christian leaders opposing armed hostilities to resolve the gulf crisis.
Jewish groups generally continue to support the administration's action in the gulf and to urge that Iraq be forced to retreat from Kuwait in order to neutralize the power of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the Middle East.
But leaders of such religious bodies as the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. are insisting on a diplomatic solution and questioning the moral basis for U.S. military action.
In a letter to President Bush last week, the Rev. Paul H. Sherry, president of the United Church of Christ, criticized the "steady drumbeat of war messages" from the White House. "Do not lead the U.S. into war with Iraq," Mr. Sherry wrote. "War is not the solution to Iraq's immoral invasion of Kuwait and will lead to severe suffering for untold numbers of people."
Up to now, the Catholic bishops had praised the U.S. decision to "oppose aggression" while urging that Iraqi civilians not be deprived of food and medicine, said Bob Bennemeyer, the Washington-based director of the bishops' Office for International Justice and Peace.
"But because of the [Bush administration's] heightened rhetoric lately about using the military option, the bishops feel it is premature to consider war without certain moral tests' being met," Mr. Bennemeyer said.
In mid-October, 26 Catholic bishops, acting on their own, signed a statement highly critical of the U.S. military buildup in Saudi Arabia, saying that the forces already constituted an "offensive threat" to Iraq.
They also advised Catholic personnel in the U.S. armed services against participating in any operation "deliberately aimed at non-combatants."