When a Roman Catholic bishop preached in Towson last month that the U.S. government's decision to go to war in the Persian Gulf was immoral, he was interpreting a 1,500-year-old Christian teaching known as the just-war theory.
When a United Methodist minister in Cumberland questioned whether the allied coalition's true motive was stopping Iraqi aggression or controlling the flow of oil, he, too, invoked the doctrine of the just war.
And when a Catholic cardinal endorsed the military action, his was still another interpretation of the just-war tradition.
Amid criticism that religious leaders are not doing enough to frame the moral and ethical debate about the war, all three clerics were attempting to do just that.
All three were grappling with a theory that originated with St. Augustine in the fourth century and was refined in the 13th century by St. Thomas Aquinas -- the theory that war must be severely limited as to the authority declaring it, its purpose and its conduct.
In Augustine's view, a Christian should not kill merely to save his own life. The only legitimate reason for making war, he said, was defending the peace of the community against serious injury.
A letter to President Bush from Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk on behalf of the country's Catholic hierarchy summarized the just-war theory as it has evolved through the ages. It said:
"Clear moral criteria must be met to justify the use of military force. These include questions of a clear and just cause for war, proper authority and sufficient probability of success to justify the human and other costs of military action.
"The criteria also ask whether war is genuinely a last resort; all BTC reasonable peaceful alternatives must be fully pursued.
"Another criterion is proportionality: The human, economic and other costs of war must be proportionate to the objective to be achieved by the use of weapons of war. In this case, will war with Iraq leave the people of Kuwait, the Middle East and the world better or worse off?
"Our tradition also requires that the means and weapons used to pursue war must be proportionate as well and must discriminate between combatants and ordinary civilians."
Archbishop Pilarczyk told the president that moving from defensive, deterrent positions to offensive military action could be viewed as violating at least two of the just-war principles: proportionality and last resort.
The latter was what Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy emphasized in his Jan. 15 address to an interfaith audience in Towson. "Military force is clearly for me not a last resort to bring justice," he said.
At least one prominent Catholic prelate disagrees. Supporting President Bush's decision is Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston, who said a just peace could not be won by "granting tyrants and aggressors an open field to achieve unjust ends."
But when a Presbyterian minister discussed the morality of warfare in a sermon to Army personnel and their families Jan. 20, he cited widespread agreement among Protestant denominational leaders and Catholic bishops that the gulf hostilities violated the just-war requirements.
The Rev. Donald G. Huston, minister of Grove Presbyterian Church in Aberdeen, outlined the just-war arguments and their history and said he believed the war did not meet the criteria.
Among the members of his church near Aberdeen Proving Ground are a brigadier general, a captain and a master sergeant, all now serving in the gulf area.
Mr. Huston included in his remarks a letter from the general, Robert McFarlin, who is an ordained elder. General McFarlin asked for prayers not only for the Americans and their allies but also for the Iraqis, noting that they also were "children of God."
The Rev. Thomas P. Roberts, in a statement to his congregation at Grace United Methodist Church in Cumberland, focused on another of the just-war principles -- "right intention" -- in questioning the decision to attack Iraq.
"The 'official' reason or intent which is given by our president and the State Department is that we intend to restore the legitimate government of Kuwait and to stop further aggression by Iraq," Mr. Roberts said.
"If this were true, then our 'intent' would certainly be valid according to the just-war tradition. But there is much evidence pointing to a far different motive on our part, which is to maintain the flow of oil and preserve our economic interests."
The religious leaders opposing the war include Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning of President Bush's own denomination -- the Episcopal Church -- who said:
"The more I see about war and how war is conducted, the less I believe it is possible for there to be a just war."