Church leaders mobilize for peace

Opposition to invasion of Iraq often not shared by parish members

March 02, 2003|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Facing the downtown entrance to the Jones Falls Expressway, a huge banner on the whitewashed wall of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church confronts thousands of commuters with its urgent message: "War is not the answer."

At the other end of the JFX, cloistered nuns in a Lutherville monastery sit Tuesday nights in silence, praying for peace. A Lutheran church in Pimlico charters buses to anti-war marches. A peace candle burns night and day in an Episcopal church in Bolton Hill.

Through social and spiritual action, in sermons and statements, leaders of many mainline denominations are mobilizing a vocal religious movement against a possible war in Iraq. They're intensifying their efforts as a conflict grows more likely and as Christians begin their holy season of Lent.

Unlike earlier movements, this one is rooted in the religious establishment. In many cases, it has triggered concern and anger among congregants who support military action.

The president of the U.S. Catholic bishops' conference, echoing Pope John Paul II, is urging the faithful to fast and pray for peace this week on Ash Wednesday. "As we approach the Lenten season, let us pray and fast that our nation and world will find effective ways short of war to secure justice, increase security and promote genuine peace for all of God's people," Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, wrote in a statement last week.

Observers are surprised at the unanimity of the Catholic Church leadership, from the pope to senior Vatican officials to U.S. bishops. "I've been covering Vatican news for a decade and I have never before seen this sort of full-court press on one issue," said Philip F. Lawler, editor of the Internet-based Catholic World News.

In addition to the Catholic Church, the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches oppose an Iraq war. The leaders of individual denominations including Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians have spoken out, along with many African-American churches.

The Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said he is amazed at how quickly and unanimously his group's 36 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican denominations voiced opposition to war. "It took organized religion more than 10 years to grow in opposition and the understanding that the Vietnam War was wrong," he said. "These are not pacifist churches you expect to be in opposition to war. These are churches who live under the rule of law, that if you go to war it has to be justified. The justification for this war has not been made."

Not everyone in the pews agrees. Evangelical Christians generally support President Bush's policies, although few are making public statements.

Even Catholic and mainline Protestant church leaders are being challenged by rank-and file members who support President Bush in his desire to oust Saddam Hussein.

Yet Bush, a United Methodist, faces anti-war lobbying by bishops in his own church. Recently, the president of the Methodist Council of Bishops wrote to Bush as "one of your pastors," urging him to "listen to the voice of hundreds of thousands of Americans and citizens of other countries who demonstrate for peace and ask your utmost restraint."

Many Catholics also support military action. A December poll found that two-thirds of American Catholics believe war with Iraq is justified, and some are voicing that sentiment.

"The bishops harangue us about how evil our country is in wanting to rid ourselves of an intolerable threat to our country," a Frederick parishioner wrote to the Catholic Review, a Baltimore weekly. "Just what are we supposed to do when diplomacy fails?"

The anti-war banner at St. Vincent de Paul rankled some parishioners, although the idea came from the parish council and was approved by their pastor, the Rev. Richard Lawrence.

"There was some considerable consternation in the parish as to whether everyone should have been consulted," Lawrence said. "This [past] Sunday there was considerable discussion about it, a flurry of e-mails."

Lawrence and other Christian ministers evaluate the morality of military action using the 1,500-year-old "just war" doctrine. To be justified, a war must meet specific conditions. For example, it must be used to combat a grave evil; it must be a last resort; it must be waged by a proper authority; it must have a reasonable chance of success; and the means used must be proportional to the ends.

Given differences of opinion over those issues, Lawrence said, he isn't troubled by dissent about the banner or his sermons opposing the military buildup.

"You first of all have to realize this is not infallible teaching. So people have the absolute right to dissent," he said. "On the other hand, people doing the teaching come out of a tradition and do have experience and knowledge. ... "

`At last resort'

In applying the "just war" criteria, there is no agreement on the morality of a preemptive attack on Iraq.

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