Morals take a back seat in churches

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Posted by andreas from ( on Friday, January 03, 2003 at 4:36AM :

The Scotsman
29th December

Morals take a back seat in churches as conflict wit Iraq nears

by Magnus Linklater

NOTHING fuels a good sermon better than the prospect of war. From pulpits up
and down the country this Christmas, the theme, repeated in different forms
and varying degrees of passionate intensity, has been that of war and peace.
Ministers, priests, bishops and archbishops have taken Iraq as their text
and delivered their moral verdict. By and large, the church has gone for
peace. With only a few exceptions the line taken has been that war against
Saddam Hussein would be unjustified, causing widespread suffering and

There is, however, a remarkable degree of confusion in the church's
position. The more we hear about its pronouncements on the morality of war,
the more it emerges that what it is really talking about is strategy and
politics. Most of its messages have been about the lack of strong evidence
to justify intervention, or the disastrous fall-out of a Middle East war.
They speak of the need to explore alternative options and to act through the
United Nations. All these, of course, are legitimate issues to debate. They
are not, however, the primary concern of the church. Its territory is the
morality and ethics of war. Yet here there is a marked reluctance to get to
the heart of the matter.

What is a "just war" - and would this be one? That, surely, is the key
question. Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, said that "on the evidence
available to us at the moment the traditional just war criteria are not
met". His views were echoed by Dr Finlay Macdonald, the Moderator, who said
that none of the criteria for a just war could be answered in the
affirmative. Dr Rowan Williams, the archbishop-elect, went further, by
claiming that the moves towards war were potentially destructive. "The
strategists who know the possible ramifications of politics miss the huge
and obvious things and wreak yet more havoc and suffering," he said.

Even those, like the Archbishop of York in England, and Scotland's Catholic
leader, Archbishop Mario Conti, who have given cautious voice to the
proposition that war against Saddam might be necessary, have preferred to do
so in terms of international diplomacy rather than Christian morality.

Yet any study of the "just war" concept suggests precisely the opposite of
what these clerics are saying. The moral case, far from being weak, is
remarkably strong. It was first codified by Thomas Aquinas, who set out what
he considered to be the principles that should govern, not just the onset of
war, but the way it was conducted. Those principles have been refined over
the years, and particularly in the last, war-torn century - but they have
remained surprisingly consistent. Aquinas considered that war should only
take place between enemies of similar size and strength, it should be
launched only when all other options had been explored, and it should meet
five conditions: having just cause, having the proper authority to declare
war, possessing the right intentions, having a reasonable chance of success,
and ensuring that the means used were proportional to the ends contemplated.

All of these, bar the very first, would seem to be met by the present
situation, always assuming that the United States is ready to use the
minimum force necessary to overthrow Saddam and put his weapons beyond use.
That, of course, is a very large assumption, but let us accept it for the
time being and consider whether a just war can ever take place between two
states who are not of similar size and strength. The resources of America
and its allies are vast compared to those of Iraq - there is no real
comparison. On this basis alone, it might be said, the just war argument
fails. Yet what the events of the 20th century demonstrated was that the
relative size of the combatants was less important than the enormity of the
threat they posed. Britain went to war not just because Germany was a
comparable enemy but because it threatened the very existence of other
nations. When Churchill spoke of the need for "Victory, victory, at all
costs victory," he added: "for without victory there is no survival." No
one, in retrospect, could argue that Britain's war against Germany was
anything other than just.

Both George Bush and Tony Blair would make similar claims for their action
against Saddam. They would say that Iraq poses huge, if unquantified threats
to the free world. Many later interpreters of Aquinas and his "just war"
offer support for that argument. The consensus has been that, while
initiating a war is almost always wrong, it can be legitimate if an enemy is
clearly contemplating acts of aggression, and the intentions of those
resisting it are honourable. Indeed, the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued
that "good intentions" would always justify a war if those intentions could
be clearly demonstrated. I have not, admittedly, heard President Bush
quoting Kant recently, but it could happen.

Provided that it can be clearly shown that Iraq does indeed have weapons of
mass destruction, and that America is attempting to stop them being used
against another nations, then most Christian philosophers, from Aquinas to
Kant, would say that war was not only morally justified, but morally
required. One might have imagined that religious leaders in Britain would
wish to address this point. So far, the only one doing so is Tony Blair.

-- andreas
-- signature .

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