To the Catholic Bishops of the United States:

We write to you, the pastors, teachers, and moral leaders of the church in the United States, as the National Board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  We applaud your efforts to reflect on the church’s teachings concerning the defense of human dignity and the conditions for the pursuit of a just war.  In the evolving conditions of the present response to terrorism, however, we perceive a need for further guidance and clarification on matters of defense and the call to peacemaking.

We speak as religious and as people of faith committed to the teachings of Pope John Paul II which has condemned the deliberate killing of innocents as a grave moral evil (The Gospel of Life, #57).  We believe that this applies to all people everywhere, whether on American soil or in other nations.  Thus, we share your alarm when we detect notes of vengefulness and contempt in public American discourse.

With the social teaching of our church in mind, we request the members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to reconsider whether, in our present situation, the criteria for a just war and the demands of the gospel are truly being met.  We appeal to you, our bishops, to urge our nation’s leaders to halt further escalation of military action and to seek non-violent means to address continued terrorist threats around the world.  As global tensions mount, we hope that you will offer us timely moral and spiritual counsel.  We also ask you to consider adding to the agenda of your meetings in June a more systematic reflection on these matters.

To this letter, we append questions and concerns raised among ourselves as a national board.  Having said this, we note that among our own sisters we find a diversity of opinions regarding the present conflict, ranging from those who support military action as warranted and necessary and those who are committed to the position of Christian pacifism.  We join you in prayer for wisdom in your deliberations.  May we together see how we might best follow God’s imperative that we “choose life that [we and our] descendants may live” (Dt. 30:19).

Yours in Christ, 
Members of the National Board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious 

The concerns of the National Board of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious arise from several points of reflection on our tradition:

  1. We realize that the conditions justifying the pursuit of the perpetrators of the terrorist events of September may well meet the classic criteria for jus ad bellum – for armed response.  But we are concerned that the demands of jus in bello may have been or may be exceeded as armed attacks proceed.  Many have already lost their lives, many have been interred in detention camps, and there is much talk of pursuit of those associated with an undefined “axis of evil,” with or without the support of the leaders and peoples of other nations.
  2. We understand “right intention” as resolution to restore peace as quickly as possible.  Yet threats of escalation into other Mideastern regions appear and reappear without clear warrant.  These create, for people of that region, an atmosphere of instability and fear, which would seem a violation of their need for some level of peace and security.
  3. We believe that there are mounting questions of proportionality of the U.S. response.  Those responsible for the attacks of September 11 ought to be brought to justice, but we are concerned about the effects of five months of bombardment on the peoples of Afghanistan.
  4. We perceive that there is considerable moral confusion over the question of whether or not we are engaged in a declared war.  Our nation’s leaders and the media speak of a “war on terrorism,” yet we cannot speak of captives as prisoners of war.
  5. Questions of probability of success remain.  We are reminded that the network of terrorists is international in scope.  Disabling terrorist activity in one area gives no assurance that others will not erupt.  As we experienced in the unfortunate conflict in Vietnam, it is difficult to define and contain an “enemy.”
  6. We wonder, as we may in any violent conflict, whether we have so exhausted the means to resolution of conflict that a military response is our only resort.

Aside from these matters, which spring from our church’s just war teaching, we also believe that we are morally impelled to concern ourselves with the social, economic, political and inter-religious conditions which may underlie the animosity of our way of life.  We are reminded that the fathers of Vatican II declared thus: “If peace is to be established, the primary requisite is to eradicate the causes of dissension between humans…Many of these causes stem from excessive economic inequalities and from excessive slowness in applying remedies.  Other causes spring from a quest for power and from contempt for personal rights” (Gaudium et Spes, #83).  We wonder whether the pursuit of further military action may indeed prevent us from a more serious examination of the human conditions which prompted the attacks on New York and Washington.

We are also concerned that the needs of the poor may be co-opted by the proposed national budget, which vastly increases military spending and promotes the creation of new weapons of war.  Again, we are reminded that the Council called the arms race of the cold war era “an utterly treacherous trap for humanity, and one which injures the poor to an intolerable degree” (Gaudium et Spes, #81).  We know that budgets for the well-being of the poor – both women and men, children, the destitute elderly, members of minority groups, persons with disabilities – may all be sacrificed with escalation of military budgets.

We recall, too, the many discussions which took place after the issuance of The Challenge of Peace in 1983.  A question repeatedly voiced, even by some bishops, was whether our current situation might indeed call us to rule out war as a valid option.  The threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction, indiscriminately directed against non-combatants, seemed then, as it seems now, to call into question the possibility of sustaining a just war, even if initial conditions seem just.

We know that the moral leadership of the bishops can be used very effectively – and with clear political leverage – to urge our nation’s leaders to seek non-violent means to resolve conflicts and more peaceful means to prevent conflicts and more peaceful means to prevent future acts of terrorism.  The church may well be called, at this moment in history, to move people of faith on the question of warfare as they were moved, in the last century, to a condemnation of capital punishment.  While our Catholic tradition has in the past allowed for defensive war, just as it has allowed for the use of capital punishment, it may be the time for humanity to eschew such choices.  If we are called to build a “culture of life,” we know that we must protect human life and dignity, even in danger and adversity.  War of any kind, aggressive or defensive, threatens to escalate rapidly.  No matter how refined the technology of warfare may become, every military action entails serious threat to global security.

We thank you for your attention to these questions of conscience.

LCWR National Board 
February, 2002