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Posted March 9, 2003

Catholics Debating: Back President or Pope on Iraq?

By Laurie Goodstein
In the New York Times

McLEAN, Va., March 5 — As Ash Wednesday dawned gray and misty over St. John's Parish, 12 Roman Catholics set off after the 6:30 a.m. Mass, as they do every weekday, for coffee, fellowship and argument at a nearby Starbucks.

No scones or pastries today, they told the servers at the counter. Pope John Paul II asked all Catholics to fast and pray on Ash Wednesday for peace, especially in Iraq. The ash still dark on their foreheads, the parishioners offered a prayer before downing their caffè lattes.

On the prospects of war with Iraq, almost all of them find themselves in a bind: as conservative Catholics, they follow the pope, but as conservative Americans, they support the president. They, like many other religious Americans, are more deeply indecisive and ambivalent than their religious leaders appear to be.

The pope has repeatedly appealed to world leaders to avoid a war, and today a papal envoy, Cardinal Pio Laghi, carried the message directly to President Bush. Last week, Catholic bishops in the United States issued their third antiwar declaration of the last four months.

"Read the pope's last statement," said Brian J. Doherty, 44, a union official and outspoken antiwar voice at the session. "Our Holy Father said we are on our way to giving in to the logic of war. He warned us about falling into this trap."

Charles R. McCarthy, a corporate lawyer who is 64, quipped, "We may go to war with the Vatican, who knows." He added somberly, "I am for this war, but I'll tell you, we are on shaky ground ecclesiastically."

Religious leaders of nearly every denomination and faith have condemned an American attack on Iraq. Only the Southern Baptist Convention and some evangelical and Pentecostal leaders have rallied behind the president. Jewish leaders are deeply split.

In religious journals, seminaries and informal discussions like this coffee after Mass, the prospect of a pre-emptive attack on Iraq has set off an intense debate among people of faith over whether such a war would qualify as a "just war" in Christian teaching.

"The rest of the world sees us as a big bully," said Lucas Gallegos, 80, a retired pastry chef who travels frequently to Europe to teach his craft. "But if we can come out of this and show the world that we didn't go in there to conquer and take the spoils, but to bring about peace, then we will show that it was a just war."

The regulars at the coffee circle here range in age from 32 to 84; most are men, and while many work as lobbyists or government staff members across the Potomac River in Washington, there are also two union officials, a retired dermatologist and his daughter, a teacher. They are members and daily communicants in a conservative parish in the conservative diocese of Arlington, one of only two Catholic dioceses in the United States that still bans altar girls.

Polls have shown that while many American Catholics revere the pope, they disregard church teaching on issues like birth control and the death penalty.

The principles of a "just war" were first developed by St. Augustine in the fifth century and expanded upon by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th. For a war to be considered just, it must meet the following criteria: have a just cause, meaning that it confronts a danger beyond question; be declared by a legitimate authority acting on behalf of the people; be driven by the right intention, not ulterior economic or other motives; be the last resort; be proportional, so that the harm inflicted does not outweigh the good achieved; and have a reasonable chance of success.

Today and Tuesday after dawn Mass, St. John's parishioners settled into velveteen club chairs at Starbucks and whittled down the just war principles until the point of contention was reduced to whether an attack on Iraq was a pre-emptive offense or defensive.

Several argued that in an age of biological warfare and nuclear weapons, the traditional understanding of just war theory had grown obsolete and was due for revision.

"You have already seen the damage that can be inflicted, and that was 9-11, so what more convincing do you need?" William C. Doherty Jr., Brian Doherty's father, who is 76 and retired from working in the labor movement said at the Tuesday session.

Mr. McCarthy, the lawyer, said, "Kind of Crusade-like, isn't it?"

On Tuesday morning, the group was joined by their pastor, the Rev. Edward C. Hathaway, who has been in the parish for three years. His father was a Navy pilot and his two older brothers went to the Air Force Academy, he said, "So maybe I'm more trusting" when the commander in chief says war is necessary.

He asked questions and floated the notion that war could be seen not as a pre-emptive strike, but a continuation of the Persian Gulf war, which was never completed because Saddam Hussein failed to disarm.

He told the group that the pope is not a pacifist, but said he was not surprised at the pontiff's interventions to prevent war.

"You're never going to hear the Holy Father say, go to war. You can wait forever to hear that," Father Hathaway said.

At that, Bill, 37, a government relations specialist who would not give his surname for fear of his employer's disapproval, said, "I expect the Holy Father to pray for peace, and the U.S. Marines to bring it about."

Last Sunday, the homily at St. John's was delivered by the Rev. Cosmas R. K'Otienoh, a Kenyan priest serving as a pastor in residence. He lost friends in the bombing of the United States embassy in Nairobi and moved to the Washington area only to experience the terror of Sept. 11 from a Metro train.

However, he gently suggested that although the American goal of ridding the world of a tyrant is noble, it may not justify the risk of harming Iraqi civilians, of whom "50 percent are 15 years and younger."

Afterward, Father K'Otienoh said, about half the parishioners who responded thanked him, but the other half said he was misguided.

He said in an interview that he understood the mixed reception.

"On the one hand they take the teachings of the Holy Father very seriously, and on the other hand, there is this actual threat, particularly after Sept. 11, that has put people on edge, and I can understand those fears," Father K'Otienoh said. "It's a tall order for many Catholics to say, let's listen to the Holy Father."