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Spotlight Report

Law leads US bishops' discussion on Iraq

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 11/13/2002


Cardinal Bernard F. Law waits to answer questions at a press conference at the fall meeting of the U.S. Conference Of Catholic Bishops (Globe Staff Photo / Jonathan Wiggs)
WASHINGTON - Cardinal Bernard F. Law yesterday took a dramatic step toward reclaiming his position as a public figure, leading US Catholic bishops in a spirited discussion of the pros and cons of invading Iraq.

Law, whose own moral stature has been seriously damaged this year by controversy over his handling of sexually abusive priests, eagerly embraced a last-minute request from the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to formulate a statement for the group on the most pressing moral issue of the day: whether a preemptive strike against Iraq is morally justifiable.

The cardinal offered few details on the likely content of the statement, though he said it will be generally ''in opposition to war in this situation.''

Law is a world traveler who was born in Mexico and has been deeply involved in foreign affairs, but he has shunned the limelight since the clergy sexual abuse crisis began in January.

The sight of him holding forth on the Iraqi situation, as well as on the kidnapping of a Colombian cardinal and on ministry to Hispanic Catholics, was another sign of the cardinal's increasing willingness to return to public life.

In the morning, Law huddled with other leaders of the conference, in view of the full assembly, to discuss the latest developments in Latin America and the Middle East. Then he stepped to the podium, calmly fielding questions from doves and hawks and everyone in between.

And then, perhaps most remarkably, he made a surprise appearance at a midday news conference at which questions were restricted to foreign policy, though reporters pursued him afterwards for comment on the abuse crisis and his role in it. He offered little on the abuse topic, other than to say he has been apologizing for his errors of judgment ''for 10 months'' and knows he must continue to do so.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the conference, said in an interview that he didn't hesitate to ask Law to lead the discussion on Iraq after a bishop from Texas suggested on Monday that it would be inappropriate for the bishops to gather without speaking out on the possibility of war. Gregory said he chose Law to lead the discussion because Law is chairman of the bishops' committee on international policy, a position he has held for three years and must give up this week.

''He has an outstanding record on being knowledgeable, being informed, and being committed,'' Gregory said.

Law's once-loud voice on foreign affairs and public policy more generally has been silent this year, as he dealt with the impact of the abuse scandal. Last year, the bishops' conference issued statements quoting Law on Africa, China, Ireland, the Middle East, and Pakistan, as well as on the issue of global poverty. This year, none of the bishops' statements on foreign policy have quoted Law.

In Boston, the cardinal has been reemerging over the last several weeks, actively pursuing a less confrontational relationship with priests, abuse victims, lay organizations, and the news media. This week, as the bishops hold their semiannual meeting, there are more signs of his increasing comfort in public. While during the spring meeting Law used back elevators to dodge reporters and said little in public, at this meeting he chats comfortably with reporters and works the room of bishops like the influential figure he once was.

''It's good to see that he can talk in another forum, other than the forum of sexual abuse,'' said Bishop Michael D. Pfeifer of San Angelo, Texas, who triggered the Iraq discussion Monday by declaring that he was astounded to see no mention of the possible war on the bishops' agenda.

Pfeifer said he was pleased that Law is drafting the proposed statement, saying: ''He has a lot of skills and expertise. He will do a good job.''

Law said he and his committee would draft a statement overnight and present it for discussion and approval today. But he said the statement would echo concerns raised by Gregory in a September letter to President Bush.

In that letter, Gregory urged Bush to ''step back from the brink of war'' and declared that ''we find it difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent clear and adequate evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks of September 11th or of an imminent attack of a grave nature.''

In speaking out on the war on Iraq, the bishops will be joining numerous Protestant leaders, most from mainline denominations, who have opposed a possible war. A handful of evangelical Protestants have voiced support for military intervention in Iraq.

The bishops' conference is not unanimous in its thinking about the war on Iraq. There is a strong peace movement in the Catholic laity, and there are a few bishops who still identify themselves as pacifists. But the vast majority of bishops endorse a Christian moral theory called ''just war,'' which holds that military action is justifiable under limited circumstances.

The pacifists urged Law to draft a statement clearly opposing war in Iraq.

''I would hope that all of us are against a war in Iraq,'' said Bishop Walter J. Sullivan of Richmond. And Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton of Detroit said, ''I would hope we would speak right out of the Gospel and just forget about `just war.'''

But Archbishop Philip M. Hannan, the retired archbishop of New Orleans, was more sympathetic to military action.

''I have seen the results of the atomic bomb, and I have seen two concentration camps near the end of World War II, and if we allow some despotic power to rule the earth or even a portion of it, we are in terrible shape, both for our religion and for the protection of all of our rights,'' Hannan said. ''We ought to be cautious about saying that we are entirely against war.''

But the most influential voices in the conference, while not pacifists, clearly do not believe that war is currently justified against Iraq.

''For a just war, you have to have X, Y, and Z, and at the present time, it does not seem to me that we have X, Y, and Z,'' said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, who also has been extremely active on foreign policy issues.

Law expressed some sympathy for pacifists, saying, ''There are those prophetic voices who, out of conscience, articulate, and powerfully so, an absolute pacifist position.'' However, he said, ''This statement will not do that.''

In the past, Law has supported military action by both President Bush and his father. In 1991, he went beyond the statements of other Catholic leaders in declaring the Gulf War ''justifiable,'' and last year he joined other bishops in offering limited support for the war on Afghanistan in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Yesterday, he declined to offer his personal opinion on war on Iraq, saying he would embrace the collective opinion of the conference.

White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said that President Bush welcomes the opinions of religious leaders but that ''he's going to continue to do his job and do it in a way that protects our homeland and ultimately wins a war on terror.''

Law also was charged by Gregory with drafting a statement for the bishops' conference on Monday's kidnapping of Bishop Jorge Enrique Jimenez of Zipaquira, Colombia, who is president of the Latin American bishops' conference. The Boston cardinal said Jimenez had been supportive during the church scandal. ''Over the past 10 months, I've been so touched by the many expressions of solidarity that I have received from him personally,'' Law said.

He was followed out of his news conference by a cluster of cameras unusual for a bishops' gathering, and he offered a reporter from KCBS-TV his first comments on this week's meeting, which is being dominated by debate over proposed revisions to the church's national child protection policy.

Asked about whether the meeting might lead to healing, Law said: ''I certainly hope it will. I think that my experience over the past 10 months is an extraordinary amount of steps have been taken toward healing, not only toward healing but toward a whole new approach.''

Striking the conciliatory tone he has adopted over the last few weeks, Law even had kind words to say about the protesters who are demonstrating outside the bishops' conference, some of them to demand his resignation.

''I love the protesters,'' he told a group of reporters gathered around him. ''Of course I do. That's what the Gospel says.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 11/13/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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