Churches Oppose War from Rome to Dubuque

By Bill Cullen

Dubuque, Iowa

Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II, demonstrating the resolve he showed over 20 years ago in his support of the fledgling Solidarity labor movement, continues to lead staunch religious opposition to the military solution in Iraq.

The pope, who in the 1980s faced down the USSR in support of workers' rights to unionize in communist Poland, had been a most visible player in support of the United Nations efforts to resolve this world crisis diplomatically and peacefully.

For months prior to George W. Bush's ultimatum and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, the pope had exercised the Vatican's considerable diplomatic expertise in favor of continuing the work of UN inspections teams, urging Iraq to disarm and Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to stay their military forces.

John Paul on March 18 bitterly assessed news of the pending invasion, "Whoever decides that all the peaceful means made available under international law are exhausted assumes a grave responsibility before God, his conscience, and history." On March 16, he said that this war would have "tremendous consequences" for Iraqi civilians, for the entire Middle East, and could foment new forms of extremism.

On March 26, religious leaders and nobel laureates protested the deepening war, and were among 65 who were arrested in Washington, D.C. Nobel prize winners Mairead Corrigan and Jody Williams and Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit and Bishop Joseph Sprague of the United Methodist Church in Chicago were arrested, along with Daniel Ellsberg, who had released the Pentagon Papers in June 1971 and who stated, "There are people who can prove the falsity of this war."

You wouldn't know about the united religious opposition to the war from the mainstream news media. Rev. Robert Beck of Loras College in Dubuque, in a homily March 30, remarked, "The reason the media in this country isn't seeking out religious leaders for comments on this war is because virtually all are opposed to it."

An Ohio Bishop of the Eastern-rite Romanian Diocese in Canton, Ohio, John Botean, in a March 7 Lenten message cited "the person and way" of the Christian Messiah and the Catholic "Just War Theory" developed by St. Augustine in the fifth century, as he informed believers that "any direct participation and support of this war against the people of Iraq is objectively grave evil, a matter of mortal sin." Botean considers the killing associated with it "unjustified and unequivocal murder."

Botean's three-page letter (available at was countered by Catholic Archbishop Edwin O'Brien of the US Archdiocese for Military Services. He mentions briefly "sharing in the sufferings of Christ" but not Just War Theory in his March 25 statement. O'Brien declared that soldiers should serve this war in good conscience, "presuming the integrity of our leadership and its judgments."

Speaking at Loras College in Dubuque on March 13, Sister Elizabeth Linehan, RSM, assistant professor of philosophy at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, addressed the Just War Theory, saying it would be immoral for the United States to bomb Iraq as a pre-emptive strike. "I do not think it is a just cause, I do not think it is a last resort, I do not think that the proportionate good outweighs the damage to be done, all provisions of the Just War Theory," she said.

Dubuque, a blue-collar union town, pop. 60,000, has transitioned recently to a medical, technical, educational and recreational center of its region on the Upper Mississippi River. It is home to three small private colleges and one major seminary. Churches abound in the city; most are Roman Catholic, others include Lutheran and Presbyterian churches along with other Christian denominations.

Dubuque also is home to numerous convents. There are five motherhouses of Catholic sisters, which are becoming more integral in promoting local justice and peace efforts. In the past two months, their efforts have included buying air time on area radio stations for messages calling for alternatives to war and efforts toward peace. More pointedly after the war started they have purchased a quarter-page ad in the local newspaper and seven diocesan newspapers, which states in part, "We are deeply saddened that our country has made a pre-emptive strike against Iraq" and "lament that our country has ignored the pleas of our world neighbors 1) to let UN inspections work, 2) to find a diplomatic solution to this conflict, 3) to exercise the restraint appropriate to a great nation." Further, the sisters state, "We believe that this act of aggression violates our national soul and betrays our cherished foundational values. We beg our leaders to pursue a coordinated, nonviolent international response to the crisis at hand."

Sr. Joellen McCarthy, BVM, one of the signers, remarked that their national assembly, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had acted on "the need to be involved in peacemaking and to use our faith as a resource to imagine a different world. We sisters in this area know we are part of a larger movement of women religious that spans the country."

For the past 18 months Dubuque has also been home to a concerted effort of a group of Christians, Catholic and Protestant, who see no value in military retaliation for the attack of 9/11 or in the invasion of Iraq by Coalition armies. Instead, this group has gathered as a peace vigil on a weekly basis on Monday afternoons in downtown's Washington Park, across from the Federal Building (email

One of the products of this gathering was the placement of three large advertisements in the local newspaper over three weekends featuring "The Faces of Iraq," two large pictures of Iraqi schoolchildren. The largest ad was full-page and was signed by over 260 individuals, along with the five convents and seven churches and organizations. Jeannne Harrington, who coordinated the project, said, "We're trying to get across to people it's civilians, no matter what the government says, that will be killed."

In the past six months, as war rhetoric heated up, the number of those who gather for the peace vigil had ranged from 30-60 peaceful demonstrators on a given Monday. On March 17 the group decided to meet each weekday afternoon for 90 minutes and on weekends at noon.

While the turnout is still heaviest on Mondays &emdash; 70 gathered recently to demonstrate for peace &emdash; turnouts on other days is appreciable, generally 20-40.

Most observers or drivers passing by honk their horns or wave in support while many show no response. Those who oppose the vigil have gotten more numerous, angrier and more vocal since the invasion started, but they're thought to be less hostile than in the past. Ralph Scharnau, local college professor, observed, "Reactions vary by the day. The difference with this war is the hostility isn't as transparent as in previous wars."

Sr. Janet May, OSF, who often makes the time to join the vigil, speaks for many, if not all, who still seek a cessation of this discretionary war: "This war is devastating a nation. Innocents are dying. We are destroying this country, to take out one man."

Bill Cullen lives in Dubuque and is a member of Teamsters Local 421.

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