Social Action:
Lenten Reflections
Guest editorial by Gerald Mercer.


This editorial was printed in the March 2003 edition of Social Action.
Reproduced by permission.

Prayer and fasting Ash Wednesday marks the commencement of the Christian season of Lent, a period of penitence. Ash Wednesday is a day of fast. On that morning, your correspondent was agreeably surprised to learn that the Pope had called for special prayers for peace in the Middle East on that day. Representatives of Muslim communities in Australia had publicly joined in, so that both faith communities were united in prayer, and in fasting. Perhaps there will be a similar Catholic response during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Apart from their intrinsic religious merit, simple gestures like these are important. Ordinary people understand them, and can grasp the symbolism of two of the world's great religions demonstrating practices they share in common, at a time when there is some emphasis on their differences.
Trinity of evil Agreeable news was welcome, because on Shrove Tuesday the news was particularly disagreeable. On that day I had read a number of comments by Islamic extremists about the Columbia space shuttle disaster.
Here is a comment by Abu Hamza Al-Masri, an Islamic extremist living in London, given to the London Arabic-language daily Al Sharq Al-Awsat.
"It is a punishment from Allah - this is how Muslims see the incident. The target of this event was the trinity of evil, as the shuttle carried Americans, an Israeli, and a Hindu, the trinity of evil against Islam. This is a message to the American people that Bush's term is nothing but a string of curses cast upon them, and that it will lead to the exhaustion of their resources and the elimination of the false American dream…"
On an Islamic extremist website, Sheikh Dr Ali Al-Tamimi wrote:
"Undoubtedly, the heart of every believer leaped with joy at the disaster of his greatest enemy - the name of the shuttle, Columbia, is from Columbus, who discovered the American continent in 1492 following the fall of Granada, the last of the strongholds of Islam in Andalusia. It is known that with the discovery of the two American continents, the Byzantines, that is, the Christians of Europe, exploited the resources of both these continents in order to take over the Islamic world. With the fall of the Columbia, a thought arose in my heart that this was a powerful sign that the supremacy of the West, and particularly that of the US, which began 500 years ago, is about to fall precipitously - Allah willing, as happened to the shuttle."
Note the importance that Al-Tamimi places on long-ago events, such as the war between Christians and Muslims in Spain. Both writers weave a web of religious imagery and historical allusion around the space shuttle tragedy. Both reveal a striking depth of hatred. There are other examples of this kind, but two is enough.
It should be emphasised that these are the views of extremists. As far as I am aware, both official comment and mainstream opinion in Muslim countries on Columbia was the normal human reaction: shock at the event, and sympathy for the victims.
Holy Oil Let's take another example. After the terrorist attack on a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, Osama bin Laden, head of al-Queda, issued a communiqué describing the vessel as a Christian oil tanker. That caused a moment of bafflement. What exactly is a Christian oil tanker? Is it, for instance, Catholic or Protestant? Have the Jesuits quietly gone into the oil business?
Then the penny dropped. France is Christian, part of the Christian West. So a harmless, secular entity like an oil tanker owned by French interests is given religious significance. This is done for political reasons, in the same way as bin Laden describes American forces as crusader forces. His purpose is to attract Muslim recruits, to radicalise them, to instill in them his totalitarian ideology, and to involve them in his campaign against the West.
God Bless America Now let's turn to Britain and America. Britain is a rather secularised country, and its current Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is unusual in the sense that he is a man of deeply religious convictions who can argue his case on moral grounds.
George W Bush is also a man of genuine religious belief. And while America displays many unattractive qualities, paradoxically it is quite a religious place, more so than Britain. President Bush sometimes uses religious phrases in his appeals to the electorate.
In neither case is there the slightest sense that their actions against terrorist networks, or their military action in Iraq, are to be seen as some kind of Christian/Muslim conflict. Both have gone out of their way to make their appeals as broad as possible, and to reassure Muslim citizens in their respective countries, and in Iraq.
Of course these quite admirable attitudes on the part of both leaders are capable of being misrepresented by extremists. Consider the following. The American President commits his troops to battle. He openly displays his Christian faith. He calls on God to bless America. His troops are accompanied by chaplains carrying Bibles.
Extremists aside, given the sometimes fraught history of Christian/Muslim relations, when the world situation is tense, there is also the potential for simple misunderstanding.
Vociferous Vatican The above examples illustrate merely some of the many difficult problems faced by the Pope at present, and may go some way towards an understanding of the vociferous opposition by the Vatican to the military action in Iraq.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Pope dealt directly with the problem of messianic terrorism in his World Day of Peace message in January 2002.
"Terrorism doesn't just exploit people, it exploits God; it ends by making him an idol to be used for one's own purpose."
"Terrorism is often the outcome of fanatic fundamentalism that comes from the conviction that one's own vision of the truth must be forced on everyone else."
The Pope went on to call for respect for the individual conscience, and to say that the truth can only be proposed to others and not imposed by violent means. He has reiterated this message on subsequent occasions.
In his role as the leader of the world's largest religion, the Pope is attempting to improve, or at least not to worsen, relations between the Catholic Church and Islam. In this he faces two practical difficulties. He can't pick up the hot line to his opposite number. There is no single leader of Islam, which is not a hierarchical religion. Councils of religious teachers in each country represent the highest level available. So the Pope must appeal to many. The second difficulty, arising from the first, is the enormous variety of opinion in Islam, ranging from the modern to the mediæval.
To keep up dialogue, to emphasise the elements the two religions have in common, is a worthwhile project. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to expect too much. The problems of Islam are for Islam to solve. All that the Pope can do is to help to create time and space for that to occur. Hopefully moderate elements, who are well advanced in countries like Indonesia, will come to the fore, and Islam will draw on its great tradition of tolerance and peacefulness, isolating the extremists and messianic terrorists.
Presumably, the Vatican is also concerned about the rights of Christians in some Muslim countries where grave injustices persist. Perhaps we need to hear more on that subject.
The Pope is clearly convinced that military action in Iraq is wrong. While that opinion has to be taken seriously, we will explore its relevance more fully in a moment.
In addition, as leader of a world religion, he would be aware that any action by the Vatican that endorsed, or appeared to endorse, military action in Iraq would not assist relations with Islam, and could be detrimental, in the religious sense, and perhaps in the political sense.
When is war justifiable? The Christian religion has come to recognise that while we should aspire to peacefulness, we live in the reality of a fallen world, where violence and the use of force sometimes erupt. While we recognise that war is an evil, there is also a presumption for justice, and when all other means have been exhausted, there are times when force must be met with force, with strict conditions.
The traditional just war thinking arises from the work of St Augustine in the 4th Century, and St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th. The principles are summarised in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, in article 2309, which states:

"The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition."
  • While the application of these principles could be said to be finely balanced in the current Iraq conflict, there was less room for debate in 1991, after Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and was later expelled by force. The Pope was also opposed to the 1991 conflict.
    Render unto Caesar... While everybody is entitled to express an opinion, the crux of the matter is that roles are quite distinct. While theologians argue principles, they do not have the final responsibility for the common good. That responsibility belongs to political leaders. Applying the principles to the situation they face, it is they who must make prudential judgements, based on all the information available to them, and the best advice at their disposal. After considering all that, it is for them to decide whether the use of armed force is justifiable.
    Article 2309 concludes: "The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good."
    That ought to be clear enough. But since there is a lot of confusion about at the moment within the Catholic Church in Australia, a statement by Cardinal Ratzinger earlier this year might help. It was entitled Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life. He says, "The Church's magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions."
    That is not a new thought, but it is good to have it restated at the present time.
    Here is a classic case where there should be a clear distinction between the things that are Caesar's, and the things that are God's. It is not the civil authorities who need reminding.

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    Copyright ©2003 Gerald Mercer, Social Action