From Under the Rubble…Catholics, War, and Unintended Consequences

The recent unpleasantness in eastern Ukraine recalls a nagging truth: Wars always bring unintended consequences, and Americans have seen plenty of them, firsthand.

In 1916, Woodrow Wilson won reelection on the slogan, “He Kept Us Out Of War!”

But Wilson wanted war, and, five months later, he got it.

In October 1940, late in the presidential campaign, Franklin Roosevelt promised “again and again and again” that “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

But Roosevelt wanted war, and fourteen months later, he got it.

The results were as grim as they were unintended. Over a hundred thousand Americans died in Wilson’s war, and another 600,000 died from the epidemic of influenza that the surviving troops brought back from Europe to every corner of America. World War II killed over 400,000 Americans (only the War Between the States had more).

Moreover, the onerous terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles opened the door to a Communist Russia and a National Socialist Germany. In like fashion, the deals reached by FDR and Truman during World War II at Yalta, Teheran, and Potsdam handed over 100 million Christians in Eastern Europe to Stalin for 45 years.

War’s Catholic Cheerleaders

Many Americans, even Catholics, are not aware that the Church played an important – even decisive – role in the run-up to both of these wars.

In 1916, Wilson pretended to oppose entering the European war because Americans oppose it – Catholics included. After all Irish-Americans loathed the notion of being dragged into England’s war, when England had persecuted their forbears for centuries (and still was). German-Americans weren’t excited about fighting against their extended families, either.

Hopeful of ending the “Great War” early, Pope Benedict XV asked James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, to keep the U.S. out of it.

Catholic opposition might indeed have turned the tide – but Gibbons was obsessed with the fear that Catholics would be called “unpatriotic” if they condemned Wilson’s war fever and refused to serve. After all, he knew all too well the depth of anti-Catholicism among America’s Protestant elites.

So Gibbons wholeheartedly supported Wilson’s bellicose designs. His biographer Allen Will recounts that, “Once Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, he [Gibbons] called on ‘every American citizen to do his duty to uphold the hands of the president and the legislative department in the solemn obligation that confronts us. The primary duty of a citizen is loyalty to his country.’”

“Under the leadership of Gibbons,” Will continues, “the Catholics of the United States were the first religious body to pledge their full and active support to the government.” And On July 23, 1917, Gibbon told recruits for the immense army that was then forming: “be Americans always. Remember that you owe all to America, and be prepared, if your country demands it, to give all in return.”

And Catholics did indeed serve. “Secretary [of War] Newton Baker later estimated the number of Catholics in the military and naval service at approximately 1/3 of the total, although Catholics formed about 1/6 of the population,” Will reports.

Fast forward 25 years. As World War II exploded on the continent, American Catholics, like the rest of their countrymen, opposed U.S. involvement – an attitude so strong that Roosevelt pretended publicly to share it.

Meanwhile, many among the Catholic hierarchy backed Roosevelt’s war fervor.

Bishop Joseph Hurley of Saint Augustine brazenly defended the powerful alliance of the Catholic bishops with the Democrats that Gibbons had forged. In July 1941, five months before Pearl Harbor, Hurley announced that the bishops would support U.S. entry into the war –in spite of widespread public opposition.

“As for the people,” Hurley said, “they have neither the experience nor access to the facts to decide whether we go to war.”

So much for “democracy.”

No More Imprimaturs

“Why Aren’t All Those Liberated Christians Grateful”?

George W. Bush (Undated, possibly apocryphal)

In recent years, the Catholic Church has been decidedly less sanguine about war.

On March 25th, 2003, on the eve of George Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, Archbishop (now Cardinal) Edwin O’Brien, Archbishop for the U.S. Military Services, wrote a public letter to Catholic chaplains addressing the participation of Catholics in the invasion:

Given the complexity of factors involved, many of which understandably remain confidential, it is altogether appropriate for members of our armed forces to presume the integrity of our leadership and its judgments and therefore to carry out their military duties in good conscience.

The archbishop continued, carefully:

Long after the hostilities cease the debate likely will continue as to the moral justification for the armed force recently initiated by the United States and its allies. It is to be hoped that all factors which have led to our intervention will eventually be made public….

Pope Saint John Paul II adamantly opposed the war, and sent Cardinal Pio Laghi, the former Papal Nuncio in the U.S., to meet with Bush personally. On March 6, 2003, Laghi told Bush that his proposed war in Iraq would be a “disaster.”

Bush rebuffed him.

“You might start, and you don’t know how to end it,” Cardinal Laghi told CNN after the meeting. “It will be a war that will destroy human life.”

Abp. O’Brien undoubtedly conferred with Laghi before he published his letter three weeks later – so he did not endorse the war. Rather, amidst “complexity” and “confidentiality,” he could only “presume” Bush’s integrity, “hoping” that he was telling the truth.

The caveat? He also hoped “that all factors which have led to our intervention will eventually be made public.”

Well, now they have. And as a result, domestically, Bush’s war destroyed the conservative movement and fractured the GOP. Abroad, it virtually annihilated Christianity in the Middle East. And yet, the former president has remained curiously silent in public about the plight of his fellow Christians.

This is all the more perplexing because Bush would never have been elected without massive support from Evangelical Christians. When war broke out, many hoped that it would bring on Armageddon and the Second Coming, allowing them joyously to reign with Christ for a thousand years.

The unintended consequence? Millions of Christians in the Middle East have been driven into exile, persecution, even death.

Two years ago, Archbishop Timothy Broglio, Archbishop O’Brien’s successor in the Military Ordinariate, daintily told C.A.N. News that “Yes, you can say in a certain sense that the invasion of Iraq did provoke this tremendous diminution of the Christian population in Iraq.”

Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, the Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, was less ambiguous. Last week he condemned the foul fruits of Western intervention in the Middle East:

Intervention by the West in the region did not solve the problems of those countries, but on the contrary, produced more chaos and conflict. Honestly, 1,400 years of Islam could not uproot us from our land and our churches, while the policies of the West have scattered us and distributed us all around the world.

Cardinal Gibbons’ “presumed” the integrity of Woodrow Wilson. Bishop Hurley presumed the integrity of Franklin Roosevelt. And Archbishop O’Brien presumed the integrity of George W. Bush.

Yes, with more diligence, these leaders might have foreseen the unintended consequences – the rise of Nazism and Communism, the loss of Eastern Europe, and the eradication of Christianity in the Middle East.

But we must question their judgment, not their intentions. After all, what sane person of integrity could have possibly desired such disasters?

As the world waits to see what the United States will do regarding the recent unpleasantness in the Ukraine, we should keep in mind the iron Law of Unintended Consequences.

“History will vindicate us,” trumpeted a confident Tony Blair, standing at Bush’s side in 2003.

Well, “history” didn’t.

And in that light, those who support U.S. intervention in Ukraine today might want to reconsider.

After all, history might not vindicate them, either.


This article, From Under the Rubble…Catholics, War, and Unintended Consequences is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

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Christopher Manion

  • “There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that, given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a ‘just war’.”
    ~Cardinal Ratzinger

  • Janet Baker says:

    Such an interesting post–there are many points to consider and discuss, but before the day gets away from me I want to focus on just one, raised throughout this essay, the idea that Catholics have a point of view in civic matters that is independent of their national point of view. This idea was of course rejected by the campaign of John F. Kennedy, who famously said, I’ll summarize, ‘No Way does my religious belief influence my American identity.’ Hilaire Belloc, on the other side, said that if England had not gotten itself into a fever of royalty-worship, the Catholic-English block would have charted a wiser course in national affairs subsequent to the protestant rebellion, would have made different national alliances had they been in power, in the wild days that followed that catastrophic event. But Catholics were unable to resist the patriotic sentiment, which Belloc means to say, we can only conclude, is our only consistent and smart course of action, once our religious interests are at odds with our patriotic interests.

    For all our unwise participation in the series of wars mentioned here, it is not discussed that they were wise for someone. US participation in all the wars discussed here benefitted someone, some group, who is not us. Well, if the parameters were extended back from the twentieth century, we would see the same thing in every war since the so-called reformation–the dominant forces in every nation have something in common: they are the rich and their organizing principle is the defense of their economic system, the one which first arose from the Church’s seized wealth in the sixteenth century. They are the forces unleashed in England, unwittingly, by Henry VIII’s sinful lust and unfortunate stupidity. They were the ones benefitted by WWI and WWII and Korea and Vietnam and now in the Middle East. They were the forces pushing for war in those times when we were wooed to cooperate, to lend our young men’s lives to that cause.

    What were the rationales? That we were fighting fascism, communism, terrorism. Our Catholic teeth broke on those rocks. We were weak, we did not know an alternative, and our bishops were silent. They capitulated on these very issues long before the twentieth century, as soon as they made peace with the forces of capitalism and protestantism and its most evil child, secularism. As soon as they ceased to struggle with the energy of martyrs for the Restoration, for the Catholic state, for the Catholic economy (which is not based on profits alone and has a huge core of cooperatism assisting very broad, small ownership). This capitulation was elevated to policy at Vatican II and brought us to this crisis in which our interests are completely submerged in those of the system and the rich. We will follow the plan, of which Ukraine is its own little piece, to the dominance of our rich over the world. That is the plan, the motivating factor. Homosexual marriage is another little piece, Syria, Egypt, abortion, and the scraps of elevations in the minimum wage, abortion, the legalization of pot, all little pieces of the greater plan, the dominance of wealth and our wealthy over the world.

    Regarding Ukraine, it seems to me that our only self-protective position could be that the original president, who was elected in conditions not at all worse than elections around the world, including our own where money buys power, be re-instated and the people allowed to prepare for a new vote. There are numerous encyclicals one could quote in defense of simple democracy when all else fails and the way ahead is dark. Anything but the war the US is apparently agitating for.

    But our independent position should not stop there! We must aim for the restoration of a Catholic state, Catholic morals, and Catholic economy. We must do something similar, but even better, to the building of FIDESZ in Hungary, a party whose platform favors Catholic interests. Interim to the restoration of a full Catholic state, there are intermediate positions. In the economy, we would favor those which aimed at the break up of the too-big-to-fails, tax initiatives that break them up slowly by making concentration of power less profitable, and the re-distribution of ownership, not of income. There are very many initiatives that would favor family-formation–access to housing large enough for families, some new work rules that would make it easier for women to work from home, tax benefits to the married and reproductive. The little book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting has a slew of great ideas that the American public would immediately recognize as helpful, and moral. Ending the pressure to abort and homosexual ‘marriage’ are among those.

    These would not ALL be immediately popular positions, because our people have been ruined for ownership ad morality both. Nor does the Church appear to wish to take responsibility for the world again–that’s the flip side of the who-am-I-to-judge liberality The past five hundred years of reducing us to powerless employees of the capitalist state has not been without unhealthy psychological changes. The restoration of economic responsibility in the form of ownership goes with a restoration of personal responsibility–you have to own up to your own sins as well as your contracts. Presently we have been reduced to children in all areas, and since it has allowed us almost unlimited immorality in those areas which do not impact wealth or in which there is even a profit, there is much to like in our awful poverty. We think we are exchanging eight hours a day of labor, where our game is to work as little as possible and their game is to extract as much work as possible, for everything we need–housing, food, and internet access, so we can watch our beloved porn. Hey, it’s a life!

    Nevertheless, real freedom is also seductive, and there is no way to calculate the energy of an ignited Mystical Body of Christ, an army of men and women in the state of grace. I am borrowing that phrase, I forget from whom. Hungary has made a start, it is infuriating Europe.

    I am grateful that this post reminds us that Catholic interests are not submerged in US interests, which in the end are about extending the American way of life to the whole world, under the domination of our rich. In point of fact, the American way of life is all about the domination of the world-wide rich, and both parties serve it.

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