Victory Over Ourselves


In November 2001, the U.S. bishops gathered for a routine meeting where, among other things, they discussed a new Vatican document calling for a more literal translation of the Mass from the original Latin. “For example,” we reported, “it would likely have parishioners responding, ‘And with your spirit,’ when the priest says, ‘The Lord be with you.’”

There was another timely issue on their agenda: a pastoral message responding to the Sept. 11 attacks. America had just been terrorized.

The day after al-Qaida operatives killed thousands of people in their coordinated attacks on U.S. soil, Pope John Paul II condemned the attack, prayed for the victims, and asked the gathering at his weekly Wednesday audience to “beg the Lord that the spiral of hatred and violence will not prevail.” The papal prayer served a dual purpose: It was also a warning that underscored the moral challenge of prosecuting a “war on terror” always grounded in respect for the dignity of the human person and licit means for the prosecution of war and the punishment of evildoers.

Americans plunged into an unsettling new world of bitterness and foreboding. Support for the troops, nightly dispatches from Afghanistan and carefully measured words about Islam’s teachings on jihad are now part of the everyday fabric of American life. But it took years. U.S. religious leaders and civil liberties groups joined to protect the rights of Muslims and specific ethnic groups targeted by Americans deeply fearful of another terrorist attack. We now know where Osama bin Laden spent many of those years, locked away in a prison of his own making, watching his influence ebb and al-Qaida under unrelenting and lethal pressure from Western and Arab counter-terror efforts. He was still the world’s most dangerous man when he died, the incarnation and very face of an idea that still holds thrall over many hearts.

As he waited months and years for the inevitable commando raid, forgiveness came hard to some here in America, and never to others. So often it seemed as though revenge and xenophobia would lead individuals or institutions to move beyond the boundaries of a democratic debate regarding national security requirements.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten just how hard it was for us to get to this point of setting aside our initial emotions of shock and even revenge to embrace the Vatican’s official response to the killing of bin Laden: “A Christian never takes pleasure from the fact of a man’s death, but sees it as an opportunity to reflect on each person’s responsibility, before God and humanity, and to hope and commit oneself to seeing that no event become another occasion to disseminate hate but rather to foster peace.”

But that’s exactly the balanced and nuanced approach that the bishops, with Pope John Paul II, were already taking in November 2001. The Vatican’s statement gained broad approval this month, in part, due to the Church leaders’ legacy of engaging and shaping Catholic opinion. In the dark aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. bishops urged the faithful never “to use religion as a cover for political, economic or ideological causes. It compounds the wrong when extremists of any religious tradition radically distort their professed faith in order to justify violence and hatred. …

“Our nation, in collaboration with other nations and organizations, has a moral right and a grave obligation to defend the common good against mass terrorism. ... Therefore, we support efforts of our nation and the international community to seek out and hold accountable, in accord with national and international law, those individuals, groups and governments which are responsible.”

The bishops also invoked the just-war tradition to reiterate that “every military response must be in accord with sound moral principles.”

By that time, the Register had already published just-war reflections by Father Richard John Neuhaus (“There is a necessary connection between punishment and protection. We punish in order to do justice, and we punish in order to deter and prevent, and thereby protect.”) and Jesuit Father James V. Schall (“If those who planned this attack intend to carry out more destruction, as they sought to do on Sept. 11, is not their very existence a constant threat to innocent life?”).

We take no joy in the words “Geronimo-E KIA” that came crackling over the radio to the White House to signify bin Laden’s demise. More than a victory, it’s a sort of failure when the only remedy is death.

But somehow we have won a victory over ourselves, suppressing the vindictiveness that could have been our own self-made prison. Credit must be given where it is due: In good part, the sober, Christian response of so many hearts is due to the constant Gospel-inspired teaching of our pastors.