Pope Francis is taking the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church to task for supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Francis told Patriarch Kirill not to be “Putin’s altar boy.”
If only that same message had been received and understood by Catholic priests here in the United States when it was the Pentagon and the CIA that were the invaders of Afghanistan and Iraq. During those two invasions, there were priests who were exhorting their congregations to “support the troops.”
At Sunday Mass in my own church during those invasions and subsequent occupations, we were asked to pray for the troops, “especially those in harm’s way.” Periodically I would send an email to my priest asking why we were never asked to pray for the victims of the troops — that is, the people in Afghanistan and Iraq who were being killed or injured or having their homes, businesses, or countries being destroyed by the U.S. invasions and occupations.
I never received a response to my emails, but I have no doubts that my priest was totally befuddled over why I would be sending him such emails. After all, I’m an American, just as he is. Isn’t it our moral duty as Americans to support the troops when they head off into war?
I recall reading an article regarding a Catholic priest in the mainstream press in the days preceding the invasion of Iraq. It involved a Catholic soldier who was having a deep crisis of conscience. He was suffering over whether killing an Iraqi soldier would be consistent with God’s laws. A Catholic priest who was serving as an active-duty soldier counseled him by telling him that he could faithfully follow the president’s orders to invade the country without violating God’s laws.
That priest was absolutely in the wrong. Oh sure, I’m confident that he believed he was counseling the right thing — the patriotic thing — but he was dead wrong in his counsel to that soldier. What he should have said to him instead was: “The president has no legal or moral authority to order an invasion of a country that has not attacked the United States. This will be a pure act of aggression. As a Catholic soldier, you have no moral right to kill any Iraqi soldier. You need to follow the dictates of your conscience and refuse to deploy.”
Not all Catholic priests performed their “patriotic” duty by “supporting the troops.” I had a good friend in Denver who was a Catholic priest. He was also a libertarian. I asked him point blank: If the Pentagon forced me to go to Iraq as a U.S. soldier and placed me in a position of kill-or-be-killed, could I legitimately, under God’s laws, kill an Iraqi soldier under principles of self-defense?
His answer was direct and unequivocal: No. You would have no right under God’s laws to kill any Iraqi soldier. If you were not able to escape, you would have to simply let yourself be killed. You could not legitimately fire any shots at any Iraqi soldier, even if he was trying to kill you. His answer was the right one, at least from a religious standpoint.
Of course, it wasn’t just Catholic priests who felt that they were doing their “patriotic” duty by rallying to the Pentagon and the CIA and coming to the support of the troops in their invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. There were plenty of Protestant ministers who were also exhorting their congregations to thank the troops for their service for their invasions and occupations of both countries. I have no doubts that there were also lots of Jewish rabbis doing the same thing.
In fact, many Americans were also supportive of the Pentagon and the troops. I recall one person saying, “Once the debate and protests over whether to invade are over and the president has made the decision, it is incumbent on every American to support the troops.” In other words, once the invasion is underway, the exercise of individual conscience needs to go away.
Perhaps one redeeming value of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that it might cause many Americans to reflect on their support of the Pentagon’s and the CIA’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, virtually all of the condemnations that the Pentagon, the CIA, and other U.S. officials are leveling against Russia apply to the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as well. What is fascinating to me is that they don’t seem to realize that.
As I point out in my new book An Encounter with Evil: The Abraham Zapruder Story, it is always easy to identify and condemn evil in foreign regimes. It is much more difficult to identify and confront evil within one’s own regime. The condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while, at the same time, thanking the troops for their service in Iraq and Afghanistan is a perfect example of this phenomenon.
So are such things as state-sponsored assassinations, indefinite detention, torture, and extra-judicial executions of prisoners. It’s easy to identify and condemn them when they were committed by foreign regimes, especially communist ones. It’s not so easy to identify and condemn them when committed by one’s own regime. In fact, many people don’t even want to know about evil acts committed by the Pentagon and the CIA, especially when it comes to assassination of political leaders on grounds of “national security.”
Pope Francis is right. Patriarch Kirill should not serve as Vladimir Putin’s altar boy by blindly supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine, But neither should Catholic priests or any other Americans become altar boys for the Pentagon and the CIA where they are the invaders and aggressors. As I point out in my new book, the best thing the American people could ever do for themselves, as well as for the people of the world, is to rid their own regime of evil.
Purchase: An Encounter with Evil: The Abraham Zapruder Story at Amazon. Kindle version: $9.95. Print version: $14.95.