America's Roman Catholic bishops raised serious moral doubts Wednesday about the nation going to war with Iraq.
By a vote of 228-14 with three abstentions, the bishops endorsed a statement declaring that they "find it difficult to justify the resort to war against Iraq, lacking clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature."
The hierarchy said it is "deeply concerned" about use of preventive wars "to overthrow threatening regimes or to deal with weapons of mass destruction."
The bishops also said a decision to attack Iraq requires "some form of international sanction, preferably by the U.N. Security Council," though several bishops opposed mention of the United Nations.
"We are saying, in our judgment concerning possible war in Iraq — this situation here and now — we shouldn't do this alone. The better way to do this is internationally," said Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law.
The statement was written hurriedly by the international policy committee chaired by Law, who has been subject to intense criticism all year for his handling of sex abuse claims against Boston priests.
The document also reaffirmed the Catholic teaching that the faithful have the right to object to participation in war in general, or to a specific war. And the bishops acknowledged that "people of good will may differ" on which wars are moral.
Officials from major U.S. Protestant and Eastern Orthodox denominations have also opposed war with Iraq over the past several months, though spokesmen for the largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention, have backed President Bush's policy.
"We have no illusions about the behavior or intentions of the Iraqi government," the Catholic bishops said. They called on the Iraqi regime to halt internal repression, threats to neighbors, support for terrorism and development of weapons of mass destruction.
Iraq accepted a United Nations resolution Wednesday that demands it allow weapons inspectors back in the country. Bush has made it clear the United States is ready to attack Iraq if it does not disarm.
The president of the U.S. bishops, Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., delivered a letter to Bush in September that expressed reservations about a pre-emptive military strike.
Gregory told Bush that the bishops' 50-member administrative committee had serious questions about "any pre-emptive, unilateral use of military force to overthrow the government of Iraq."
The bishops supported U.S. action in Afghanistan last year, though they cautioned that worldwide poverty and human rights must be factors in U.S. foreign policy. Law told the meeting that Afghanistan was "a different case" because a pre-emptive strike was not involved.