(CNSNews.com) - As hostilities commenced in Iraq, Catholic leaders expressed regret for the war, which they oppose, but called for prayers and support for the men and women in uniform.
The latest statement from the Vatican stated that the Holy See "has learned with deep pain the development of the latest events in Iraq."
"On the one hand, it is to be regretted that the Iraqi government did not accept the resolutions of the United Nations and the appeal of the pope himself, as both asked that the country disarm," said Joaquin Navarro-Valls, director of the Holy See Press Office.
"On the other hand, it is to be deplored that the path of negotiations, according to international law, for a peaceful solution of the Iraqi drama has been interrupted," he added.
In the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) expressed "deep regret that the war has not been averted."
"We worked and prayed and hoped that war would be avoided," Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., USCCB president said in a statement Wednesday. "The task now is to work and pray and hope that war's deadly consequences will be limited, that civilian life will be protected, that weapons of mass destruction will be eliminated and that the people of Iraq will soon enjoy a peace with freedom and justice."
The church leadership's statements contrast with growing support for President Bush's decision to take military action in disarming Iraq and removing its leadership despite the lack of a United Nations resolution of support. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll released late Thursday finds 76 percent of Americans support the military action.
"We have been calling for support for the troops and hoping, now that things can move forward, it will mean broader peace for the Middle East and the Holy Land," Susan Gibbs, spokesperson for Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., told CNSNews.com.
Gibbs said even though church leadership has continually called on the U.S. government to avoid war, "we are always behind our troops."
"They're doing their job, and they need to continue and need our support in doing this job," Gibbs said.
Yet Cardinal McCarrick remains opposed to the war, agreeing with the pope's statement that war is "always a defeat for humanity."
"War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations," the pope said Jan. 13. "As the charter of the United Nations organization and international law itself remind us, war cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations."
According to a Gallup Poll taken in February, 58 percent of American Catholics supported invading Iraq with U.S. ground troops - a number that may have climbed dramatically as general support has climbed. Catholics constitute one-third of all American Christians.
Mark Tooley, research associate with the Institute of Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C., told CNSNews.com that rank-and-file Catholics probably have less difficulty disagreeing with Church leaders than with the pope's "overall negative stance toward any war." Nevertheless, Tooley said, the average Catholic would leave decisions of war to the government rather than the clergy.
According to Tooley, orthodox or conservative Catholics would say they respect the opinions of the bishops and of the pope on the issue of war. But, those same individuals would also accept the premise that a decision on war "is the vocation of Christian laypeople, especially those who are holding upper office, and the final decision does not rest with the clergy or the hierarchy of the institutional church," Tooley added.
He recalled that the pope also opposed military action against Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, issuing warnings about what would happen if the war were launched.
In its statement this week, the Catholic bishops warned that "the decisions being made about Iraq and the war on terrorism could have historic implications for the use of force, the legitimacy of international institutions and the role of the United States in the world." The message echoed the recent sentiments expressed by the pope and those he made about Operation Desert Storm.
Those worst-case scenarios did not come about," Tooley said. "So Catholics are wrestling with it, but I don't think they feel overly guilty about their difference with the pope on this issue."
E-mail a news tip to Steve Brown.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.