Our recent celebration of Epiphany (or the Feast of the Three Kings) recalls a colorful incident in Church Tradition, the visit of the Wise Men to that Bethlehem stable where Jesus was born.
These seers from the East — these so-called “Magi” (the root of our word, “magician”) — told King Herod that they had observed an unknown star, indicating to them that a great new leader had been born. As the Bible recounts (Matthew 2:1-12), this was disturbing news to Herod, a half-Jew who ruled at the behest of Rome, and whose reign had brought much blood and resentment.
Herod had reason to worry. It was commonly held that great historical changes were marked by astrological signs. The appearance of a star was said to have announced the birth of Julius Caesar. Did this new star herald what today we would call a “new world order?”
The story of the Magi is very much a political story, one that provides insight into the power dynamics of the Roman Empire, a world where politics and religion were tightly interwoven.
Politics and religion are still tightly interwoven, as our current difficulty with the Shiite Muslim regime of Iran demonstrates all too clearly. The Iranian mullahs are committed to fulfilling a Quranic mandate to bring the world under the dictates of Islam. We are committed to a world in which all people are free to believe and worship according to the dictates of their consciences.
A clash was inevitable. Indeed, it’s been ongoing since the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah and turned Iran into a Muslim theocracy. With the attack on America’s embassy in Iraq by Iranian proxy forces, followed by the killing of its planner, Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, we seem to be at the brink of open war.
This situation brings into sharp focus the Church’s teaching about conditions that justify military action and what kinds of actions are morally appropriate. Just War Theory is firmly rooted in the work of great Catholic thinkers, primarily Thomas Aquinas.
I discussed it in an essay published last summer, when President Trump had decided not to retaliate for the downing of a U.S. reconnaissance drone by the Iranians — one of the many provocations leading up to our current predicament. In that piece I wrote:
“The Church teaches that for a war to be just it must meet certain qualifications. For instance, it must be declared by a competent authority (individual citizens or lower-level officials cannot make war on other nations or groups). Also, there must be a reasonable chance of winning (calling people to risk their lives in a cause that is likely impossible is not just).
“There are other criteria as well. But perhaps the most important is that action taken must be proportionate to the action provoking it. And that is the point which the President seems to have grasped (or at least emphasized).
“He saw that the destruction of human life would be greatly disproportionate to the destruction of a drone — sophisticated and expensive as that piece of equipment was. And in that he acted from a position of Christian principle.”
We have come to the present impasse with the Iranians because forces they control attacked our facility, killing several American soldiers. Our response was to kill the man who designed and directed that attack.
That action was highly focused and precisely executed, avoiding civilian casualties and minimizing ancillary damage. But was it just?
I further observed in my essay last summer that war and the actions that may lead to it are:
“precisely the kinds of concerns on which the Church is obliged to speak….”
However, I cautioned that:
“Too often priests, bishops and theologians are tempted to make high-sounding pronouncements on specific questions of government policy. And just as often our officials ignore them — which seems to set public authority against Church authority.
“But as sincere and fervent as these pastoral entreaties might be, the fact is churchmen have neither the competence nor the responsibility to make such judgments. Our role is to be moral teachers.
“We should avoid the temptation to lecture public officials on how they ought to be meeting our expectations. Rather, we must constantly bring those who possess the relevant authority back to the eternal truths of right and wrong on which difficult decisions must be based in order to be morally valid.”
That in mind, I will refrain from offering my judgment on any actions the President has taken. Rather, I will pray. And I ask you to join me in prayer.
Pray for President Trump — whether you like him or not — that the Holy Spirit gives him the wisdom and good judgment to always do the right thing by God’s measure.
Pray for Congress, that they may act in just and bipartisan ways when evaluating conditions and exercising their legitimate powers.
Pray for all of our leaders, elected and appointed, that they fulfill their obligation to keep America safe.
Our present situation is indeed precarious. We are teetering on the brink of war. May God guide us in proceeding wisely, even as he guided the Magi in their search for the Savior.
And may His will be done.
A priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, Rev. Michael P. Orsi currently serves as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Florida. He is host of “Action for Life TV,” a weekly cable television series devoted to pro-life issues, and his writings appear in numerous publications and online journals.
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