We have a president who seems determined to go to war with Iraq and a Pope who is doing all in his power to avert that war. What is the conservative Catholic to think? Let's assume for the sake of argument that we are talking about someone who agrees with the Pope about what a Catholic in good standing is expected to believe and to practice, and who also voted for (or generally supports) President Bush.

Should this person follow the President? Or the Pope? How is he, or she, to resolve this quandary?

Let me discuss this from my own perspective. I hope to make it clear that there is no real moral dilemma here. As to my beliefs, I certainly meet the first condition. I accept what the Pope says, and what the Church teaches, in matters of faith and morals. I go to Mass on Sunday and try to live as a practicing Catholic. I believe in the Creed that we recite at Mass. I also supported George Bush against Al Gore.

Do I agree with President Bush about the threat that Saddam Hussein presents to the world? My response is more ambiguous. He may be right, but he may also be quite wrong. It may be that Saddam Hussein in fact has no "weapons of mass destruction" (how tiresome it has become to repeat that misleading cliché). And if he does have them, it may also be that he has no intention of unleashing them upon the world. My own guess is that he has no such intention.

My beliefs about the looming war have been well put by David Ignatius in the Washington Post:

It could be a great success that opens a glorious new chapter in the history of the Arab world, as I have long hoped. Or it could be a frustrating killing ground that would embolden America's adversaries and endanger the United States and its allies, as many critics have warned." [David Ignatius, Washington Post Jan 17, 2003]
I don't see how anyone can deny this statement of uncertainty. And because of this great uncertainty, I cannot repose much faith in the judgment of President Bush and his "key group of advisers," as Thomas Friedman described them.

Nonetheless, in the conflict between the President and the Pope, I have no hesitation in saying that the Pope's remarks about war and peace will play little or no role in influencing my own opinion as to what course of action is best for the country.

Let us examine the remarks of the Pope and his envoys, particularly Pio Laghi (a former Vatican ambassador to the U.S.) and Roger Etchegaray of France. Cardinal Laghi saw Bush in Washington last week and Cardinal Etchegaray met with Hussein in Baghdad.

Neither of these cardinals, nor the pope, has brought to the table any great moral principal that must take precedence over all other considerations, if Catholics are to remain in good standing. What they bring is a mish-mash of prudential judgments, political cautions, and in some cases, statements of the obvious that no one would disagree with, such as that war should be a last resort. Some recent statements seem to border on the reprehensible, for example the following from Cardinal Etchegaray: "It is not right to say that war should be the last alternative; war is always the wrong alternative" [quoted in the Catholic Standard, Feb 27, 2003].

Saying that war is always wrong is equivalent to pacifism. But the Pope has specifically repudiated that position. Actually, a pacifist appeal would propose just such a "great moral principal" as I mention above. If the Pope were to emerge as a full-fledged pacifist it would be both brave and clarifying, and the response would be interesting to behold. One could admire such a position even while disagreeing with it. But he seems to be engaged in a war of realpolitik, a political struggle, rather than an assertion of Catholic principles.

This is best illustrated by the Holy See's comments on the evidence that would be sufficient to show that a war is justified. Three conditions were listed as justifications for a war: Evidence of an imminent attack on the United States; evidence of Saddam's complicity in the events of September 11; or United Nations approval of an attack on Iraq.

The first two conditions are sensible; and I agree that they have not been met. But the final point about U.N. approval makes nonsense of the moral groundwork laid by the first two. If a military action is morally wrong, then surely it remains wrong no matter how many other nations vote otherwise. Maybe their votes can be bought by American dollars? The Vatican's repeated reliance on the U.N. suggests that the organization's appeal to senior officials in the Vatican is that of a war-stopper, rather than as an embodiment of Catholic principles.

In 1994, the Vatican didn't hesitate to organize worldwide resistance to a United Nations conference on women in Cairo. Muslim countries were enlisted as allies. On this occasion, the U.S. and other countries were using the U.N. to support a right of worldwide access to abortion. The Vatican was right to oppose what the U.N. was doing. The experience should have alerted the Holy See that the organization is no great repository of virtue. I am among many Catholics who long for the day when we have a Pope who sees the United Nations for what it is-an organization with a secular agenda that is predominantly hostile to Christianity.

There is one powerful argument that the Vatican could have made, but as far as I know has not. The fact is that Iraq is one of the few countries in the Islamic world where the Catholic Church is not oppressed (as it is in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, for example). Religious freedom, one of the founding principles of the U.S., is respected in Saddam's Iraq. His foreign minister is a Christian, and Saddam himself tolerates unconcealed Christian worship in Iraq. There are about 175,000 Catholics in Baghdad. Admittedly they are leaving in droves. At the time of the Gulf War, they were counted at more than 500,000.

If the Pope were to say that an attack by Western countries on Iraq would not auger well for Christians in that country, everyone would (at the least) appreciate the good sense of his position. But here, as so often in his papacy, the pope seems to subordinate the welfare the Church he presides over to the promotion of a woolly theistic humanism. It is the whole world that he is concerned with, not these merely parochial concerns. All too often, he sounds as though he would rather be, instead of Pope, a one-man United Nations, filled with caring for the material welfare of all the people in this world. Dare I suggest that he does not have his priorities straight? It is our spiritual welfare that he should be concerned about.

There is a final point, and an important one. We are not, as Catholics in good standing, obliged to accept the political judgments of the pope. This has recently been emphasized by a doctrinal note, "On Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life," which reaffirms "the legitimate freedom of Catholic citizens to choose among the various political opinions that are compatible with faith and the natural moral law, and to select, according to their own criteria, what best corresponds to the needs of the common good."

A Catholic who disagrees with the pope on war with Iraq is not a Catholic who dissents from the teaching of the Church, in other words. Papal statements are not equally binding on Catholics. If the pope speaks ex cathedra on faith and morals, our assent is expected. But if he speaks on politics--as he so often does--we are under no obligation to accept his judgments. As Rod Dreher put it in the Wall Street Journal recently, "the 50 percent of America's Catholics who stand by their president, and not their pope, in this matter do not thereby diminish their standing as Catholics."

I said at the outset that I thought there really was no moral dilemma for the conservative Catholic. I believe that even though my support of Bush's position vis-a-vis Iraq is lukewarm to nonexistent. I presume, then, that a Catholic who wholeheartedly agrees with the president would also support the president rather than the pope, only more so. Ironically, it is those Catholics who most vehemently disagree with the pope on the Church's teachings-e.g. on abortion, birth control, and women priests-who are now his most ardent supporters on war and peace. This is just one more indication that the Pope's position on a possible war with Iraq is not so much a model of Catholic teaching as it is a manifestation of the longing for ecumenical unity that has been the enduring keynote of his papacy.

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