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.