President Bush, fresh from making plans for war against Iraq, met for 40 minutes Wednesday with Cardinal Pio Laghi, an emissary from the Vatican who made a last appeal for peace.
A friend of the president’s father and the Vatican’s first ambassador to Washington, Laghi brought to the White House the moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church on Ash Wednesday. In Rome, meanwhile, Pope John Paul II called on the world to fast for peace.
Laghi, 80 years old and retired from the Vatican, said after his meeting with Bush that a war would be “illegal and unjust,” but stopped short of calling it immoral. In a news conference at the National Press Club, he also said the United States had an obligation to seek the blessings of the United Nations.
“A decision regarding the use of military force can only be taken within the framework of the United Nations,” he said, “but always taking into account the grave consequences of such an armed conflict: the suffering of the people of Iraq and those involved in the military operation, a further instability in the region and a new gulf between Islam and Christianity.”
But he also called on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to show more good faith in dismantling his weapons of mass destruction. “He has been promising for 12 years,” Laghi said.
In the meeting, Bush and Laghi discussed Middle East peace, as well as issues from cloning to abortion. On Iraq, a White House spokeswoman said Bush explained to Laghi, as he has in recent speeches, that he feels a special obligation to protect the American people and that he believes the world will be safer if Hussein is disarmed. And he disputed the idea of a gulf between religions, citing success in rebuilding Afghanistan.
Laghi delivered a personal letter, but neither he nor the White House would disclose its contents. The cardinal said the president told him he appreciates the pope’s efforts to find a peaceful way out of conflict. “We are not at the end yet,” Laghi said. “I’m going away with hope.”
With U.N. diplomacy and U.S. military planning at a fever pitch, the White House has tried in recent days to assuage Catholic antiwar sentiment. National security advisor Condoleezza Rice met Monday with top Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Edward Egan of New York and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington.
But the National Council of Churches, an umbrella group of 13 denominations that requested a meeting in January, says it has been snubbed. Methodist bishops, who say they have met with every president since George Washington, are upset that Bush has declined to see them.
“There’s disappointment among Methodists because he’s one of us,” said Jim Winkler, general secretary of the bishops’ social justice advocacy group. “We don’t want to berate him or give him a hard time. We want to pray with him, and we are bewildered that he has not been willing.”
Religious views of a potential war in Iraq vary. According to the latest survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 80% of evangelical white Protestants support the war, the highest tally of any group measured.
And mainline Protestants have recently complained that Bush, a self-described born-again Christian, has been making the case for war in terms that appeal to that group’s view of Armageddon -- talking of good and evil, portraying those who oppose action as siding with terrorists.
“It’s always easy to twist the Scripture using text as code word,” said Terrence Tilley, who chairs the religious studies program at the University of Dayton. “Jesus at one point, in talking about healing by casting out demons, said, ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us,’ but in another version he said, ‘If you’re not against us, you’re with us.’ ”
The Catholic Church has long opposed war on moral grounds, and this pope has harked back to the 4th century doctrine of “just war” to define acceptable conditions for war. Most Catholic theologians defined World War II as a just war -- at least until 1944, said Tilley, when the allies began bombing cities such as Dresden and other civilian targets.
Now, in discussing the concept of a just war, many American clergy are talking about the need to exploit every peaceful resolution so that war is a last resort. And they are already fearful that the Pentagon’s bombing plan, described as pounding Iraq with the “shock and awe” of 800 cruise missiles, will not be, as theology requires, measured.
“No Catholic leader would find that proportionate,” Tilley said.
Religious leaders have also been debating the administration’s case for war as a preemptive strike to prevent Hussein from using his weapons of mass destruction.
Father Paul Fitzgerald, professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University, noted that unlike during the Cold War, when “a preemptive strike against the Soviet Union had a certain horrible logic, this strike against Iraq is not preemptive, it’s preventive, and we’ve never done that before.”
Fitzgerald said the meeting between Bush and the cardinal was an important signal of the Vatican’s influence. “Over the last 15 to 20 years, the papacy has built up a certain moral weight internationally,” he said.
Noting that John Paul worked closely with President Reagan to hasten the end of the Soviet Union -- including funneling money to dissidents in Poland and other eastern European countries -- Fitzgerald said that the pope had also established himself -- with a visit to Israel in which he expressed sadness for the church’s passive role in the face of the Holocaust -- as an evenhanded player in Middle East policy.