OK, I get it, the pope was a really important guy. So why, during weeks of fawning coverage of his humanity and the elaborate Vatican funeral rituals, did American journalists and politicians ignore the pontiff’s passionate opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq?
Pope John Paul II’s critique of the Bush doctrine of unilateral preemptive war couldn’t have been clearer, more heartfelt or more vigorously argued.
He once showed anger on the topic in a private audience with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and firmly rejected the direct appeals of Catholic neoconservatives to support the invasion. He used not just his bully pulpit but the full political machinery of the Vatican to try to stop what he saw as an act that did not meet the Christian definition of “just war” -- and was rather “a defeat for humanity.”
“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,” John Paul proclaimed on Jan. 13, 2003, even as he was sending his emissaries to Iraq, the U.S. and the United Nations to lobby for peaceful negotiations. “War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations.”
It hardly honors the man to ignore his impassioned statements on what he considered to be a great moral crisis. And whether through divine inspiration or his own formidable instincts honed through a long life in a troubled and violent century, the pope got it right on Iraq when he said, “No to war!”
President Bush has sloughed off the issue of the pope’s anti-war stance as what you’d expect from a religious leader: “Of course he was a man of peace and he didn’t like war,” he said after the pope’s death.
But John Paul’s assertion that the peaceful alternatives to a U.S.-British invasion of Iraq had not been exhausted went far beyond bland denunciations of violence. Like the millions of anti-war protesters around the world, he knew what the U.S. media and Congress refused to see: that Bush was rushing to war based on convenient distortions about weapons of mass destruction and the war on terrorism.
The Bush administration was concerned enough with the pope’s stance that a crack team of Catholic neoconservative ideologues was sent to lobby his holiness. In February 2003, hawkish columnist Michael Novak and self-appointed morals czar William J. Bennett were dispatched to a Rome meeting with Vatican officials arranged by the State Department to explain why the invasion of Iraq would be a “just war” of self-defense. Novak warned Vatican officials that there was no time for peaceful initiatives because Saddam Hussein had empowered Iraqi scientists “to breed huge destruction in the United States and Europe.”
The pope pointedly rejected such alarmist arguments and instead, on the eve of the invasion, endorsed the European proposal to rely on U.N. inspectors in Iraq and to provide a greater role for U.N. peacekeepers as an alternative to U.S. occupation of a crucial Muslim nation. “At this hour of international worry, we all feel the need to look to God and beg him to grant us the great gift of peace,” he said, rejecting a rush to war.
After he was ignored, the pope continued to strongly oppose what he saw as a dangerous escalation in tension between the Islamic and Christian worlds. “War must never be allowed to divide the religions of the world,” he said.
John Paul was particularly scathing after the revelations of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison, telling Bush on a visit to the Vatican that those “deplorable events” had “troubled the civic and religious conscience of all.” And remember: This was not a man raised in the confines of the Holy See, but rather a tough old bird who had witnessed the Holocaust and struggled against Soviet tyranny and communist oppression for decades. He did not come to his anti-war views lightly.
Various bipartisan investigations have shown us the truth behind the Iraq war: Its rationales were fabricated by a Western intelligence community under enormous pressure to provide the Bush and Blair administrations with support for a decision they already had made. That makes it all but impossible to question the wisdom of John Paul’s positions on the war and on American arrogance. Instead, the Bush administration and an acquiescent media have found it best to simply ignore them.