Signs of the Times

Papal Envoy Meets Bush

A papal envoy met with U. S. President George W. Bush and reiterated the Vatican’s opposition to a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, saying a war without U.N. approval would be “immoral, illegal, unjust.” Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi, who delivered a personal message from Pope John Paul II to Mr. Bush during a meeting at the White House on March 5, said the Vatican believes that “peaceful avenues” still exist to end the Iraqi crisis. “I am going away with hope despite the situation,” he said.

Addressing journalists at the National Press Club after the meeting, Cardinal Laghi said he could not discuss details, but he read the concluding passage of the pope’s letter: “I assure you, Mr. President, that I am praying for you and America, and I ask the Lord to inspire you to search for the way of a stable peace, the noblest of human endeavors.”


Cardinal Laghi, a former Vatican ambassador to the United States and a friend of Bush’s father, former President George H. W. Bush, said the atmosphere of the meeting was good. “I listened and I spoke, and I listened and I spoke,” the cardinal said. “He was listening to me, and of course, he was communicating to me. We were very frank and clear in explaining,” he added.

The cardinal said he told Bush, “Today, on Ash Wednesday, Catholics around the world are following the pope’s request to pray and fast for peace.... The Holy Father himself continues to pray and hope that all leaders who face difficult decisions will be inspired in their search for peace,” the cardinal told reporters.

Cardinal Laghi said a decision on the use of military force “can only be taken within the framework of the United Nations.” He said that before declaring war, the international community must take into account “the grave consequences” of armed conflict, including the suffering of the Iraqi people and troops on both sides, increased instability in the Middle East and a new gulf between Islam and Christianity.

The cardinal said Iraq must fulfill its international obligations to disarm and to respect human rights, but the Vatican maintains that the United Nations can still force Iraq to comply with U.N. resolutions without a declaration of war by the United States. Speaking about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the cardinal told reporters, “If he intends to disarm, certainly at this stage he goes too slowly. He has been promising for 12 years, but now where do we go?”

At the press conference, one journalist asked Cardinal Laghi what would happen if Bush did not listen to the pope’s “instructions” and the United States went to war with Iraq. “The Holy Father doesn’t give instructions; it is the Gospel that gives instructions to us, and the Gospel is about peace. It is up to the United States government to consider the consequences,” he said.

Cardinal Laghi said he was unable to speak to reporters at the White House because “they told us not to do it.” Regulars in the press room said it was unprecedented that someone who met with the president and requested to go to the press area would not be allowed to do so. One longtime White House correspondent said, “It was an insult.”

U.S.-Vatican Rift on Iraq

A few years ago, as Pope John Paul II was winging his way toward the United States, he told reporters that it looked as if the world had only one remaining superpower, then added, “I don’t know whether this is good or bad.”

With the United States threatening to wage a preventive war on Iraq—with or without the backing of the United Nations—the Vatican’s ambivalence about U.S. global dominance has come into clearer focus. “The United States is the international leader, and it can certainly do great good in the world. But in the case of Iraq, its motives seem very confused,” said one Vatican official.

The Vatican has picked apart the reasons for war, in language ranging from gentle to harsh. The pope and his aides have argued that a war in Iraq would be disproportionate to the threat, potentially catastrophic in its effects on civilians and counterproductive to the global fight against terrorism.

But one of the strongest Vatican arguments has been that no single country—not even the world’s only superpower—has the right to decide when to wage a pre-emptive war on another nation. Decisions on war belong to the United Nations, Vatican officials have said over and over again. The point has been hammered home so often that some have posed the question: If the United Nations authorized a military strike against Iraq, would the Vatican accept it?

Not necessarily, say Vatican officials. “The Vatican sees the United Nations as the guarantor of international law, and so it would view any action outside U.N. authorization as very dangerous,” said Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls. At the same time, he said, “the concept of ‘preventive war’ is not found in the moral principles of just-war theory—not even if it is authorized by a vote of the United Nations.”

In effect, the Vatican has marked two separate lines in the sand: no justification for pre-emptive war against Iraq, and no right for U.S. military action without U.N. approval.

The pope has concentrated his remarks mainly on the destructive consequences of an Iraqi war. But his aides are equally concerned about the wider political implications of a “unilateral” U.S. military attack. Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran went so far as to use the term “war of aggression” in describing a unilateral attack. For the Vatican, that means armed force without U.N. authorization; a “coalition of the willing” does not meet the standard.

The Vatican has found it especially disturbing that the United States has been prepared to damage important, longstanding alliances with European and other countries in order to keep its war option open. Now they are afraid that the Bush administration’s insistence on military action may leave the United Nations greatly weakened.

In a recent critical article, the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica (which is reviewed in the Vatican Secretariat of State prior to publication) took issue with the single-superpower model of “global security” envisioned by some Bush administration officials. “For the United States to think it can become the guardian of peace, threatening to intervene in any part of the world where a state may be preparing war, would be a dangerous illusion, destined not only to bring failure but a proliferation of wars without end,” it said.

Some U.S. officials wonder why the Vatican fails to see the advantages of ending a dictatorship and bringing human rights to a place like Iraq. In fact, when the Bush administration speaks of regime change in Iraq and remaking the Middle East in a democratic image, many Vatican officials cringe. For one thing, they view it as politically naïve. “Iraq is not Afghanistan,” said one Vatican official. “Even if a war has a ‘fortunate’ outcome, what happens to the Kurd problem in the North? What happens to the Shiite Muslims, who represent a majority in Iraq but are pro-Iranian? The risks here are frightening.”

But at a more fundamental level, Vatican officials reject the idea of imposing democratic reforms through military force. The disagreement here could not be more complete. They see the Bush administration arguing for a wider use of war at a time when the Vatican sees the moral grounds for war shrinking.

“The pope’s basic position rests on this premise: War in the 21st century is not the way to resolve problems. Where serious problems exist, as in Iraq, they can be resolved through many other means that do not include violence,” said Navarro-Valls.

The Vatican spokesman emphasized that the pope is not a pacifist. The pontiff recognizes that in some cases individuals and countries must act in self-defense against an aggressor. But in the modern age, the conditions justifying war are “so rare that they are almost nonexistent,” Navarro-Valls said. Iraq is considered a good example. If the international community believes Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a threat, it can use weapons inspections and other peaceful pressure tactics to render him harmless, he said.

Navarro-Valls was careful to insist that the Vatican’s position is not “anti-American.” The Vatican is against war mainly because it believes dialogue and diplomacy are ultimately more effective than bombs and bullets, he said. He said the direction for the Vatican’s peace push is coming directly from Pope John Paul, who has appeared engaged and forceful in making his pleas against war.

Many at the Vatican believe the Iraqi crisis marks a defining moment for the global future. Their best-case scenario is that the United Nations, through persistence and patience, would succeed in disarming Iraq without any bloodshed. And if war does break out, the pope probably will keep up his antiwar message. When he did that during the first war against Iraq in 1991, he was considered a voice in the wilderness. This time he may be leading a global chorus.

News Briefs

• Hundreds of e-mail messages were arriving daily at the Vatican in early March, offering support for the pope’s antiwar statements and encouragement for further peace moves. Since the pope does not have an e-mail address, the messages were being sent to the only e-mail link on the Vatican’s World Wide Web site (, on the page where journalists can request accreditation at the Vatican press office.

• Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s foreign minister, briefed on Feb. 27 more than 60 ambassadors to the Holy See on the Vatican’s position against preventive war in Iraq and emphasized that the chance for a peaceful solution to the crisis has not slipped away.

• On March 3, Cardinals Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, Edward M. Egan of New York, William H. Keeler of Baltimore and Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington met with the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, at the request of the White House. “We met to continue the dialogue, and we once again outlined the position of the bishops” opposing a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, said Cardinal McCarrick.

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