During the countdown early this year to the war in Iraq, Pope John Paul II and his Vatican aides wasted no opportunity to broadcast their opposition to a U.S.-led invasion. They warned that besides being unjust, an invasion would be counterproductiveit would leave many dead and wounded, destroy Iraqi infrastructure, increase the hardships on civilians, increase political pressures on Iraqi Christians, ignite civil strife in the country, weaken the United Nations and foment global terrorism.
Fast-forward eight months, and it seems that most or all of the Vatican’s warnings were accurate, but no one is saying I told you so. On the contrary, several top cardinals have warned against a pullout of U.S. and allied troops from Iraq, especially after deadly attacks on soldiers there. The Vatican’s own representative in Iraq has said military withdrawal now would be the worst option.
To those who view Iraqi attacks on U.S. and allied soldiers as legitimate resistance to an illegal occupation, the Vatican has offered no support whatever. After the explosion of a truck bomb at an Italian army headquarters in Nasiriya, Iraq in mid-November left 19 dead, Italian bishops denounced the attack as terrorism. The pope seemed to sign on to that definition a few days later, when he spoke of the wicked work accomplished by terrorists in Iraq. The pontiff and Italian bishops joined in honoring the dead Italian soldiers, saying they were engaged in a mission of peace. When a lone Italian bishop objected to the sanctification of Italy’s military operation in Iraq, he was sharply criticized and asked by a leading Vatican official to explain his statement.
Has the Vatican changed its mind about the war in Iraq? It’s not that the Vatican position has changed, but the situation in Iraq has been completely transformed, said one Vatican official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The Vatican clearly said no’ to the war. But at a certain point, you have to manage the situation that has been created in the way that does the least damage, he said. If the military pulls out of Iraq now, the country would fall into chaos. The vase has been broken, and we have to try to find a way to mend it. Of course, there is the problem that the more deeply one becomes involved in this project, the greater the tendency to justify that involvement, he said.
Before the war, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, raised U.S. diplomatic hackles when he warned that the United States might find itself in a Vietnam-like quagmire in Iraq. I told an American friend, Hasn’t the lesson of Vietnam taught you anything?’ he said at the time.
But today, as the problems mount and the death toll rises in Iraq, Cardinal Sodano has said that now is not the time for recriminations. What Cardinal Sodano and others at the Vatican emphasize is the need for Iraqis to govern themselves as quickly as possible and for the United Nations to have a greater say in the interim running of the country. But with Iraq’s political vacuum, self-governance seems impossible now.
Any country that finds itself under occupation does not think the ruling authority represents the people, Archbishop Fernando Filoni, apostolic nuncio to Iraq, told the newspaper Corriere della Sera. But there’s a crisis of power in Iraq. The people need a leader, someone who talks to Iraqis as an Iraqi, and that leader isn’t there, he said. Archbishop Filoni said that with no short-term political solution in sight and no real plan for civil harmony that involves Iraq’s ethnic and religious communities, a military pullout now would leave Iraqis in a terrible crisis.
Before the war began, the Vatican frequently relied on then-Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican foreign minister, to articulate the arguments against the use of force. He was recently named a cardinal and left his diplomatic post because of ill health, and the Vatican has generally fallen silent on the day-to-day situation in Iraq.
At the same time, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, papal vicar of Rome and president of the Italian bishops’ conference, has assumed a higher profile. His public influence peaked during the period of national mourning and the state funeral for the Italian soldiers killed in Iraq, when the cardinal said there should be no withdrawal of Italian troops from their great and noble mission. To those who asked whether the soldiers died in a war that should not have been fought, Cardinal Ruini replied: They are victims of terrorism, pure and simple.
The handful of European countries that have contributed soldiers to the current military operation in Iraq include four with heavily Catholic populations: Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain. Even many Europeans who opposed the war supported sending soldiers to help restore order in Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the hostilities. But now the soldiers are coming under fire, and there is debate over whether their engagement is part of an illegal occupation, a peacekeeping mission or a reconstruction project.
That’s the $100 million question, said one Vatican official. He noted that no one at the Vatican had really spoken on this issue. Rather than define what it is, right now we need to try to help make things work as much as possible, he said.
The Vatican, with its 2000-year history of diplomacy, well understands the international scene and the exigencies of war-making and peacemaking. So while it rejects a military pullout in Iraq, it would certainly be justified in saying, with regard to postwar Iraq, I told you so.