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Novak in Rome to make case for war; Papal emissary in Iraq to make case for peace


While Michael Novak’s efforts to sell the Vatican on a war in Iraq appeared to make little headway, Pope John Paul II’s diplomatic activity to stop that war intensified Feb. 9 with the dispatch of a personal emissary to Baghdad.

The Vatican confirmed that frequent papal troubleshooter Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, along with Monsignor Franco Coppola of the Secretariat of State, would go to Iraq for a visit expected to last several days. Etchegaray, 80, is carrying a personal appeal from John Paul II, signed in his own hand.

The scope of the appeal is for Saddam Hussein to cooperate with inspectors and satisfy U.N. directives, especially resolution 1441, in order to avoid a conflict. Etchegaray is expected to meet the Iraqi leader later in the week.

Hypotheses about other papal initiatives abound.

The Iraqi ambassador to the Vatican raised the unlikely possibility of a last-minute papal visit to Iraq in a Feb. 10 interview with the Reuters news agency. Despite the fact that Iraq blocked John Paul’s oft-stated desire for a visit in 2000, citing U.N. sanctions and no-fly zones, Ambassador A. Amir Alanbari said the pope now would be welcome.

“For the pope to visit a country that is really about to be victimized by a super-power, to be destroyed I would say... would be viewed by the rest of the world as expressing sympathy even if he does not say a word,” Alanbari said.

Meanwhile a Roman newspaper hypothesized Feb. 10 that the pope might also send an emissary to President George Bush, tipping retired Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi, former apostolic nuncio in the United States, for the role.

Laghi, however, told NCR Feb. 10 that he “knows nothing” of such a possibility, and doesn’t “see the conditions for it.”

At the same time that Etchegaray is to meet Hussein, John Paul II will be meeting Iraq’s second in command, Tarik Aziz, on Friday, Feb. 14. The Vatican has confirmed the appointment. Aziz, a Chaldean Catholic, is also expected to go to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, to pray for peace the next day.

The pope’s drumbeat against the war continued over the weekend.

“We must all implore from God the gift of peace,” the pope said in a Feb. 7 message to the Community of Sant’Egidio. “War is not inevitable.”

Novak’s efforts to change this papal line bore little immediate fruit.

Novak, a leading conservative American Catholic scholar, met the morning of Saturday, Feb. 8, with officials in the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and in the Secretariat of State. At State Novak was received by the pope’s “foreign minister,” Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, but Archbishop Renato Martino, president of Justice and Peace, delegated the session with Novak to his staff.

Novak gave an interview to Vatican Radio on Saturday after his meetings. On Sunday, Feb. 9, Novak and Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson attended the 10:30 a.m. Mass at Santa Susanna, the American parish in Rome. Novak met with Italian political figures on Monday, Feb. 10, then conducted a press conference and lectured before an invitation-only crowd at Rome’s Center of American Studies before returning to the United States on Feb. 11.

Nicholson underscored that Novak represented neither the American government nor the Catholic Church.

Novak insisted that an attack on Iraq would not be a case of “preventive war,” since the United States is already involved in two wars. The first is the Gulf War from 1991, from which Iraq has never shown convincing proof of disarmament, and the second is the new kind of conflict with non-state actors triggered by the terrorist assault of Sept. 11, 2001. Hence, Novak argued, a war in Iraq would be covered by the traditional Catholic doctrine of self-defense.

Novak stressed that he hopes a new conflict in Iraq may be avoided. “If Saddam Hussein is finally serious, 150,000 American troops, their families and relatives will be delighted,” he said.” Many Americans will be praying for the success of Cardinal Etchegaray’s mission.”

In favor of such a war if Hussein does not comply, Novak made two basic arguments in his public appearances.

First, he said, Saddam Hussein poses a danger to the security of citizens of the United States, all the more so in the post-Sept. 11 world. In that context, the Bush administration has an obligation to act.

“The United States’ motive is that we are afraid those weapons will be used against us,” Novak said. “I would not like to see the United States at his mercy, whatever other countries may think.”

“For the public authorities to fail to conduct such a war would be to put their trust imprudently in the sanity and good will of Saddam Hussein. … Those who judge the risk is low, and therefore allow Saddam Hussein to remain in power, will bear a horrific responsibility if they guess wrong and acts of destruction do occur.”

Novak said Hussein is driven by “megalomania” and is “an unusually cruel leader” who has “murdered and tortured more of his own citizens than Milosevic.”

“When the people of Iraq are able to speak, I think the conscience of the world will be stricken that we failed to act for so long,” Novak said.

“Appeasement and weakness bring violence, seriousness of purpose and determination bring respect,” Novak said.

Second, Novak emphasized, while reasonable people may disagree about the threat Saddam poses, in the end Catholic moral teaching says it is up to the responsible public authorities to decide — in this case, the Bush administration.

“These authorities bear the primary vocational role and constitutional duty to protect the lives of the people they serve,” Novak said. He said the principle of subsidiarity also requires “those closest to the facts, who have access to highly restricted intelligence” ultimately make the call.

During his Vatican Radio interview, Novak complained about certain Vatican comments on American policy, such as the suggestion by the semi-official Vatican journal Civilità Cattolica that oil was at the bottom of American motives in Iraq.

“Some of the comments that have come from some Vatican sources have been a little bit emotionally anti-American,” Novak said. “I just wish people would mind their rhetoric a little bit more.”

Novak said that among his friends, “there’s some pain” about the stronger expressions of opposition from the Vatican. At the same time, he credited the Vatican with influencing the Bush administration to seek support within the framework of international law for its course in Iraq.

Novak suggested that the experience of living through Sept. 11 may explain some of the difference between American and European attitudes.

“Having lived through 9/11, we’re steeled not to let it happen again,” Novak said. “Maybe because Europeans didn’t experience it, they don’t feel the same way.”

Asked how he reconciles his position with the anti-war statement adopted by the U.S. bishops in Washington in November, Novak said he also found himself at odds with the bishops’ conference in 1981-82, when it was preparing a document on nuclear war.

“Even the Vatican was alarmed,” Novak said.

He said leading Catholic laypersons such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Hyde, and Clare Boothe Luce approached him with similar concerns, and together they drafted a separate letter.

“The big difference was that the bishops focused on weapons systems, and we centered on communism. We argued that what kills is not weapons, but ideologies. We said that if we could penetrate minds in the Soviet Union, disarmament would follow. Twenty years later, which letter reads better?” Novak asked. “I believe ours does.”

Novak said the Vatican was happy with the intervention, which influenced similar documents drafted by the French and German bishops.

“This is the lay role in the church,” Novak said, “to argue about matters of prudence rather than doctrine.”

One Vatican official involved in a meeting with Novak described the session as “cordial,” but said, “We didn’t hear anything we hadn’t heard before.” Noting that both Vatican officials and Novak cite John Paul’s words about the use of force being a “last resort,” the official said, “The problem is that my last resort may not necessarily be your last resort.”

Novak’s comments would not, the official predicted, change the Vatican’s line.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003