National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover Story: At War
Issue Date:  April 4, 2003

Thousands of antiwar demonstrators hold candles during a peace march against the U.S.-led war on Iraq March 20 at Via del Fori Imperialli in Rome.
                                -- Photo by Getty/Franco Origlia

Antiwar feeling remains strong across globe
Pope leads Catholic voices decrying U.S. military action in Iraq


As the U.S.-led war in Iraq continues, international opposition as measured both by opinion polls and street protests remains strong, including reactions from within the Catholic world.

Yet John Paul II’s unrelenting antiwar line has not eliminated deep differences in Catholic opinion over the causes, consequences and justification of the war. Some on the Catholic right are increasingly uncomfortable with what they see as anti-American manipulation of the pope’s message, while pacifists wish the pope would issue a condemnation of the war “with no ifs, ands or buts.”

Public opinion in Europe was solidly against war in Iraq even before the outbreak of hostilities. One poll found 74 percent of Europeans opposed to a conflict without a clear United Nations mandate. Within hours of the first bombs falling, protests erupted across the continent.

Between 80,000 and 100,000 protesters converged on the city center in Athens, Greece, March 20, waving antiwar banners. In Berlin, an estimated 20,000 students marched from Alexanderplatz to the U.S. embassy near the Brandenburg Gate, and a further 12,000 children protested throughout the country.

In Italy, train stations were blocked for several hours by protests in Rome, Milan, Florence, Bologna, Genoa and Turin. Several million workers are believed to have walked off the job. In Genoa, the largest seaport on the Mediterranean was idled for 24 hours.

A March 24 teachers’ strike turned into an antiwar protest, with some 40 percent of teachers walking off the job. The nation’s schools effectively were idled. Demonstrators in Rome carried a banner of white linen calling for “a detergent against the dirty war.”

All told, Italy witnessed 85 demonstrations within the first 24 hours of the conflict, scattered across 36 provinces.

A front-page March 21 essay in La Repubblica, one of Italy’s leading dailies, interpreted the protests as a clash between two superpowers: the military might of the United States and worldwide antiwar sentiment at the grassroots.

Such sentiment was not confined to Europe.

In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, 1,000 protesters gathered outside the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, carrying signs reading, “Bush, go to hell” and “Terrorism no, justice yes.” In Melbourne, Australia, thousands of people descended on the city center to condemn the U.S.-led invasion.

This protest is mirrored by the international Catholic response.

On March 22, in an audience for the Italian Catholic TV network Telepace, John Paul spoke against the war in almost apocalyptic terms.

“When, as at the moment in Iraq, warfare threatens the very fate of mankind, it becomes all the more urgent that we proclaim, with a loud and firm voice, that peace is the only way to construct a more just and fair society,” the pope said. “Violence and arms can never resolve the problems of man.”

On Sunday, March 23, during a beatification ceremony for five 19th-century European Catholics, the pope returned to the theme.

“We now ask from the Mother of God, above all at this moment, the gift of peace,” the pope said, his voice booming as he slowed down to emphasize the last four words. “In particular, it is to her that we entrust the victims of this war and all their suffering relatives. To all of them I feel myself spiritually close, in my thoughts and prayers.”

Over the weekend, antiwar protesters in Italy brandished copies of L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, with its banner headline “The Madness of This War.”

On March 24, a Mass at Rome’s Basilica of the Holy Apostles marking the 23rd anniversary of the murder of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero turned into an antiwar rally. The altar was draped in the rainbow-colored banners that are the popular symbol of the antiwar movement in Italy. A peace banner and the United Nations flag preceded the procession that brought the offertory gifts to the main celebrant, Italian Bishop Tommaso Valentinetti. Prayers for peace drew strong cheers from the crowd of perhaps 2,000.

The massive secular demonstrations in Italy have so far been endorsed by much of the Catholic hierarchy. In Turin, Cardinal Severino Poletto ordered the bells of all churches to be rung for several minutes as a gesture of protest. In Savona, Bishop Domenico Calcagno led a march of 7,000.

Other Catholic leaders around the world have joined the antiwar chorus.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of England described the war as “wrong and evil” on March 23, as he urged Catholics to pray for a swift end to the hostilities. Murphy-O’Connor declined to invite Catholic soldiers to disobey orders, but did say that they need to fight “in a proportionate way.”

In Vienna, Austria, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn told journalists that the Iraq war is “a defeat for humanity” and “the expression of the failure of politics.” With all due respect for the hurt inflicted on the United States by the attacks of Sept. 11, Schönborn said, the decision to go to war without support from the United Nations was “deeply unfortunate.”

In Japan, Archbishop Leo Jun Ikenaga of Osaka, president of the Catholic charity Caritas, called on Japanese Catholics to protest the war.

“The attempt to use military force in the fight against terrorism is dragging the world into a spiral of violence where hatred nurtures more hatred,” Ikenaga said. “We must stand up and call for an immediate end to this war.”

Prior to the beginning of hostilities, Catholic leaders in Bangladesh, Brunei, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam had denounced any attack on Iraq.

Perhaps the most dramatic expression of Catholic opposition to date came from New Zealand. A Catholic priest named Fr. Peter Murnane and Nicholas Drake, a Catholic activist, used an appointment with U.S. Consul Douglas Berry, purportedly to read him an antiwar statement, to pour a cross of blood on his carpet.

Murnane and Drake said the U.S. administration was “spilling great quantities of blood on the soil of Iraq. We now make the sign of the cross with our blood on the floor, in this outpost of the United States.”

The local bishop, Patrick Dunn, described the gesture as “offensive,” asking to be sent the bill for cleaning the carpet.

Reacting to the increasingly sharp global antiwar drive, some Catholics say the church is going too far; others not far enough.

Some conservative Catholics are wary of the way the pope’s message has been embraced by the secular left. Observers in Rome see a recalibration underway in public statements from the Vatican and other Catholic leaders in response to the perception of ideological imbalance.

On March 20, in the Vatican’s first public comment after the war started, press spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls offered a deliberately balanced appraisal.

“On the one hand, the Holy See laments that the Iraqi government has not received the resolutions of the United Nations and the appeal of the pope, that asked for disarmament of the country,” the statement said. “On the other hand, the Holy See deplores that the route of negotiations was interrupted, according to international law, for a pacific solution of the Iraqi drama.”

Navarro worked out the statement in close collaboration with the Secretariat of State, where the Vatican’s diplomatic line is set.

Some news agencies reported March 24 that the Vatican had spurned an American request to cut diplomatic ties with Iraq. Diplomatic sources told NCR, however, that while the Americans had informed the Holy See of its general concerns about Iraqi diplomats, they did not make any specific request for action, and hence there was nothing for the Vatican to spurn.

On March 24, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar for the Rome diocese, warned in a speech to the bishops’ conference that the church’s peace message is susceptible to ideological abuse.

Ruini called for “constant discernment … in order that the commitment to peace not be confused with markedly different objectives and interests, or polluted by arguments that are really based upon conflict.”

Along the same lines, observers noted that L’Osservatore Romano’s March 24-25 issue carried a front-page denunciation of the display of dead and captured Americans by the Iraqis, calling it “an ostentation that offends human dignity.”

One sign that the pope and the Vatican have not gone as far as some critics of the war would like is an open letter to John Paul II from a group of Catholic activists in Italy, now being circulated on the Internet at

“We would like to hear your influential voice to invite every man and woman of good will to practice a civil disobedience against this war,” the activists write. “May men in governments vote against it, may soldiers not fight it, may every person walk the road of civil disobedience and non-collaboration, as she or he can.

“We ask you [to make] a simple and univocal statement, that won’t leave any space for misleading interpretations.”

Among the signatories are the president of Beati i Costruttori di Pace (Blessed Are the Peacemakers), Fr. Albino Bizzotto; the vice-director of Famiglia Cristiana magazine, Angelo Bertani; well-known missionary Fr. Alex Zanotelli; and 157 other priests, women religious and theologians.

As the conflict unfolds, Vatican sources tell NCR, this is the tightrope the Holy See will walk: calling for peace and demanding that international law be observed, without allying itself either with Saddam Hussein or with a secular antiwar movement that at its extreme edges can shade off into anti-Americanism.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2003

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