National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 11, 2003

Pope has placed church on side of peace

Writing just prior to the beginning of the first Persian Gulf War, on Christmas day 1990, John Paul II sent this poetic message (emphasis in the original) to the world:

The Light of Christ
Is with the tormented Nations of the Middle East.
For the area of the Gulf, we await with trepidation
for the threat of conflict to disappear.
May leaders be convinced
that war is an adventure with no return!

Late last month, on March 22, the pope reiterated his oft-stated opposition to the current war: “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.”

Much has been made of the pope’s continuing and consistent opposition to war against Iraq. Catholic supporters of the war, including admirers of John Paul II’s 25-year pontificate, quickly explain that the pope’s words are not binding on Catholics, that lay people are called to make their own judgments about this war. (Fair enough, though it’s interesting to watch some of the more-Catholic-than-the-pope crowd squeeze through the eye of this noninfallible needle.)

Then there is the quick jump to legalisms: The Catechism of the Catholic Church, American Michael Novak told a Vatican audience in February, specifically places responsibility for war and peace in the hands “of those who have responsibility for the common good” -- in other words, duly constituted governments and, presumably, the international institutions they establish to promote peace and order.

Finally, supporters of the war torture and corrupt the language of traditional just war teaching to suit their aims. “Imminent threat” -- a concept that survived a four-decade U.S./Soviet nuclear standoff -- no longer means “imminent.” Instead, it means … well, whatever we need it to mean to carry out our objective. “Last resort,” we are told, does not mean that we must exhaust all other peaceful options (inspections anyone?) before attacking. Huh?

Perhaps (though we’re skeptical) this war can be justified for national security reasons, or to combat the rise of rogue nations possessing weapons of mass destruction, or to liberate the Iraqi people, or to set the Middle East on a democratic course. But the intellectual incoherence of those who use Catholic teaching to justify the war is simply breathtaking. And John Paul II, for one, is not buying it. He has placed his pontificate firmly athwart this conflict, yelling, “Stop!”

Opponents of the war, including those not generally enamored of the pope’s governance of the church (some have pointed to this newspaper as an example), now rush to align themselves with his views. He is being used, some charge.

Well, this pope has been used before, by restorationists within the church and communist bureaucrats in Poland, to name just two examples. This most modern of pontiffs is quite aware that his words will be embraced by a broad coalition of believers and nonbelievers, by sincere pacifists and anti-American opportunists, by those who reject this war on moral grounds, and those who oppose it for strategic reasons. Who’s using whom?

John Paul, survivor of Nazism and witness to communism’s demise, cannot be dismissed or caricatured as an appeaser or European softie. This pope did, after all, support NATO intervention in Kosovo and countenanced the post-9/11 U.S. war to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban. John Paul II does not support “peace at any price.”

But through his insistence that self-defense and humanitarian intervention are the only two possible grounds for the use of force (and by raising the moral bar significantly for those who would employ military means based on either of those grounds), the bishop of Rome has placed his church on the side of peace.

Thank you, Holy Father.

National Catholic Reporter, April 11, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: