National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 2, 2003

Pope John Paul II blesses the crowd gathered at St. Peter's Basilica during Easter morning Mass April 20.
-- CNS/Reuters

Peace push pervades at Easter

Experts reflect on legacy of pope’s stand against Iraq war


Fallout from the Iraq war lent an unusually political subtext to Holy Week in Rome, with fresh declarations on the conflict from Pope John Paul II, and continuing reflection on just what the legacy of his peace initiative will be.

The pope rarely missed an opportunity to signal his concern. On Holy Thursday, he directed that the collection from his Mass go to war relief efforts. On Good Friday, four Iraqis were asked to carry the cross for the final Stations of the Cross during the Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum.

The dramatic highpoint came during the pope’s Easter message, delivered to a worldwide television audience in 53 countries. When in the fifth paragraph John Paul cried out “Peace in Iraq!” the crowd of 60,000 burst into applause. In the end the pope was interrupted by campaign-style applause 15 times.

“With the support of the international community, may the Iraqi people become the protagonists of the collective rebuilding of their country,” John Paul said. The carefully crafted sentence seemed designed to push the United States on two points: the role of the United Nations, and the need for the coalition to swiftly relinquish power to the Iraqis.

“Let there be an end to the chain of hatred and terrorism, which threatens the orderly development of the human family,” John Paul said. “May God grant that we be free from the peril of a tragic clash between cultures and religions.”

The pope also called for the resolution of other “forgotten conflicts,” including the Israeli/Palestinian standoff.

For one expert on the Vatican and foreign affairs, the pope’s campaign represents a new level of ecumenical agreement on the issue of war and peace. For another, however, the recent Vatican stance exposes the weaknesses of the church’s position in its criticism of the West and an apparent unwillingness to make similar criticism of human rights violations in developing countries.

On April 22, retired Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, the Vatican’s foreign minister for 10 years under John Paul II, told La Repubblica that the pope’s efforts had generated an unheard-of ecumenical consensus that could lay the foundation for a pan-Christian push against war.

“In the entire Christian world, there was a spontaneous consensus around the pope never before seen,” Silvestrini said. “I don’t recall any epoch in which the pope had such attention from Christians of the various confessions, from patriarchs and bishops. It was as if all had said: ‘You are our spiritual guide in this reflection on peace.’ ”

Silvestrini said this support elicited a dream. “I’m thinking about an ecumenical convocation in which the exponents of the Christian churches together with the pope could carry out a grand reflection on the responsibility of Christians with respect to war,” he said.

A new ecumenical consensus, Silvestrini argued, could be the “good” to come from the “evil” of the Iraq conflict.

In an exclusive April 18 interview with NCR, however, one of Italy’s leading political writers was more critical of the Vatican’s diplomatic campaign.

Ernesto Galli della Loggia said he was surprised not by the Holy See’s position on the war, but by the tone of its opposition, and especially by what he saw as its uncritical commentary about Iraq.

Galli della Loggia noted that in John Paul’s United Nations speeches on peace, the pope had always placed his message in the context of human rights. Yet the pope has not, he said, used human rights language much during the Iraq crisis. Galli della Loggia suggested this may be because references to human rights would invite awkward questions about the brutal character of the Saddam Hussein government.

Galli della Loggia is a professor of political science, an editorialist for Italy’s leading daily Corriere della Sera, and a familiar figure on the conference circuit in Rome. He is seen as especially close to Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of the Rome archdiocese and president of the Italian bishops’ conference.

Galli della Loggia said that the Iraq crisis exposed a fundamental weakness in the Vatican’s foreign policy -- a hesitation to confront corrupt regimes in the developing world.

“The Vatican wants to be a global voice of conscience, supporting developing nations,” Galli della Loggia said. “Often they express this support by spouting the same economic formula they always recycle, blaming rich nations for poverty. … But the principal obstacle to social and economic development is not the West, but dictatorial and corrupt regimes that strangle their own people. Catholic missionaries and even the Vatican polemicize against the West, hiding local responsibility. They’re afraid of being tossed into the ‘Western’ mix if they make problems for these governments.

“Ironically, the only governments the church criticizes are in the West, where it knows it won’t have to pay any price because those governments respect human rights,” Galli della Loggia said.

In that sense, Galli della Loggia said the Vatican may have engaged in a realpolitik calculation in tilting away from the American position.

“They probably think that no matter what the pope says, American Catholics will be OK and the American administration will still see the Vatican as a great global institution. In that sense, there’s nothing to lose by coming out against the Americans, and everything to gain by siding with Islam,” he said.

He offered two other factors to account for the break between the Vatican and Washington. First, he said that many Europeans in the Vatican have long harbored doubts about an Atlantic alliance dominated by the Americans. Such a system, they believe, would signal the victory of Protestant America over Catholic Europe.

Second, Galli della Loggia said that the cluster of Protestant “radicals” such as John Ashcroft in the Bush administration is troubling to some in the Holy See.

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

National Catholic Reporter, May 2, 2003

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