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Pope John Paul II and the Iraq War

Promoting Peace in a Bellicose World

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The most public and serious condemnations of the invasion of Iraq came from Pope John Paul II and other top officials at the Vatican. Catholic leaders did as much as they could to dissuade Britain and America from their bellicose course of action, but to no avail. Conservative Catholics in America did as much as they could to convince the Vatican and Pope John Paul II that the invasion was not only morally licit, but also a very good idea. They, too, failed.

John Paul was unequivocal in his sympathy for the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and his condemnations of terrorism. At the same time, though, he had long been a persistent critic of Western policies that have led to poverty and resentment among Muslims in the Middle East. He was the first pope to visit Israel, but he was also critical of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians. If there is any sort of “middle ground” to be walked between Western and Muslim interests in the Middle East, he has done his best to find it.

In January, 2003, Pope John Paul told his Diplomatic Corps:

    “War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity... War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations… War cannot be decided upon…except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations.”

John Paul was not a pacifist — he describes war as a “last resort,” not as an impossible resort. At the same time, though, he never thought that the invasion of Iraq had reached the “last resort” stage. Catholic Bishops in the United States and Great Britain were unanimous in their support for his message of peace.

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the invasion of Iraq did not “meet the strict conditions of Catholic teaching for the use of military force.” Bishop John Michael Botean of Canton, Ohio, even went so far as to declare that fighting against Iraqis was a mortal sin. Papal representatives met with President George Bush to try to change his mind.

Andrew Greeley wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times:

    “The papacy does not accept the theory of unilateral preventive war. It does not agree with the Bush administration's foreign policy. It did not think that all possible grounds for a peaceful solution were exhausted before the American attack and, like most of Europe, it did not believe that there was sufficient evidence of weapons of mass destruction — and it turns out that they and not the Bush administration were right. It urged that nothing happen until the completion of the U.N. arms inspection — and it turns out that here again the pope was right and the president was wrong.... The teaching on the Iraq war is not “authoritative.” Yet, ought not Catholic conservatives, who virtually worship the pope, at least listen to him respectfully on this subject?”

Conservative Catholics from America launched their own public relations blitz to try to convince the Vatican and Pope John Paul II to change. People who are more often seen condemning liberal Catholics for their dissent from Vatican teachings on abortion or birth control were themselves going to great lengths to justify their dissent from Vatican pronouncements on war. So-called “Cafeteria Catholicism” where one picks and chooses which teachings to accept or ignore is not limited to liberals.

What made this situation even more ironic is the fact that Pope John Paul II very explicitly linked his rejection of the justness of invading Iraq with his rejection of the justness of actions like abortion. For him, it was all part of the “culture of death” which he has been attacking throughout his pontificate. Conservatives who accept this rhetoric on some matters were openly rejecting it on others — specifically, the invasion of Muslim nations.

Eventually, though, even Pope John Paul II had to give up his opposition to the war and deal with the cold, violent realities on the ground. He no longer inveighs against the invasion and Vatican officials insist that Western troops need to stay in Iraq as long as is necessary in order to ensure the stability of the nation and freedom of the Iraqi people. To quote one source at the Vatican, “The vase had been broken, and we have to try to find a way to mend it.”

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