Praying for Papal Intervention
Washington Post By Mary McGrory
Thursday, February 27, 2003
John Paul II is causing heartburn among one of the president's key
constituencies: conservative Catholics. The pope is unequivocally and
fervently against the war in Iraq, and George W. Bush, who fancies
himself something of a spiritual leader, has to grin and bear it.
His holiness cannot be attacked like other war critics, such as France and Germany.
Even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the designated hit man
for "appeasers," dares not inveigh against the supreme pontiff of a
church with a congregation of a billion. Ari Fleischer, spokesman for a
White House that is now wooing nations such as Angola, said stiffly,
"It is the papacy's right to engage in dialogue."
Despite the fact that he has, as Joseph Stalin memorably pointed
out, no divisions, and that he is so elderly and infirm that some
regard him as of no consequence, John Paul seems to have been revived
by the chance to take the lead in resistance to preemptive war.
Our ambassador to the Vatican, Jim Nicholson, former chairman of
the Republican National Committee, was in Washington in January
bewailing the difficulties of convincing the prelate that the war so
ardently sought by President Bush would be "a just war." He sent for
Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, a sometime Bush
speechwriter. Novak never did get in to see the pope to straighten him
Bush and John Paul see eye to eye on abortion and cloning, but they
are worlds apart on a preemptive strike against Iraq, and his holiness
never misses a chance to show or tell his opposition to a war that Bush
and his principal ally, Tony Blair, have sought to invest with a high
No matter what they say, his holiness says war is "always a defeat for humanity."
He has also insisted that Saddam Hussein make "concrete
commitments" to disarm. He sent one of his cardinals, the venerable
Roger Etchegaray, to Baghdad with an urgent message to that effect.
Bush and Blair both suggest that they made their decisions for force on
their knees and that they regard participation in the fight as their
Christian duty. Blair, in one of his suicidally loyal pro-Bush
statements, has declared that ridding the Iraqis of Saddam Hussein
would be "an act of humanity." The pope may well think that as a
theologian and a moralist he outpoints both Bush and Blair. He
understandably may consider himself a superior diplomat as well -- he
is credited with a major role in the bloodless victory against
communism in his native Poland. His spokesmen note the folly of
enraging a billion Muslims by attacking a Muslim nation. It is because
of such pronouncements and a stubborn refusal to acquiesce to the
inevitable that the Independent newspaper of London referred recently
to the vicar of Christ as being, "from the Anglo-American perspective,
a considerable nuisance."
His holiness's list of visitors has been provocative: U.N.
Secretary General Kofi Annan, Germany's militantly antiwar foreign
minister, Joschka Fischer, and, most annoying to the Oval Office,
Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz. Tony Blair and his Catholic
wife were greeted like royalty, and nothing is said about the
Some Catholics want the pope, the only card the peaceniks have
since Colin Powell went south, to do more. Tom Fox, intrepid publisher
of the National Catholic Reporter, who was here recently with a new
book, "Pentecost in Asia," would like John Paul to make his last
pilgrimage for peace to Baghdad. The father of Fox's Jewish
daughter-in-law suggested it to him, and Fox thinks that "it would be
terrific if the presence of the pope would avert this slaughter."
Richard McBrien, the prominent Notre Dame theologian, disagrees. He
fears that Hussein would turn a papal visit into a propaganda bazaar
and that its purpose would get mangled. Unfortunately, Hussein thinks
he won a victory in the massive worldwide peace marches. McBrien thinks
that if any traveling is involved, John Paul should head for Washington
and the Oval Office to see Bush, "the only man who could stop the war."
The president declines to see representatives of the antiwar
National Council of Churches, which is headed by fellow Methodist
Robert Edgar. He could not refuse to see the pope.
For the pope, an American journey could be a restoring finale to
his many pilgrimages for peace. His relations with U.S. Catholics were
strained during the recent pedophile scandal and his defense of
Cardinal Bernard Law. A curia cardinal suggested to the press that the
pontiff was more concerned "over peace in the world." Now, when it is
in such peril, he is the last best hope of reprieve.