Pope’s answer to Rumsfeld pulls no punches in opposing war


A senior Vatican official says that Catholic “just war” doctrine is undergoing an evolution similar to that on capital punishment, from grudging acceptance to a quasi-abolitionist stance. In both cases, he said, modern society has the means to resolve problems without the use of lethal force.

Thus the Catholic response to a “preventive war” in Iraq is a resounding “no,” the official said.

Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, made the comments in a Feb. 4 interview with NCR in his office in Rome’s Piazza San Calisto.

“I would draw a parallel with the death penalty,” Martino said. “In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there is an admission that the death penalty could be needed in extreme cases. But Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae said that society has all the means now to render a criminal harmless who before might have been sent to the gallows.

“This could well apply to the case of war. Modern society has to have, and I think it has, the means to avoid war, Martino said.

Martino argued that non-violent alternatives exist to a “preventive war” in Iraq.

“Resolution 1441 contains all the elements in order to solve the problem without going to war,” he said. “If there is indeed any proof [that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction], the inspectors are ready to receive them, and to proceed to either destroy them or render them harmless. Let’s try this first.”

Martino, who returned to Rome in October from 16 years as the Vatican’s observer at the United Nations, has in recent weeks emerged as John Paul II’s answer to Donald Rumsfeld: a blunt, pull-no-punches senior official unafraid to take a hard line. In Martino’s case, however, the hard line is in favor of peace.

He offered vivid details to support his assertion that war would exact an “unimaginable” cost.

“War is bloodshed, destruction, disaster, and death,” he said. “I heard just yesterday that at Sigonella [a U.S. naval base in Sicily], 100,000 bags, the kind used for dead bodies, have been brought there, along with 6,000 coffins. Those are not for the Iraqi soldiers! There’s a floating hospital with 1,000 beds, and it will not be treating soldiers who just got a scratch. We’re talking about incredible loss of life.

“I heard too that the Americans foresee a loss of 15,000 American soldiers. Whoever is preparing a war has to take into account the cost that any strike will provoke on the enemies, in the area, on friends, and on its own side.”

Martino allowed for the “extreme possibility” of war, if convincing proof is offered and Iraq refuses to disarm, but said even then the means of the war would have to be just, meaning protecting civilian populations, and the potential consequences of conflict would have to be weighed.

“There will be an increase in terrorist acts, I’m sure,” Martino said. “There will be fire, tumult, all over the Middle East. The oil supplies could suffer. The environment could be endangered, as happened in the Gulf War, and in an even worse manner this time.

“Another element to take into account is world public opinion,” Martino said. “Everybody is against the war.”

Pointing to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Martin challenged Bush and the West to resolve it before striking Iraq.

“There is a double standard. We already have a war, why don’t you stop that one instead of starting another one?”

Contrary to expectations, Martino told NCR he will not be meeting with American Catholic intellectual Michael Novak, whose trip to Rome to argue for the morality of a “preventive war” in Iraq is being sponsored by the U.S. embassy to the Holy See.

Martino will be in Malaysia and Thailand during Novak’s stay. Though Novak will see members of his staff, he did not hold out much hope his mission would succeed.

“We all know what the pope has said on so many occasions now. If Novak can reverse what the pope has said, well, good for him,” Martino said.

Like other Vatican officials in recent weeks, Martino expressed strong skepticism about the motives of the Bush administration for seeking conflict. Asked if, like the semi-official Vatican journal Civilità Cattolica, he believes oil is a factor, he was indirect but clear.

“I don’t have the list of the advantages that those who want the conflict are seeking,” he said. “But I can say that it’s not excluded that this is on the list of advantages.”

So when Donald Rumsfeld says oil has nothing to do with it, Martino finds that hard to believe?

“I’m not the only one,” he said.

Martino said that Western policy-makers should examine their own responsibility for global conflicts.

“Why do we impose our cultural patterns, of consumption, of corruption, of sex, of whatever, on the other parts of the world? They get fed up with that,” he said.

“When developing nations have been given promises of help, of debt forgiveness, and they are not kept, this causes frustration,” Martino said. “That frustration can translate into terrorism. When a young man doesn’t foresee anything for his future, being dead or alive is about equal.”

“I always say that terrorism can be eradicated not only by rendering harmless one or two thousand terrorists, but by searching for the causes of terrorism,” Martino said. “Those causes are three kinds: political, economic and cultural. If we examine our conscience, we can say that there has been, and there is, oppression on these three fronts.”

Martino stopped short of counseling Catholic men and women in the U.S. armed forces to refuse to cooperate in the event of war. “The responsibility is not theirs, it is of those who send them,” he said.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 2003