ANALYSIS. The Catholic Church and the war
The first Stations of the Cross of the 21st century
The Iraqi conflict was not for the Pope “a war” to be deplored. From the very first moment it was felt as a “sign of the times”, the troubling signal of a break with the rules that had governed the life of the international community for half a century, and the warning of a will to power the outcome of which is unpredictable
by Marco Politi
For John Paul II the Iraq war is the first Stations of the Cross of the 21st century. A painful road that has involved innocent peoples, a choice of violence bringing death to those, on both sides of the Atlantic, who had the right to continue living, a diabolic temptation to use power, a manifestation of the selfishness of a tyrant, violence done to international law, a wound to the co-existence of peoples, of cultures, of religions.
John Paul II during the Stations of the Cross in the Colosseum on 23 March 2002
That is why in his Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum, John Paul II this year chose rending words of death. «The earth has turned into a cemetery. How many men, how many graves, a great planet of tombs...». A discourse of his own, written in 1976 for Paul VI, and so felt with even greater intensity. Enriched with the image of Mary, stooping over mankind to listen and soothe «the wailing of her children».
Undoubtedly for the believer the sepulchre of the Risen One is a pledge of salvation, but the joy of Easter cannot and must not make us forget the tombs planted by the violence of a war that was avoidable and the immorality of which no success on the battlefield can erase.
Karol Wojtyla has lived the last months – from the threatening start of American preparations for war to the sabotaging of the work of the UN inspectors, from the ultimatum launched by Bush, ignoring the legality of the UN, down to the unleashing of weapons – in full knowledge of the historical importance of the event.
The Iraqi conflict was not for the Pope “a war” to be deplored. From the very first moment it was felt as a “sign of the times”, the troubling signal of a break with the rules that had governed the life of the international community for half a century, and the warning of a will to power the outcome of which is unpredictable.
There have been two moments in contemporary history in which Pope Wojtyla has lucidly grasped the shaping of a change, of the turning of a page by the angel or the spirit of History, and with equal lucidity he has engaged in a geopolitical struggle.
The first time was in the ‘eighties, when he grasped before the western political leaders that the birth of Solidarnosc in Poland was not a phenomenon of rebellion or reform that could be absorbed by the communist system but was the manifestation of the radical loss of consensus to the Soviet model. This explains the stubborn insistence with which the Pope defended the re-emergence on the scene of Lech Walesa and would accept nothing in lieu, not even clerical privileges. Because Walesa and the trade union, «and no one else», constituted the direction to be taken if there was to be a break with the single-party system. Those years were marked by international political activity on the part of the Holy See of great range, prudence and tenacity, not least through a strategic convergence with the America of Ronald Reagan in confronting the “empire of evil”. «The shame of our times», as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described it in a celebrated document.
The same acumen in grasping that a new (and dangerous) page was being turned in the history of mankind was shown by Karol Wojtyla when, from the autumn of 2002, the American ideologists of “unharnessed power” nailed George W. Bush down on the trajectory of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And once again, with identical energy and neglectful of his age, Pope Wojtyla developed a planetary policy to ensure that it was obvious in the eyes of peoples that there was, «and still is», an alternative way to govern the crisis of the world.
It is worth remembering the climate last autumn. The “no” of Germany, it was said, was just an electoral ploy. France would protest but would then be careful not to use its veto in the Security Council. Russia would make a shrewd accord with the United States. And everybody, with a bit of muttering here and there, would jump on the band-wagon or put the best face on it they could, letting the green light from the UN open the way for an attack on Iraq.
The opposite happened and it’s easy enough to work out that John Paul II’s work contributed powerfully to shaping and reinforcing the vast front that has delegitimated Bush’s war, preventing the American superpower from picking up at the UN – despite pressure, threats and economic blackmail – the majority necessary for imparting the species of legality to the undertaking. If Chile and Mexico, so concerned to have good relations with the US, did not say yes; if Germany stood fast on its negative stance, despite the criticism of Chancellor Schroeder by the Christian Democrat opposition; if Canada, doubly bound to the United States through the extraordinary scale of their trade, right up to the end backed proposals to give more time to the UN inspectors; if in Italy and in Spain – whose governments are nevertheless aligned with Bush – the vast majority of the population has taken up a stance against the war, a part was undoubtedly played by the unheard-of mobilization in favor of peace of the Catholic hierarchy occasioned by John Paul II.
The Pope developed his policy with gradualness and without chasing after easy effects. In October he sent a confidential letter to President Bush exhorting him to act within the framework of the United Nations, then from December he began to send out precise signals through his closest collaborators. His foreign minister, Monsignor Jean-Louis Tauran, attacked the baselessness of “pre-emptive war” and made clear that «there would be the danger of the law of the jungle» if every country were to decide to “make order” in whatever part of the world best suited it. The Cardinal Secretary of State, Angelo Sodano, repeated that pre-emptive war did not belong to the vocabulary of the UN and warned the US about the danger of creating a long-lasting divide between the West and the Islamic world. Monsignor Renato Martino, President of the Papal Council Iustitia et Pax, explained that there can be no «global policeman to put a straitjacket on those who behave badly».
In equal fashion – awaiting each time the most opportune moment – the Pope sent his envoys Cardinals Roger Etchegaray and Pio Laghi to Baghdad and Washington to invite the Iraqi and American leaders to have a sense of responsibility, asking Saddam Hussein to comply with complete willingness to the demands of the United Nations, and George W. Bush not to abandon the road of multi-lateralism and of agreement on international co-existence set down in the UN Charter. At the same time Wojtyla’s view was pushed ahead by a variegated movement of parishes, associations, bishops, cardinals that was without precedent in terms of the breadth and intensity of the mobilization.
And yet one would understand nothing of the personality of Karol Wojtyla if one failed to take into account that the mystic and preacher of the Gospel shine through every moment of his public activity. His powerful references to the Lamentations of Jeremiah («If I go out into the open fields, behold those pierced with the sword; if I roam the city, behold the horrors of hunger!»), his invitations to prayer, his warnings on the «silence of God», his exhortation to the fast of peace that found such choral assent among multitudes of non-believers, have proved – physically I’d like to say – that lived faith is not empty consolation, disembodied spiritualism, but a concrete factor in promoting the common good. Fides et Ratio, the pole stars of one of his recent encyclicals, can rightly constitute the emblem of the geopolitical commitment of the Pope at this time. Because through faith and through reason John Paul II has worked for co-existence and the development of relations of harmony among mankind no matter what their differences of race, religion, culture or economic system.
Iraqi soldier's body, died during Bassora's battle
For today and for tomorrow
Once the war broke out, with the outcome never in doubt, people asked what was the point of his long struggle. The conclusion, often implicit in the question, is that it’s better to give in to Realpolitik and let John Paul II’s appeals be shelved away in the archives of good moral, if not moralistic, proposals.
But that’s not the way of it. Karol Wojtyla – along with the ranks of France, Russia and Germany, the non-aligned movement, the Arab countries, the many Latin American, Asian and African countries – has prevented the United Nations from losing their legitimacy for the future by giving the go-ahead for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. For those who do not want the spread of a chaotic law of the strongest, the UN still remains today the sole guarantor of international legality as has been systematically said in the communiqués from the Holy See after the many meetings the Pope has had with Joschka Fischer, Kofi Annan, Tony Blair, Tarek Aziz, Silvio Berlusconi. The Pope’s preaching has made everybody understand – especially in the Middle East – that Bush’s war is not a clash between western Christianity and Islam. John Paul II has finally managed to reaffirm that religions, unlike the way they are lived by fundamentalists, must not be instruments of conflict but can be – and are – factors of brotherhood and co-existence. The joint communiqués of Anglicans and Catholics in England, the documents signed by Jews, Christians and Muslims in France, the appeal to the Pope of the Protestants and Orthodox on the National Council of American Churches to come and address the United Nations, the acknowledgements from Middle Eastern Islamic leaders, are the precious seeds of a future geopolitics, characterized by dialogue and comparison of views (and even by a legitimate clash of interests under the aegis, however, of shared international rules).
Now that Iraq seems conquered all the worried forecasts expressed on several sides on the eve of the war - that made Cardinal Roger Etchegaray exclaim that we were facing the «Third World War» - are coming to the fore. The destabilization of international relations is, as underlined by the President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference Cardinal Camillo Ruini, very deep. What’s going to take over in Iraq is not democracy but an American proconsul with stars-and stripes overseers in the ministries and a Prefect for Oil, who is a former executive of Shell. According to the White House, the UN will only act as supervisor of humanitarian aid.
In his recent meeting with the French minister Dominique de Villepin, John Paul II indicated the course that the Holy See means to take: to allow the Iraqis to decide on their own future and on their own resources, to give the United Nations the central role in the transition to peace.
We already know that the hawks around Bush are mocking these demands. World public opinion seems, however, to be taking the side of the “old man of Rome”. And that is a miracle of the third millennium that nobody in the conclave of October 1978 would even have dared conceive.