The American-Vatican Divide: Abuse Crisis, War on Iraq Revive Historical Distance between Divergent Cultures. (Analysis)

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 2003 | Go to article overview

The American-Vatican Divide: Abuse Crisis, War on Iraq Revive Historical Distance between Divergent Cultures. (Analysis)


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


Although the shooting in Iraq may be over, the war of words between Rome and Washington continues, as the Vatican has once again criticized American policy in remarkably strong terms. As things turn out, the "clash of culture" most exacerbated by the Iraq war may not be between Christianity and Islam, but between the Holy See and the United States.

If so, it would mark not a new chapter in relations between the United States and the Vatican, but a return to the ambiguity that has long characterized attitudes in Rome toward the superpower across the Atlantic. This reserve has been rekindled in recent months not only by the war, but also by the American sex abuse crisis, both of which have suggested to Vatican observers that the ghost of John Calvin is alive and well in contemporary American culture.

The vehicle for the latest critique was the Jesuit-edited journal Civilta Cattolica, whose pages are reviewed by the Vatican Secretariat of State before publication. In the lead editorial of its May 17 issue, the journal asserted that "the United States has put international law in crisis."

The editorial said the U.S.-declared war on terrorism has generated strong anti-American sentiment in Europe. Especially repugnant, it said, has been the decision to hold 600 Taliban, including five teenagers between 13 and 16 and five men over 80, at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba without recognizing them as prisoners of war.

In another explosive charge, the editorial said the rebuilding of Iraq seems "chancy" because "the Western countries that should make it happen seem more interested in exploiting Iraqi oil than in the reconstruction of the country." It is not the first time Civilta Cattolica has suggested that oil interests are driving American policy.

The editorial bluntly said the war was unjustified.

Noting that Iraq's army was weak, and that weapons of mass destruction have not been found, the editorial said these facts "have clearly shown that there were not sufficient reasons for moving against Iraq, because the country did not constitute a true threat for the United States and its allies."

The editorial said the most urgent task now is to "reestablish international legality, wounded by the 'unilateralism' of the United States." It called for the United Nations, not the United States, to direct the postwar work in Iraq.

"It's a matter of relaunching the spirit of the United Nations charter, based on cooperation, rather than on competition among enemy states and on domination of an imperialistic sort by the hegemonic superpower."

Many Americans have been surprised to hear this sort of language, which calls to mind harsh anti-American broadsides of the European left.

Likewise, key officials in the Bush administration were initially taken off guard by the depth of Vatican opposition to the war. Condoleeza Rice was not being disingenuous when she told the Italian weekly Panorama that she "didn't understand" the Vatican's argument. That incomprehension was widely shared among American personnel both in Washington and in Rome.

This surprise, in part, reflects the fact that the political psychology of many Americans, including key Bush administration officials, took shape in the Reagan years. During the Cold War there was a clear intersection of interests between the United States and the Holy See in support of anti-Soviet resistance in Eastern Europe, above all Solidarity in Poland. Some American Catholic thinkers, most eminently George Weigel and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, saw this "holy alliance" as a harbinger of a broader global partnership between America and the Catholic church, based on shared values (pro-life, pro-family) and on political objectives (pro-human rights, pro-free trade and democracy).

The project, on this theory, was delayed by eight years of Clinton liberalism, but the election of Bush put things back on track. …

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