Rome, U.S.: Differing Worldviews: Bush, Pope Diverge on Views of Power, War, International Law

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 2004 | Go to article overview

Rome, U.S.: Differing Worldviews: Bush, Pope Diverge on Views of Power, War, International Law


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


During the Christmas season, Pope John Paul II's health was sufficiently strong that people actually paid some attention to what he had to say, rather than the manner in which he said it. The pope read all his speeches, completed all his planned activities, and did so with a bit of verve, which meant that we were largely spared micro-analysis of his every cough and hiccup.

The pope's message, to steal a phrase from John Lennon, was simple: Give peace a chance.

By now, the world is accustomed to papal pleas for peace, which can seem pro forma. Yet the pope's call this time went beyond the mere sentimental expression of Christmas-season good wishes, to a concrete political stance in favor of a more muscular, effective system of international law.

"The need is ever more felt for a new international order, the fruit of the experience and results obtained in these years by the United Nations," John Paul said in his homily Jan. 1. "It must be an order capable of providing adequate solutions to today's problems, founded on the dignity of the human person, on an integral development of society on solidarity between rich countries and poor countries, and on sharing of resources and the extraordinary results of scientific and technical progress."

Those comments echoed John Paul's message for World Peace Day, Jan. 1, released in early December. In it the pope argued that "peace and international law are closely linked to one another; law favors peace."

The message was carefully phrased to avoid suspicions of anti-American bias, and indeed U.S. diplomatic observers found much to appreciate. For one thing, the pope acknowledged that existing international law is often inadequate for conflicts involving non-state actors, especially terrorist groups. For another, John Paul rejected the idea that dictators can avoid responsibility for their crimes by calling them "internal matters."

Moreover, the rather soft criticism of the American-led war in Iraq implied in papal rhetoric about international law hardly represents a low ebb in U.S.-Vatican relations. Despite all the tensions of the past 18 months, including the recent flap over Cardinal Renato Martino's expression of sympathy for Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration still enjoys a rapport with the Holy See infinitely warmer than that of the Clinton White House.

What is becoming steadily more clear, however, is that Rome and Washington are not the natural political allies that some imagined during the Cold War, when CIA spymasters are said to have shared satellite photos of Soviet troop movements with John Paul as part of a "sacred alliance" against communism. While the Vatican and the White House share a common interest in promoting liberty and human rights, especially religious freedom, they also hold sharply divergent views on crucial matters of international policy. Given that the United States is the world's lone superpower and the papacy the world's most important voice of conscience, their differences are especially high-stakes.

Recent experience reveals four such points of conflict:

* Preventive war

When American Catholic intellectual Michael Novak came to Rome in February 2003 to try to soften opposition to the war in Iraq, he argued that decapitating the Hussein regime was a matter of self-defense, given Hussein's alleged links to terrorism, and hence did not require a doctrine of "preventive war." Novak is a skilled debater, but most observers didn't seem to buy it. Iraq did not appear to pose a threat of imminent assault upon the United States; the danger was more diffuse and indirect, given Hussein's alleged weapons stockpile and history of recklessness. Hence this was a new kind of war, designed to remove a threat before it metastasized.

The Bush administration believes that sometimes such strikes will be necessary, arguing that it's absurd to wait until a thug shoots before you disarm him. …

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