Mixed Messages on Force Abound during Papal Trip

By Allen, John L. JR. | National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Mixed Messages on Force Abound during Papal Trip


Allen, John L. JR., National Catholic Reporter


The pope is not a pacifist, papal spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls said, and the church recognizes a right to self defense.

As Pope John Paul II began a late September journey to central Asia, a region seemingly destined to form the front line of America's new war against terrorism, one towering question loomed: What would be said about the use of force?

Twenty-four hours into the trip, we had an answer.

Then 24 hours later, we had another.

By the time John Paul boarded an Armenia Airlines jet to go back to Rome, Catholic leaders seemed to be groping toward yet a third.

Perhaps the new kind of war American officials are now describing demands new ethical thinking, and the Vatican has simply not had time to craft a clear response. Perhaps, too, the reality of an aging pontiff with a limited capacity to enter into the details of policy questions breeds a certain ambiguity as subordinates attempt to fill the void.

In any case, the bottom line is that John Paul's Sept. 22-27 visit to Kazakhstan and Armenia, the 95th foreign journey of his pontificate, offered a decidedly mixed message about how to respond to the terrorist threat.

John Paul led off with what seemed a ringing anti-war plea. "We must not let what has happened lead to a deepening of divisions," he said at the end of a Mass in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, Sept. 23.

Though he celebrated the Mass in Russian, the pope added these last-minute remarks in English. A Vatican official told reporters that John Paul had penned the addition himself, a few hours after reading President George W. Bush's speech to the U.S. Congress "a couple of times," and after talking to advisers.

"I wish to make an earnest call to everyone, Christians and followers of other religions, that we work together to build a world without violence, a world that loves life and grows in justice and solidarity," the pope said.

John Paul prayed that "the supreme good of peace may reign in the world."

News agencies reported that the pope was implicitly criticizing the idea of military strikes in response to the terrorist attacks.

Spokesperson speaks out

The next day, on Sept. 24, papal spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls gave an exclusive interview to Reuters that quickly changed that impression.

Navarro-Valls, choosing his words with care, said the Vatican "would understand" if Bush were to use force to protect the United States from terrorist threats. The pope is not a pacifist, Navarro-Valls said, and the church recognizes a right to self-defense.

"It is certain that, if someone has done great harm to society and there is a danger that if he remains free he may be able to do it again, you have the right to apply self-defense for the society which you lead, even though the means you choose may be aggressive," Navarro-Valls said.

"Sometimes self-defense implies an action which may lead to the death of a person," he added.

Navarro-Valls did not, strictly speaking, repeal anything the pope had said. John Paul himself took a strong line against "hatred, fanaticism and terrorism" in a Sept. 24 address, rejecting attempts to make God "the hostage of human ambitions."

Still, the impression of a change in emphasis, a kind of correction of the pope's message, was hard to avoid.

On Sept. 23, John Paul had said, "With all my heart, I beg God to keep the world in peace." Navarro-Valls seemed to stop just short of calling that kind of thinking naive: "In the name of peace, even some horrible injustices may be carried out," he said.

When pressed, Navarro-Valls said he had done no more than restate the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The inconsistency between Navarro-Valls and his boss put media outlets in the odd position of deciding whether to give more weight to the words of the pope or his spokesperson.

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