End Notes: Home Thoughts From Abroad


June 1, 2003

During the war in Iraq, I was in Rome, and I often visited a massive marble memorial in the eucharistic chapel of St. John Lateran. It rises almost to the ceiling and features Christ on the papal throne flanked by two disconsolate figures, one holding the keys, the other the papal tiara. Beneath are battle scenes and the pope blessing soldiers. This is the inscription: Fortibus viris qui iura sedis apostolicae profuso sanguine asserverunt AD MDCCCLX (To the brave men who shed their blood in defense of the rights of the Holy See). Those commemorated fought in the battles in which the papal troops were defeated by Victor Emmanuel. The days of the pope’s temporal power were over.

I am not nostalgic for the return of the papal states, nor would I want the Swiss Guard to turn in their pikestaffs for machine guns. Most of us have been schooled to think that the shrinkage of the pope’s domain to the few acres that make up Vatican City was simply a result of progress, the spread of freedom and independence. But the victors prevailed by the use of military force; and the loser, Pius IX, called out the troops to defend his rights in battle. Force was used; blood was shed.

Rome, of course, became an empire by the use of force, expanding in all directions, her legions battling the hordes that opposed them. Pagan stuff? In the baptistry of St. John Lateran there are massive paintings commemorating the first Christian emperor Constantine’s triumphs and battles, and in the piazza outside a purloined obelisk marks the spot where he was baptized. Some Catholics lament the Constantine era in the Church and probably think of it as extending at least to those 1860 defeats of papal arms.

Memorials to past wars and battles were a welcome antidote to the odd pacifism emanating from many sources in the Vatican. It was not simply that arguments were made against the war in Iraq; there was the suggestion that war itself is always and everywhere per se immoral, evil, an offense against humanity. Has the Church embraced pacifism? Is President George W. Bush a public sinner?

Surely it is not a gaucherie to recall that the pope himself used to go to war. Was the death penalty outlawed in the papal states? Can the same actions stop being good and become bad? Of course they can, in some sense of “same.” The use of force is sometimes good and sometimes bad, depending. Taking the life of another is sometimes bad, sometimes not, as in the case of the convicted criminal. The conditions for a just war must be fulfilled if it comes to the use of force. One of the oddities of the Vatican advice directed to President Bush was that it consisted largely of preaching to the choir. Has any president gone more slowly to war or conducted it with such moral sensitivity? The president did not have different conditions for justifying war from those churchmen. He applied the principles and went to war. I think he was more than justified in doing so. To argue otherwise ought not be made to sound like the rejection of the Church’s tradition on just war.

George Weigel told me recently that he was seeing the same assumption spreading about war as about the death penalty. It is widely believed that the Church condemns both, as such, no exceptions. They are intrinsically evil, never permitted. But that is not the teaching of the Church. You can look it up. Nowadays one runs the risk of being called a dissenting Catholic for recalling such Catholic doctrine.

Massimo Teodori has just published a book called Maledetti Americani (Damned Yankees) that analyzes Italian anti-Americanism on the Left, Right, and in the Church. You don’t have to be Muslim to hate America, obviously, as watching one of the mindless peace marches showed. There was the hammer and sickle flapping again in the Roman breeze, recalling the time when the PCI was all for peace and disarmament so the Soviet Union could catch up with us. When peace becomes a battle cry, watch out.

We live in odd times. Prelates speak of the United Nations as if it were some kind of government that issued licenses to govern. Some in Rome have even shown a weakness for a world court. This drifting toward abstraction is dangerous, as is the fuzzy pacifism that accompanies it. Subsidiarity points in the opposite direction, and ultimately to the family. Fathers defend their families. War is that writ large. Turning the other cheek? Yes, but one’s own, not that of one’s family. Or of one’s country.



  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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