What the War Revealed

In the run-up to the recent Gulf War, I received a letter from a reader of the Irish Catholic, for which I was at that point still editor, declaring that if I kept up my support for the United States’s position with regard to Iraq, I would find myself automatically excommunicated from the Church. I had previously heard of Catholics who supported the war being described as dissidents, but to say that such people could consider themselves excommunicated was to take things to a new level entirely. My reader’s reasoning was that because so many Vatican-based bishops and cardinals—as well as other prelates from around the world—had come out against the war, their opposition amounted to a teaching of the Magisterium. To go against such a teaching was to take oneself automatically outside the Catholic Church.

My reader’s attitude, even if it was highly unusual, gives a pretty good idea of the depth of feeling against the war among many Catholics. On February 15, an estimated 100,000 people thronged Dublin’s city center to protest the war. Millions of others did so in other European cities. Many were practicing Catholics belonging to such groups as the Catholic Workers’ Movement. Priests and nuns also took part in the march. The Irish demonstration was addressed by Bishop John Kirby from the West Ireland diocese of Clonfert.

A noticeable feature of Catholic opposition to the war was that, outside America at least, it crossed the usual liberal/conservative divide. I had arguments with thoroughly orthodox pro-life priests who were bitterly opposed to the war and who even trotted out the line—familiar in left-wing circles—about America being the great despoiler of the world. In addition, and to the chagrin and embarrassment of pro-war Catholics, it seemed that those in opposition really could count the pope, and many other senior bishops as well, as being on their side.

Indeed, an honest observer would have to admit that it was very hard to distinguish between the pope’s position on Iraq and that of France. Neither absolutely opposed attacking Iraq under certain circumstances, and both believed the option of war might be considered once all other possibilities had been exhausted. It’s just that neither the pope nor France thought that this point had been reached.

Doubtless some readers will balk at the idea of comparing the pope’s position with that of Jacques Chirac. France’s opposition to the war was based mostly on cynical opportunism, not on principle. Nonetheless, the declared positions of both France and the pope were more or less the same.

Even after hostilities officially ended, Vatican officials continued to make their feelings known about the war. Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, who advises the Vatican on international affairs, accused the United States of running the risk of falling into moral isolationism in its conduct of foreign policy. Then he attacked American hawk Richard Perle by name. Perle had said the UN should be replaced by a “coalition of the willing” as the new instrument of international problem-solving. Silvestrini responded, saying, “These are far-fetched, if not infantile proposals.” In Vaticanese, this was about as savage an attack as they come. The Vatican and its officials usually speak only in general principles. They almost never attack people by name, least of all in these terms. As much as anything, this gives a good indication of the depth of Vatican opposition to the war.

So, what explains the hostility?

Anti-Americanism Abounds

First of all, a distinction needs to be made between those Catholics who were against this war because they thought it was imprudent and/or unjust and those who opposed it simply because they oppose anything America does. Into the first category falls the pope. Although there are aspects of American society that he would sharply criticize (as would most Catholics in the United States), nothing he has ever said could lead anyone reasonably to conclude that he dislikes America itself or what it stands for in the world.

Unfortunately many of those Catholics who opposed the war—especially in Europe—cannot be so exonerated. This Catholic anti-Americanism has a number of sources. First—and certainly it is a big factor in my own country—is anti-imperialism. Because Ireland existed for centuries as a British colony, and for more than a century was absorbed altogether into a political union with Britain, there’s a strong residue of anti-imperialism in Ireland. This makes Irish people identify with the “underdog” against whoever is the “imperial” power of the day. Since America is now identified by many as the great contemporary imperialist, there’s an instinctive reaction against it when it appears to be acting in a heavy-handed way overseas.

This anti-imperialism also partly explains why opposition to the war crossed the left/right divide. Anti-imperialists are usually strongly nationalistic, and nationalists come in left- and right-wing varieties in my country.

In the rest of Europe, right-wing opposition was also nationalist in character, although of a different sort to Irish nationalism. In a country like France, the right is reflexively anti-American because it feels that the United States has usurped France’s rightful place in the world. (We should never underestimate the extent of hurt French pride and what France will do to remedy that hurt.)

The second source of anti-Americanism is, of course, leftist ideology. Not only is America the great imperialist, it’s also the capitalist “Great Satan,” the exploiter of the world’s poor, the destroyer of the environment, etc. Priests and religious appear even more likely than lay Catholics to have this ideological outlook. In Ireland, for example, large numbers of missionary priests and nuns were radicalized through time in Latin America. Indeed, many worked in that part of the world in the 1970s and 1980s when the Sandinistas were in power in Nicaragua and Marxist guerillas were threatening to take over El Salvador. This was the era of Ronald Reagan, the Contras, and right-wing death squads.

Priests and nuns who had lost sight of the old missionary imperative to save souls had turned their attention instead to the struggle for social justice (as they defined it). They were drawn to liberation theology, and they identified the United States as Public Enemy No. 1—the main obstacle to the achievement of social justice in South America and elsewhere. This is one reason why so many priests and religious were to be found in antiwar (read anti-American) marches across Europe and the United States. After all, it wasn’t only Irish priests and nuns who turned left in Latin America—a lot of American priests and nuns did as well.

Of course others were radicalized even earlier, especially during the Vietnam War. (Think the Berrigan brothers.) Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, himself an opponent of that war, identified two different kinds of attitudes found among protestors. The first viewed America as a basically good country that had taken a wrong turn in Vietnam. The second, more radical view thought that the Vietnam War had revealed America’s true and evil nature once and for all. Too many clerics fell and fall—into this second category.

In Ireland only one priest came out publicly in favor of the war, Rev. Seamus Murphy. Father Murphy is an Irish Jesuit who’s very familiar with Catholic anti-Americanism; he has seen it up-close in his own order. A moral philosopher, he neatly inverted some of the arguments made against the war by clerics and did so by using—wait for it—liberation theology.

In an article in the March 27 Irish Catholic, Father Murphy wrote that the main justification for overthrowing Saddam Hussein was that it would end his reign of terror over his own people. Since liberation theology maintained the right of a people to overthrow a brutal oppressor, and since Iraqis had no hope of doing this unaided, they needed outside help:

To wonder whether there is sufficient justification for war is not unreasonable. But to claim, as have some senior clerics, that there is no justification at all is to close one’s eyes to the historical record and one’s ears to the victims. Liberation theology would say: God is with the victims, and failure to stand with them is a betrayal of the Gospel.

Father Murphy’s article met with a deafening silence.

Multilateralists in the Vatican

If anti-Americanism was one source of Catholic opposition to the war, and doubts about its justness another, there was a third that was overlooked by most observers: Vatican foreign policy. In the diplomatic battle that has raged ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall between multilateralists and unilateralists, the Vatican has placed itself firmly on the side of the multilateralists.

The extent to which the Church has done this was well demonstrated by the pope’s latest annual message for World Peace Day. In his message, the pope commented on John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), which had been released 40 years before.

He noted that since then, “the world has become more free, structures of dialogue and cooperation between nations have been strengthened, and the threat of a global nuclear war—which weighed so heavily on Pope John XXIII—has been effectively contained.”

Then he turned his attention to the negative side of the ledger. “There remains a serious disorder in world affairs, and we must face the question: What kind of order can replace this disorder so that men and women can live in freedom, justice, and security?”

Part of the answer, he suggested, lay in nothing less than a new “constitutional organization in the human family.” The pope didn’t explain what he meant by this seemingly radical proposal, but he made clear that he didn’t have in mind some kind of global superstate. Rather, his “constitutional organization” would “strengthen processes already in place to meet the almost universal demand for participatory ways of exercising political authority and for transparency and accountability at every level of public life.” At face value, this call seems unobjectionable enough… like the spread of democratic forms of governance throughout the world. This, of course, is exactly what the United States is working toward.

But the pope’s reference to an “international political authority” is telling.

He doesn’t mention the UN by name here but does give his backing to efforts to tie nations into international treaties and obligations:

Political summits on the regional and international levels serve the cause of peace only if joint commitments are then honored by each party. Otherwise they risk becoming irrelevant and useless, with the result that people believe less and less in dialogue and trust more in the use of force as a way of resolving issues.

Frankly, it’s hard to see how the pope had any country other than the United States in mind here. The message was issued at a time when world affairs were completely dominated by the looming war in Iraq. Also, in 2001 America caused a storm of protest by withdrawing from the Kyoto Accord on the environment and further angered the “international community” by refusing to ratify the International Criminal Court (ICC). Is this what he had in mind when he insisted that countries “honor” their “joint commitments”? In fact, the upcoming World Peace Day message will drive home this point. It is about the need to uphold international law.

Placed in the context of this firm commitment to multilateralism with its tools of international treaties, summits, and organizations, it’s no wonder so many prominent Vatican figures opposed the attack on Iraq. Quite apart from the justness or otherwise of the war, it dealt a hammer-blow to the painstaking efforts of the UN and the European Union in particular to tie the nations of the world into a network of obligations that would fetter their ability to act unilaterally. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger confirmed the Church’s commitment to multilateralism by noting, “Decisions like this [whether to go to war or not] should be made by the community of nations, by the UN, and not by an individual power.”

Why this attitude? Surely it cannot be for moral reasons. There’s nothing in the doctrinal or moral teachings of the Church that requires faithful Catholics to sign up for the multilateralist agenda. Therefore, its reasons must be prudential. Evidently, the Vatican believes that it will better promote international peace and order if nations take actions that affect the world at large only after first seeking the permission of organizations like the UN.

The Substitute Church

However, this judgment is based on the shakiest of premises. To begin with, why should we place such faith in the judgment of the UN? What exactly has it done to demonstrate that its judgment of what is best for the world ought to be heeded?

For some people, the UN acts as a sort of substitute, secular Church. Multilateralists also tend to be liberal and left-wing in their ideological orientation. They distrust the nation-state. They believe that universal human rights—as they define them—are best guaranteed by supposedly impartial international bodies such as the UN and the ICC.

But what multilateralists never seem to appreciate fully is that many of the rights they consider universal in character are not, nor are some of them rights at all (the “right” to abortion, for example).

Secondly the UN is not impartial, and it’s highly doubtful the ICC will turn out to be so either. The UN is made up of nations that act according to what they judge to be in their national interest. None acts impartially, and many of the countries that make up the UN are not even accountable to their own citizens. Why should their judgment in anything be trusted?

Also, when people suggest that the approval of the international community must be sought for actions like the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, what they mean in practice is the approval of the UN Security Council. This in turn means the approval of those countries that wield a veto on the council, namely the United States, Britain, China, Russia, and France.

In the case of the Iraq war, this involved seeking the approval of the last three of the above five nations. China, Russia, and France all had their own decidedly self-serving reasons for vetoing the proposed Anglo-American action. It’s hard to believe that anyone, least of all the Vatican, could seriously believe that America would ever let these three countries veto an action that it sincerely believed to be in its best interests. And, for that matter, would the Vatican ever let the “international community” veto its freedom of action? The Vatican has always—and rightly—been extremely protective of its prerogatives.

In addition, what would the attitude of the Vatican be if the international community refused to sanction action in a situation where it was absolutely required? Suppose another Rwanda arose and the United States was willing to send in forces to prevent genocide. And suppose one or other of the permanent members of the UN Security Council decided to use its veto for reasons of its own. Should the United States in such an eventuality refrain from intervening? Should it stand back and let a slaughter ensue?

The Vatican seems to overlook the very real possibility that sometimes the international community might be unable to arrive at a consensus where one is manifestly called for, and that in other circumstances it might arrive at one that’s simply immoral.

In such situations, it’s just as well that there’s a country with the military power to take unilateral action in parts of the world and that this country—the United States—is a democracy. Surely the Vatican above all organizations must know that sometimes unilateral action is morally required and that it’s occasionally necessary to stand against the consensus. The attitude of the Vatican is doubly bewildering when one considers how often it has found itself at loggerheads with various UN agencies over issues like abortion.

Surely it would be more sensible for the Vatican to support neither multilateralism nor unilateralism as a matter of policy. Instead it should judge international situations on a case-by-case basis and support unilateral or multilateral actions when called for. In the case of the Iraq war, it would probably have been best for the Vatican to stay out of it and simply to limit itself to supporting a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Prudentially, such an approach would have been justifiable. (Can you imagine the effect on Muslim opinion if the pope endorsed what they saw as a Christian Crusade?)

But the Vatican went much further than this. Some officials said the war was unjust, and all called for America to work through the UN. This iron commitment to multilateralism is neither morally nor prudentially wise.

The Vatican should not place itself in the American camp. But why it has moved so completely into the UN’s corner defies reason.


  • David Quinn

    David Quinn is an Irish commentator on religious and social affairs. For over six years, he was editor of The Irish Catholic, a weekly newspaper. He has written weekly opinion columns for newspapers such as The Sunday Times, The Sunday Business Post and the Irish Daily Mail. Quinn has contributed to publications such as First Things, The Human Life Review and The Wall Street Journal (Europe edition). Currently, he freelances and contributes weekly columns to the Irish Independent and The Irish Catholic. He appears regularly on Irish radio and television current affairs programs.

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