My friend ParisLawyerPundit (“PLP”) sent me this recent New York Times article, entitled “Catholics Debating: Back President or Pope on Iraq?” PLP is a devout Catholic who has lived in France for many years, and wanted my take on all this.
First, anything from the New York Times has to be decrypted, by asking, what partisan gimmick is the Gray Lady up to here? In this case, it is an attempt to splinter-off a key part of Bush’s coalition, church-going Catholics. Nice try, guys, but it ain’t gonna work. This is really a non-story.
I will show some of my cards and tell you that Lex is a very conservative Catholic who has many friends who are very conservative Catholics. To generalize grossly, so-called liberal Catholics, doctrinally, tend to be politically liberal, and Conservative Catholics tend to be politically conservative, with some variation around the edges. On the “Conservative” side, I have seen no one who has any qualms about the war or the Pope’s objection to it. Nor should they.
My response to PLP was pretty much as follows:
The Catholic Church is an entity with a legal structure and delimited powers. The Pope’s authority is limited. He speaks with authority on matters of faith and morals. On prudential political decisions, he is a wise, good and well-intentioned man and no more. We had a Pope bless the Armada before it set out to conquer England. That was wrong as well as stupid. This one, by making himself an objective ally of the tyrant Saddam, is also, in my view, wrong. Any conservative Catholics who have a problem with all this do so because they have inadequate religious education and don’t understand what the Church is or how it works. Like their liberal opponents, in their ignorance, they go by their feelings, in this case, tribal loyalty to someone they perceive as being “on their side”. Anyway, most mainstream Catholics are so disgusted with the Church hierarchy right now that it’s moral authority is at an all time low, and its ability to influence any public debate is minimal. I chuckle at the liberal clergy in this country suddenly clutching this much-despised Pope to its bosom. They have not trumpeted from the altars his pronouncements about the evils of contraception, abortion, homosexuality, divorce. They have not preached with fiery conviction the value of priestly celibacy, or the mandatory nature of the reservation of ordination to men. They have not taken up in their homilies the Pope’s suggestion to reemphasize the sacrament of penance, or daily mass attendance, or corporal mortification, or traditional pious practices, particularly the rosary. They had not heeded his admonition that any political or social activism must be preceded by and rooted in personal prayer and conversion. In other words, when the Pope is working within the ambit of his actual authority, the American clergy pay him no heed whatsoever. They use him as a prop, when convenient, for their own political interests, and toss him aside when his immediate utility has been exhausted. I saw Cardinal George at a retreat for lawyers the other day. He, unlike JPII, made perfect sense on this issue. He said he is opposed to the war. He thinks it is a bad idea. He is worried about hubris, overstretch, a too-great reliance on military force, the alienation and anger of foreigners. These are plausible worries, though I do not share them, or deem them outweighed by other considerations. Cardinal George then said that where there is a legitimate government in place, which ours unquestionably is, then it is necessary, barring the most egregious circumstances, to defer to that government and give it “the benefit of the doubt” in making decisions within its own sphere of competence, such as when, where and against whom to go to war. He went so far as to say that a State cannot be pacifist, since it has an obligation to protect its citizens. He said that it would be wrong for him to give Catholic military personnel any qualms of conscience about following their orders, for example, in this situation. Then, being the realist he is, he smiled and said, “though it is not likely that any of them would pay any attention” if he did. The Pope is apparently a pacifist. This appears to be a result of his early experiences in a helpless and oppressed country. Whatever its genesis, this position is an intellectual and moral error. Much like his also wrong views on the death penalty, he is, to this degree, a true son of the “Spirit of Vatican II”, and innovating and going beyond or even against the Church’s long-standing teaching. Consult John Henry Newman’s book on the development of doctrine and apply his seven-point criteria for legitimate developments, and it becomes apparent that these innovations will likely die out as the alien transplants they are. In a sense it is the error that Eric Voegelin condemned as trying to “immanentize the eschaton”, i.e. arrive at a world something like the one which will follow the return of Christ in Glory by pretending that it is here already. It is a utopianism which can only lead to disappointment if not disaster. In a fallen world there will always be, at best, law-abiding armies, policemen and prisons. The alternative to just and lawful order imposed periodically by force is not a benign utopia but bloody-handed anarchy. Catholics used to know this. They need to relearn it.
PLP wrote back that he had heard that the scuttlebutt amongst certain academic clergymen is that the Pope has chosen this episode to begin a campaign of activism directed against the liberal democratic West, akin to that which he conducted against the Soviet bloc. The idea here, amongst wishful thinking liberals, is that the Pope despises the liberal West as much as he did the communist East, because of its capitalisme sauvage and so forth, and is now going to wield the hammer against the hyperpuissance. This strikes me as a delusion, particularly where simpler explanations cover the facts better. I responded:
It would be odd if the Papacy really is choosing this moment as the time for a showdown with “democratic liberalism” generally or its American incarnation more specifically. For one thing, as a tactical matter, it is doomed to fail since Bush is absolutely determined to remove Saddam and has made that clear. Anyway, this scuttlebutt is either wishful thinking or conspiracy theorizing. More plausibly, the Pope genuinely hates the notion of armies marching, as a matter of personal “tastes and preferences”. That is the main reason for all this. Also, this Pope and the Vatican hierarchy have long held a very benign view of the UN as a nascent world government — one Pope and one Caesar again. Of course, I consider this to be folly, but it is a fact. And, in good Italian fashion, and like any diplomatic service, the Vatican foreign office prefers “jaw jaw” to “war war”, on the theory that something will turn up or the principals will get old and die or get bored and give up, and stability is to be valued over everything else. Also, the Pope has made efforts to reach out to Muslims, and he is very worried about a civilizational conflict. Those are the remote bases for the Vatican’s current policy of vigorously opposing the war. The proximate reason is apparently the Chaldean Catholics in Iraq. While there have been stories in the news in recent years that they are suffering persecution in Iraq (e.g., here), it is my understanding that they have benefited from Saddam’s regime, which by being explicitly secular has not discriminated against them, and has protected them from Muslim discrimination and persecution. It seems that in traditional divide-and-conquer fashion, Saddam has employed this Catholic minority in his government, which makes them reliant on him and hence loyal to him. Tariq Aziz is, I believe, a Chaldean Catholic. When the “getting even” process gets going following the destruction of Saddam’s regime, a pogrom against Chaldean Catholic “collaborators” is likely. This concerns the Vatican, with good reason.
This Pope is a genuinely great man. Many very good and important things for the Church have occurred during his papacy. I pray for him and for his intentions every day. But he is wrong on this one.