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Conservatives dissent, but with a spin

Conservative commentator George Weigel recently opined that the Roman Catholic just war tradition of moral analysis “lives more vigorously … at the higher levels of the Pentagon than … in certain offices at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.”

It’s an interesting argument, but to employ a military euphemism, Weigel seems guilty of faulty targeting. The U.S. bishops have put out one well-reasoned, cautious statement expressing reservations about a possible attack in Iraq, but there has been no antiwar campaign from their headquarters in Washington. The real outcry in the Catholic world is coming from across the Atlantic Ocean, and more precisely from the subject of Weigel’s 1999 biography Witness to Hope -- Pope John Paul II.

If Weigel should be picking on anyone, it’s the pope.

On Christmas Day, the pope pleaded with world leaders to “extinguish the ominous smoldering of a conflict which, with the joint efforts of all, can be avoided.” On New Years Day, John Paul asserted that “peace is possible and a duty,” and called for “loyal and constructive cooperation in accordance with the principles of international law.” In his Jan. 13 address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican, the pope was more direct. “What are we to say of the threat of a war that could strike the people of Iraq … a people already sorely tried by more than 12 years of embargo?” he said. “War is never just another means … for settling differences between nations.”

Key Vatican officials have been even more blunt. Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has warned the United States against acting as a “universal policeman.” The Jesuit-edited journal La Civiltà Cattolica, which is reviewed by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State prior to publication, asserted Jan. 18 that the real motive for U.S. interest in Iraq is oil, and warned of a misplaced American “messianic vocation” to spread democracy.

So why doesn’t Weigel fight the real enemy?

For the obvious reason that a certain class of conservative commentators in today’s American Catholic church make their living by interpreting the mind of John Paul, and it is inconvenient when his thinking cuts against the geopolitical agenda of the Bush administration. It’s far easier to criticize the apparatchiks of the U.S. bishops’ conference, the same anonymous functionaries responsible, in the view of right-wing critics, for documents embracing gay children and rejecting efforts to convert Jews.

As for the pope, the challenge is to spin away inconvenient utterances. Thus when American Catholic pundit Michael Novak arrives in Rome in early February to try to convince the Vatican of the morality of “preventive war,” he will no doubt quote John Paul II approvingly, even if his aim is to draw different conclusions about the use of force in Iraq. American Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson, former head of the Republican National Committee and a West Point graduate, is sponsoring Novak’s mission.

Of course, the question of whether the United States should strike Iraq is not an article of the Nicene Creed, and there is plenty of room for divergent opinions. But the Bush-friendly line being toed by Weigel and Novak, in open contrast to what we’re hearing from Rome, reminds us that there is a “culture of dissent” on the right in American Catholicism too. Usually it arises when John Paul challenges America’s prerogatives in commerce or war.

There is nothing wrong with believing that a pope and his top aides can err in their political or social judgments. In its recent doctrinal note, “On Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes this point. It reaffirms “the legitimate freedom of Catholic citizens to choose among the various political opinions that are compatible with faith and the natural moral law, and to select, according to their own criteria, what best corresponds to the needs of the common good.”

But when Catholics, especially those in the public eye, draw conclusions at odds with the Holy Father, sincerity would seem to require naming this for what it is -- dissent from non-infallible papal statements -- rather than some linguistic sleight-of-hand that makes contradiction seem like coherence.

National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 2003