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As much as one might grouse about the imperial characteristics of papacy and its effect on internal church politics, it is clear that the nature of that office has allowed Pope John Paul II to grab the world’s attention and insert himself into the discussion of war in a unique way.

No other figure can speak such difficult truths to culture as this pope, famously without divisions and even amid a major institutional crisis of his own. I find it fascinating that some of his most ardent supporters in this country do not see, in his stinging critique of modern militarism, one more bit of evidence of the culture of death they find so dangerous in other contexts. Certainly no one does war as well as the United States.

The irony of the elderly and infirm pope, standing apart from the normal councils of power and war and calling on the mighty to lay down their arms, is wonderfully biblical. And war, he says simply, is “always a defeat for humanity.”

The esteemed Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory wrote recently that the pope “is causing heartburn” among conservative Catholics, who make up a key constituency for President Bush. She points out that it’s tough, if not impossible, to send out the normal attack dogs to take on the pope.

In that same column, McGrory mentions a conversation she had with NCR Publisher Tom Fox, whom she described as “intrepid.” During the conversation, Fox told her he thinks the pope should make a trip to Baghdad to avert the war. Who would bomb Iraq if the pope were there? You can find more on that idea in Fox’s perspective on Page 24.

By the way, Fox was in Washington to deliver a lecture, sponsored by Georgetown University’s Office of the President, based on Fox’s latest book, Pentecost in Asia (Orbis Books). The discussion that followed was moderated by Chester Gillis, professor and chair, Georgetown Department of Theology. Fr. Peter Phan, professor and chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown, responded.

It is noteworthy that Fr. Richard McBrien (whose column on other matters you’ll also find in this issue, Page 18) told McGrory that he fears a papal trip to Iraq would play too much into the hands of Saddam Hussein. He said, according to McGrory, that “John Paul should head for Washington and the Oval Office to see Bush, ‘the only man who could stop the war.’ ”

If the pope were to travel to Washington, it would be a short hop to the United Nations, the place leaders of Pax Christi USA would like him to visit.

In a recent letter to the pope, David Robinson, national coordinator for Pax Christi, expressed “deep gratitude for all the Vatican is doing” to avert war in Iraq. “Your voice, however, has barely been captured by the media in the Untied States. At this critical juncture, elevating your moral voice could make all the difference in influencing U.S. public opinion.

“On behalf of Pax Christi USA, the U.S. section of Pax Christi International, we come to you with a plea that you come to the United Nations in New York to address the Security Council and, in so doing, address the U.S. public. We do this in concert with Pax Christi International, which has been promoting this request. We can think of little else that could have such consequence in helping the U.S. pull back from the brink of war.”

Robinson continued, “You could bring the desperately needed wisdom on how the U.S. could be a world leader, without the dependence on military might and policies of global dominance. Our country so needs a humility based on God’s vision that all the world’s people have a place at the table.”

Whatever happens in the weeks ahead, I must admit to a certain pride in being Catholic in recent months as I have watched and read and listened to the Catholic contribution to the debate about war. While I have my own opinions, and while NCR continues to weigh in heavily on the side of those who oppose violent solutions, at the same time I have felt privileged to be part of a discussion, if you will, in which I felt that all sides were honestly seeking the truth, seeking an understanding of what Christians are called to in a world that is dangerous and complex. I think a deep search continues to figure out how to be Catholic and Christian in this world, how to be good citizens, critical of what we perceive as wrong while loyal to our country’s ideals.

At press time a story came across about a new statement by the U.S. bishops reiterating their opposition to a U.S.-led war on Iraq. “Our bishops’ conference continues to question the moral legitimacy of any preemptive, unilateral use of military force to overthrow the government of Iraq,” said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. While having no illusions about the Iraqi government, Gregory said the bishops find it difficult to justify an invasion “lacking clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack” or evidence of Iraqi involvement in Sept. 11, or without the support of the international community.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2003