National Catholic Reporter
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Cover story -- Analysis
Issue Date:  January 16, 2004

U.S. President George W. Bush meets with Pope John Paul II in July 2001 at the pontiff's summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy.
-- CNS
Rome, U.S.: differing worldviews

Bush, pope diverge on views of power; war, international law


During the Christmas season, Pope John Paul II’s health was sufficiently strong that people actually paid some attention to what he had to say, rather than the manner in which he said it. The pope read all his speeches, completed all his planned activities, and did so with a bit of verve, which meant that we were largely spared micro-analysis of his every cough and hiccup.

The pope’s message, to steal a phrase from John Lennon, was simple: Give peace a chance.

By now, the world is accustomed to papal pleas for peace, which can seem pro forma. Yet the pope’s call this time went beyond the mere sentimental expression of Christmas-season good wishes, to a concrete political stance in favor of a more muscular, effective system of international law.

“The need is ever more felt for a new international order, the fruit of the experience and results obtained in these years by the United Nations,” John Paul said in his homily Jan. 1. “It must be an order capable of providing adequate solutions to today’s problems, founded on the dignity of the human person, on an integral development of society, on solidarity between rich countries and poor countries, and on sharing of resources and the extraordinary results of scientific and technical progress.”

Those comments echoed John Paul’s message for World Peace Day, Jan. 1, released in early December. In it the pope argued that “peace and international law are closely linked to one another; law favors peace.”

The message was carefully phrased to avoid suspicions of anti-American bias, and indeed U.S. diplomatic observers found much to appreciate. For one thing, the pope acknowledged that existing international law is often inadequate for conflicts involving non-state actors, especially terrorist groups. For another, John Paul rejected the idea that dictators can avoid responsibility for their crimes by calling them “internal matters.”

Moreover, the rather soft criticism of the American-led war in Iraq implied in papal rhetoric about international law hardly represents a low ebb in U.S.-Vatican relations. Despite all the tensions of the past 18 months, including the recent flap over Cardinal Renato Martino’s expression of sympathy for Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration still enjoys a rapport with the Holy See infinitely warmer than that of the Clinton White House.

What is becoming steadily more clear, however, is that Rome and Washington are not the natural political allies that some imagined during the Cold War, when CIA spymasters are said to have shared satellite photos of Soviet troop movements with John Paul as part of a “sacred alliance” against communism. While the Vatican and the White House share a common interest in promoting liberty and human rights, especially religious freedom, they also hold sharply divergent views on crucial matters of international policy. Given that the United States is the world’s lone superpower, and the papacy the world’s most important voice of conscience, their differences are especially high-stakes.

Recent experience reveals four such points of conflict:

Preventive war

When American Catholic intellectual Michael Novak came to Rome in February 2003 to try to soften opposition to the war in Iraq, he argued that decapitating the Hussein regime was a matter of self-defense, given Hussein’s alleged links to terrorism, and hence did not require a doctrine of “preventive war.” Novak is a skilled debater, but most observers didn’t seem to buy it. Iraq did not appear to pose a threat of imminent assault upon the United States; the danger was more diffuse and indirect, given Hussein’s alleged weapons stockpile and history of recklessness. Hence this was a new kind of war, designed to remove a threat before it metastasized.

Sharon Page of St. Andrew's Parish in Portland, Ore., carries a poster in support of Pope John Paul II's antiwar position during a demonstration March 15, 2003.
-- CNS/Matt Jones

The Bush administration believes that sometimes such strikes will be necessary, arguing that it’s absurd to wait until a thug shoots before you disarm him. Further, it insists that individual states have the right to take such actions, often in “coalitions of the willing,” because international organizations can be too unwieldy. The Holy See, on the other hand, argues that the international community has sufficient resources -- inspections, embargoes, peacekeeping forces, and the like -- to disarm aggressors. Outside of clear self-defense, the Holy See believes that only the international community has the moral standing to authorize the use of force.

International law

The Holy See believes in international law, in part as an antidote to a “unilateral” world in which strong nations impose their will on the weak. Another, more realpolitik consideration is that international law, and especially the concept of universal human rights, offers the best protection of the religious freedom of Christians where they are a minority, such as India and the Islamic world. This conviction leads to resentment of the United States when it is perceived to weaken the international legal order. For example, a May 17, 2003, editorial in the Jesuit-run journal Civiltà Cattolica, reviewed by the Secretariat of State prior to publication, excoriated the United States for holding prisoners of war at the U.S. base at Guantanamo in Cuba without the procedural rights specified in the Geneva Convention.

Given the Bush administration’s reluctance to subject Americans to the jurisdiction of international courts out of a fear of politicized indictments, and its generally lukewarm attitude towards the concept of a binding international legal order, this is a difference that seems destined to endure.

As the United States prosecutes the war on terrorism, it is likely to adopt strategies that sometimes place it outside current international standards in terms of how a state is supposed to conduct intelligence, treat the citizens of other nations, and so on. Since much of the terrorist threat currently emanates from the Islamic world, this may exacerbate anti-American sentiment in the “Islamic street.” The Holy See is deeply concerned that anti-American Islamic anger not become generalized as anti-Western and anti-Christian resentment. Hence it will be increasingly difficult for the Holy See to “look the other way” when the United States takes action in tension with international standards and agreements.

The United Nations

While many Americans, including key tacticians in the Bush administration, are leery of surrendering power to the United Nations, the Vatican believes strongly in a reformed United Nations with real decision-making authority. This position strikes some observers as curious, since the Holy See has been an ardent critic of the United Nations on issues of the family, sexuality and “reproductive health.” Pressed to explain this seeming contradiction, Vatican officials say that in itself the United Nations is a tool, and as such may be applied for ends that are either morally legitimate or morally destructive. In order to build a more just world, however, they see it as an essential tool, and hence support augmenting its powers and responsibilities.

The Vatican offers three arguments. First, a strong United Nations could promote the common good, ensuring that global economic structures do not enrich elites at the expense of the rest of the world. Second, a reformed United Nations would ensure that strong nations do not impose their will on the weak. Third, a United Nations committed to multilateral decision-making, in which small and medium-sized states help shape policy, would be less open to manipulation by powerful nongovernmental organizations (such as Planned Parenthood).

The Bush administration’s outlook, and that of much mainstream political sentiment in the United States, is hard to reconcile with this vision of the United Nations. While the Holy See understands the United Nations in terms of sovereignty, the United States sees it rather as a means of cooperation among sovereign states, each of which retains liberty of action. Given that the post-9/11 world situation is witnessing a highly activist and interventionist approach from the United States, this difference with the Holy See is likely to become more problematic.

The American role in the world

In the end, the Holy See might be less concerned about unilateralism if it had more faith in the world’s lone superpower to foster Christian virtue. In fact, however, at the deepest level of analysis, there is serious doubt that American culture is an apt carrier for a Christian vision of the human person and of the just society.

Some in the Vatican believe that the core values of American culture, forged in the crucible of Calvinism, include liberty in the form of individual autonomy, economic, social and political liberalism, utility and modern progress, pragmatic morality, and the work ethic. All have fueled America’s success on the world stage, but from the point of view of Roman Catholic anthropology and social ethics, which understand human identity in terms of being over doing, all these values are at least potentially toxic.

Though no pope and no Vatican diplomat will ever say so explicitly, the bottom line is that despite great respect for the American people and their democratic traditions, the Holy See does not think the United States is fit to run the world by itself. Many Vatican officials, especially those from non-Anglo-Saxon cultures, believe America is too rich, too narcissistic, too shortsighted and voluble to be entrusted with the quasi-unfettered power that 20th-century history bequeathed to it. (In truth, there aren’t many countries the Holy See would approve for such a role, and if the Vatican had to choose between a world run from Washington and one run from Islamabad or Beijing, there’s little doubt they would opt for Washington.)

Thus the Holy See’s diplomatic energy in coming years will have as a central aim the construction of a multilateral, multipolar world, which will necessarily imply a limitation on the power and influence of the United States. For that reason, and despite strong agreement on a host of issues, the relationship between Rome and Washington seems destined to be complex and occasionally strained.

John L. Allen is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 16, 2004

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