Paul Moses recently published a fascinating article in Commonweal titled “Unheeded Warnings: How Vatican Diplomacy Failed to Prevent the Iraq War,” in which he reveals, for the first time, a letter that Pope John Paul II sent to President George W. Bush in 2003, during the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq. The simple letter announced a visit from Cardinal Pio Laghi, who had been sent to persuade Bush to pursue peace. The pope urged Bush to listen. For me, this article triggered some memories of that tense time, which coincided with the beginnings of my gradual ‘reversion’ to Catholicism.
I was in grad school in early 2003, and unlike almost everyone I knew here in Ontario, Canada, I didn’t think President Bush was evil. I had been going through a conversion to political conservatism, in part through the writings of George Grant, and although I wasn’t a neoconservative there were some aspects of Republican politics that I could sympathize with. I had doubts about what I was hearing regarding Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction and connections to Al-Qaeda, but I was also hesitant to consider these outright lies. I thought that a solid moral case could potentially be made for the invasion of Iraq.
Many people in Canada were deeply worried that the United States was about to embark on a new and misguided military crusade. I heard constant criticism of President Bush, but his critics tended to strike such a shrill or demeaning tone that I couldn’t bring myself to fully agree with them; they tended to either portray him as a theocratic fanatic or a bumbling idiot. It’s really not an exaggeration to say that some form of liberal orthodoxy reigned in Canada at the time.
One voice of opposition to military action, however, struck me in a very different way—that of Pope John Paul II. It was a voice that cut through the usual muck of the newsday, because I knew he was not speaking from a reflexively anti-conservative perspective. What he said had the ring of truth and wisdom. But yet part of me couldn’t accept it. What would the world do about Saddam Hussein, who was truly a sadistic dictator, and the obvious threat of Islamist terrorism? And although Canada stayed out of the Iraq War, I nevertheless felt a sense of guilt after it turned out to be a colossal disaster based on lies.
Much later, in early 2015, I felt the same inner conflict when anticipating the release of Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment. I was not a climate change denier, but I thought that some of the climate-change rhetoric was overblown and that environmentalism was becoming almost a secular religion. Talk of global warming was incessant and inescapable. David Suzuki was the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s ubiquitous apostle of environmentalism, and it was hard not to see him as a symbol of entrenched liberal privilege. And now the pope was going to tell me I had to stand with Suzuki? I had to admit that the ‘climate hysteria’ was justified?
By this time, however, I was practicing the faith of my baptism. I decided to listen. It took some time, but the fragments of anti-environmentalist ideology that I had absorbed from politically conservative media, and from conservative Catholic media, began to melt away. And what replaced it was not the secular environmentalism I had doubts about, but one informed by a tradition of Catholic thought extending back to St. Francis and St. Bonaventure. Simply put, the pope was right, and I was only hesitant because I was clinging to my pride and a tendency toward contrarianism.
In a homily on January 20, Pope Francis compared ideology to idolatry. For many in our world, politics functions as a religion, and because we live in a heavily politicized environment this means that even as faithful Catholics we often carry within us many little fragments of ideology—little idols or fetishes—that we hide and protect and return to in secret. We shield them from what the pope and the Church are trying to tell us.
I imagine that George Bush, though he is not Catholic, would have been moved to hear the urgent appeal of Pope John Paul II in the words of Cardinal Laghi. But there also would have been far too many idols demanding his allegiance, commanding him to continue down the path to war. Many Americans were in a similar position. I had no connection to what was happening, and yet even I felt some resistance in myself toward the pope’s message.
As Catholics, we have a responsibility to examine our consciences in light of what the Church and the pope teach us. The Church will often come into conflict with the political realm, and if we are to remain faithful there are times we must dissolve our political allegiances and smash our idols. This is a great gift: the Church is the antidote to political polarization and the culture war, and not a mere combatant that pledges permanent allegiance to one side or the other. Imagine what idols would fall, what new political formations would take shape, and what horrors might be avoided, if only we would listen.