Sir Winston Churchill’s description of Russia (“a mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma”) could apply as well to the Vatican, where the ancient art of plausible deniability routinely acquires new layers of definition. Even seasoned observers of the Curia’s arcane customs and back-channels are often co-founded when “reliable sources” turn out to be, well, not so reliable. (Consider, for example, the recent flap concerning whether the pope did or didn’t say what he’s purported to have said about Mel Gibson’s new film on Our Lord’s Passion.)
One must take heed, therefore, before reading too much into the replacement of Archbishop (now Cardinal) Jean-Louis Tauran by Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo as the Holy See’s foreign minister. Still, it’s a welcome turn in the often tortuous effort to keep U.S.-Vatican diplomatic relations in relative harmony.
Those relations have had a hard row these past few years, despite the arduous efforts of our talented ambassador, James Nicholson, to keep things on an even keel. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the Holy See mounted a full-court press to forestall American military action. One would not expect, of course, the equivalent of an apostolic benediction for this or any war, but Vatican opposition in 2003 was unusually barbed and forceful.
The Holy See’s objections were chiefly two: (1) the causus belli failed to meet just-war criteria for responding to aggression; and (2) by acting “unilaterally,” the United States failed to comply with its legal obligations under the United Nations (UN) Charter. These are respectable but hardly undebatable propositions. It has been cogently argued, for example, that the formal criteria for aggression derive from an outdated understanding of warfare and weaponry and must be reconsidered in light of modern technology, rogue states, and the sinister tactics of Islamist terrorists.
As to the second objection, it would be fairer to say that the UN undermined its authority by failing to enforce its own resolutions. In the event, despite the Security Council’s refusal to back the United States, more than 40 nations have contributed forces, money, or material to the U.S. led coalition. So much for “unilateralism.” Does the Holy See really mean to suggest that no war is licit unless it has the prior formal approval of such paragons of moral virtue as France and Russia? That just-war principles have been subsumed by international law as interpreted by the UN?
The same UN that exploits international agreements to promote abortion and sterilization in the Third World? The same UN that washed its hands during the Rwandan genocide? The UN whose forces stood idly by while tens of thousands were slaughtered a short distance away at Srbrenica? The UN that pocketed a billion dollars or more a year in fees for “administering” the Iraqi oil-for-food program?
These are only a few of many questions that might be raised about the Vatican’s adamant opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq and, more generally, about the relevance of moral reasoning to modern international relations. Reasonable minds will certainly disagree about the issues prompted by such questions. But those issues, which are long overdue for serious debate, got pushed aside from 2002 to 2003. As often happens when fateful events occur on the world stage, the rhetoric of otherwise well-meaning men overran their moral sense.
Conspicuous in this regard were the acerbic criticisms of the United States that appeared in Civilta Cattolica, the Jesuit newspaper whose content is vetted by the Holy See’s secretariat of state. Contrary to all evidence, its editorial writers seemed obsessed with the idea that American policy was driven by a desire to control the Iraqi oil market. Similar vaguely conspiratorial themes were echoed by senior curial officials, who ought to have known better, some of whom sounded more like adjuncts of the French foreign office than of the Holy See.
Archbishop Tauran was among those who got carried away in opposing the United States, thereby raising the temperature of an already overheated debate. It was not, shall we say, his finest hour. Archbishop Lajolo now has an opportunity to set things right, in the first instance by toning down the rhetoric. He can also do something of longer-lasting import by inviting serious debate about the meaning and application of just-war principles in the fight against terrorism. If war is too important to be left to generals, it is also too important to be left to theologians who forget why prudence and courage are called moral virtues.