Late Edition: Setting Things Right

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 It has been cogently argued, for example, that the formal criteria for aggression derive from an outdated understanding of warfare and weaponry and must be reconsidered in light of modern tech­nology, rogue states, and the sinister tactics of Islamist terrorists.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.

Michael M. Uhlmann


Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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