In my day job as a political columnist, I have found myself riveted to the question of Iraq’s constitution. I do hope that, by the time this column appears, there will still be some prospect of one, for leaving the country in the condition of Somalia can be in no one’s interests except those of fanatical Islamists and their short-term allies among other people who really hate Bush.
Two things have especially interested me while following the scramble behind the scenes. One was the way “great events of state” are conducted in the ovens of power. To see the degree to which decisions that will be hugely consequential in the lives of millions are made on the back of an envelope, with very incomplete information in conditions of extraordinary chaos and pressure, is to see what history is made of—namely, stuff and nothing. And it is impossible to understand how any of it can ever work out without postulating the presence of God. For as bad a hash as we make of our affairs, it would be so much worse if things ever turned out the way we planned them.
The other thing—thrilling for a person who is still a recent convert to the “one true Faith”—was to see the international Catholic Church in action. I had glimpsed it before from the outside. For instance, I once sat in the breakfast room of Casa Nova, the Franciscan hospice in Jerusalem’s Old City, and realized, vividly, from the babble of exotic tongues around me, that no other religious institution could approach the Catholic Church in its achievement of a palpable universality.
In Iraq, one must distinguish the urgent from the important. The more urgent political question for the Bush administration has been how to implode the Sunni Islamist terror campaign so American troops can go home again. Unfortunately, that is a powerful distraction from the bigger question, with consequences for the whole region and the peace of the world. This is whether a constitutional government can be established in Iraq that will defend religious freedom for the first time in the history of Islamic nations. For that is the key to any civil society.
I write of civic freedom, recalling that a deeper freedom was taught by Christ, which can belong even to those who are captive as prisoners or slaves. Yet from another angle, freedom is indivisible. The deeper and the shallower are linked. And it is on the good of religious freedom that all civic freedoms depend. For if a man cannot live and raise his children, unmolested, in allegiance to what he most deeply and sincerely believes, what civic freedom has he? Every other “right” becomes nominal, and his children have been turned against him.
In the midst of the scramble, it was my impression that most of the pressure being put on the White House and State Department, to assure that the requirements for real human freedom were written into the Iraqi constitution, was coming from the Vatican, American bishops, and believing Catholics in and around the bureaucracy. Moreover, it became evident that Pope Benedict himself was directly behind the Vatican’s efforts, and at a signal moment he became personally involved, interrupting Roman holidays to meet the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, at Castel Gandolfo, expressly to discuss clauses in the Iraqi constitution pertaining to religious freedom.
Just earlier, at World Youth Day in Cologne, the pope had met with German Muslim leaders. In that meeting, he advanced his predecessor’s work toward a “dialogue between civilizations,” crucially specifying that this dialogue will require truth on all sides. While the mission today is for peace, it is possible that no pope since Pius II has more directly confronted the reality of our two civilizations. And once again, the Vatican is at the center of it all.