In a private audience with one of the staunchest supporters of possible military action against Iraq, Pope John Paul II urged British Prime Minister Tony Blair to make every effort to avoid war and spare the world new divisions. The encounter at the Vatican on Feb. 22 was the most prominent in a week of meetings, speeches and peace initiatives by church leaders at the Vatican and around the world.
In a strongly worded public appeal a day after the meeting with Blair, the pope said a new war in Iraq could disturb the entire region of the Middle East and aggravate tensions around the world. He said all believers should reject the violence of terrorism and the logic of war, and he asked Catholics to pray and fast in a special way for peace on Ash Wednesday, March 5.
Blair, who with U.S. President George W. Bush has led the push for a military strike against Saddam Hussein’s regime, has recently emphasized what he calls the moral argument for war. The pope and his aides have argued just as forcefully that they do not see conditions for a just war in Iraq.
Blair, an Anglican, arrived at the Vatican with his wife, Cherie, who is a Catholic, and three of their four children. He met alone with the pope for 30 minutes, then held a longer meeting with the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and the Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran.
A Vatican statement after the meeting made it clear that the church leaders had not changed their thinking on the war. It said the pope had expressed to Blair the wish that every effort be made to spare the world new divisions in resolving the grave situation in Iraq and that the pope and his aides had emphasized the need for all sides to cooperate with the United Nations and utilize the resources offered by international law, in order to forestall the tragedy of a war that is still considered avoidable by many parties. It said, Special attention was given to the humanitarian situation of the Iraqi people, who have already suffered greatly during the long years of the embargo.
It was Blair’s first meeting with Pope John Paul, and the day before the papal audience he said he recognized that the two held different perspectives on the war. I obviously know the views of the pope very well, and they are very clear. Let me just make one thing also plain. We do not want war. No one wants war.... But there is a moral dimension to this question, too. If we fail to disarm Saddam peacefully, then where does that leave the authority of the United Nations? And if we leave Saddam in charge of Iraq, with his weapons of mass destruction, where does that leave the Iraqi people, who are the principal victims of Saddam?
As Blair visited Rome, Catholic and Anglican leaders in Britain said the prime minister had not made a convincing case for war. In a statement on Feb. 20, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster and Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury said working though the United Nations and U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq could and should render the trauma and tragedy of war unnecessary.
More than one million antiwar protesters marched in London on Feb. 15 in a demonstration that was backed by Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster. My Christian conscience is troubled by the fact that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis will die as a result of a war. The World Health Organization estimates that there could be 100,000 casualties, and another 400,000 affected by internal displacement and disease, Bishop O’Donoghue said.
At the Vatican, the pope and his aides met on Feb. 18 with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to discuss the Iraqi crisis. Afterward, the Vatican held out hope for just and effective solutions that would spare Iraqi civilians further suffering. It said the crisis should be resolved through the United Nations, which it described as the guarantor of international law. Annan met with the pope for about half an hour and separately with Cardinal Sodano and Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a retired French prelate who had just returned from a special Vatican mission to deliver a personal papal message to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Cardinal Sodano, speaking later to reporters, said war with Iraq was not inevitable and expressed support for a resolution adopted on Feb. 17 by the European Union calling for the disarmament of Iraq through peaceful means.
The pope, speaking on Feb. 20 to religious leaders from Indonesia, a country with a Muslim majority, warned that a war on Iraq could damage international interreligious relations. War is not only a defeat for humanity, but a tragedy for religion, he said. Although a real risk of war looms on the horizon, he acknowledged, neither the threat of war nor war itself should be allowed to alienate Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and members of other religions.
Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s equivalent of foreign minister, said a U.S. attack on Iraq without U.N. authorization would be a crime against peace and a violation of international law. The comments, made on Feb. 24, represent the sharpest criticism to date of the U.S. threat to act alone, if necessary, to disarm the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Archbishop Tauran said any military action against Iraq adopted without U.N. authority would be a war outside of international law. He cited an article of the U.N. charter that prohibits countries from waging war to resolve differences. No rule of international law authorizes one or more states to intervene unilaterally against another country, he said.
The archbishop said that while international law accepts the right of a country to defend itself, that right presumes a previous act of aggression against the country. At the same time, he said, it was also necessary for Iraqi leaders to regulate their behavior according to the code of conduct imposed upon them as a member of international society.
The U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Jim Nicholson, rejected criticism of U.S. unilateralism on Iraq, saying the United Nations has already provided for the possibility of armed intervention if Iraq refuses to disarm.
At the United Nations, the Vatican representative again laid out the church’s main arguments against a military attack on Iraq. Archbishop Celestino Migliore told the Security Council on Feb. 19 that with the wealth of peaceful tools available for resolving international disputes, it would not be just to resort to force to solve the Iraqi crisis.
He cited the grave consequences for Iraq’s civilian population, the dark prospects of tensions and conflicts between peoples and cultures and the reintroduction of war as a way to resolve international problems. Although the route of U.N. weapons inspections appeared somewhat slow, it remained an effective way to resolve the crisis and provide the basis for a lasting peace, he said.Vatican Moves to Ease Removal of Abusive Priests
An official of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said on Feb. 26 that Pope John Paul II has given the congregation the power in some very clear, grave cases to laicize priests who have sexually abused minors without going through an ecclesiastical trial. Before this, only the pope himself had that power.
The official said the pope has also empowered the congregation to make case-by-case exceptions to church rules requiring that only priests with doctorates in canon law may serve as judges in criminal trials of priests accused of abusing minors. That would mean that deacons, religious or lay people trained in church law could also serve as judges, as well as some others who may not yet have earned a doctorate in church law.
Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, promoter of justice at the doctrinal congregation, spoke with Catholic News Service and The Associated Press in a teleconference call, arranged at the request of the news agencies, during a two-week visit to the United States. He was in Washington to lead workshops to train some 210 church lawyers and judges from across the country to handle criminal church trials of clergy charged with sexually abusing minors.
Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Canonical Affairs, said the bishops are working on plans whereby they might use the workshop participants as a pool of personnel available to bishops who need to form tribunals to try a cleric accused of sexual abuse of a minora crime in church law for which the penalty may be laicization or dismissal from the clerical state.
It might be advisable to devise a system that would let the bishop of the diocese of the accused priest form a panel of judges from other dioceses to conduct the priest’s trial, he said. "We think that might make the process more open and more fair. ... What were trying to do is to provide for our people a little more openness and a little more patent impartiality in the judgment of these cases."
Msgr. Scicluna--whose job title is roughly equivalent to "prosecutor" in the U.S. criminal court system--said the doctrinal congregations new ability to dismiss a sexually abusive priest by decree, without a full trial, would govern only certain clear cases such as those in which "a person has been convicted in a civil court and there is ample proof of his imputability, of his criminal liability, or the person has confessed to what has been alleged." Even in those cases, he said, the accused will have a right to review the case drawn up against him and offer a defense or response. "The accused would always be heard, and that is fundamental," he said.News Briefs
The Archdiocese of Boston and lawyers representing about 400 alleged victims of sexual abuse by clergy jointly asked a judge on Feb. 20 to put a 90-day hold on all those cases to see if they can reach a mediated settlement.
Kathleen L. McChesney, director of the U.S. bishops’ Office for Child and Youth Protection, said during an appearance in New York on Feb. 20 that she thought bishops should allow Voice of the Faithful to meet in the churches of their dioceses.
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests says its membership has grown 50 percent in the past year, from 3,000 to more than 4,500.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Feb. 26 that a federal racketeering law did not apply to abortion clinic protesters. In an 8-to-1 ruling, the court said protesters cannot be prosecuted under the anti-racketeering law if the effect of their protest is only to impede an abortion clinic’s business.
Hamid A. Al-Rifaie, president of the International Islamic Forum for Dialogue, and Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, sent letters in mid-February to U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to avoid war.