These would be good questions for Trump, too, as he makes misleading claims about the conflict with Iran. But it’s hard to imagine Trump having a lengthy, detailed conversation like the one Laghi and Bush had.
“We spoke for a long time about the consequences of a war,” Laghi said. “I asked: ‘Do you realize what you’ll unleash inside Iraq by occupying it?’ The disorder, the conflicts between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds—everything that has in fact happened.”
Bush responded that the result would be democracy. The president tried to end the meeting on common ground, speaking about his opposition to abortion rights and cloning. “The cardinal replied that those issues were not the purpose of his mission,” Catholic News Service reported.
The letter makes clear that St. John Paul II fully backed what Laghi said—the cardinal told reporters after his meeting with the president that the war would be both “unjust” and “illegal” because it lacked United Nations sanction. And the letter, along with the high-level, personal diplomacy involved, shows how deeply convinced the pope was that this war in particular was a disaster in the making, one that would further poison Christian-Muslim relations, a subject so important to him. He was not going to be bowled over by what turned out to be false claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Even though the pope used all of his influence to try to stop the war, the reaction among American Catholics was noticeably cool. With the start of the war three weeks after Laghi met with Bush, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, then the vicar for U.S. military services, issued a letter to Catholic chaplains stating: “Given the complexity of factors involved, many of which understandably remain confidential, it is altogether appropriate for members of our armed forces to presume the integrity of our leadership and its judgments and therefore to carry out their military duties in good conscience.”
The U.S. Catholic bishops issued a letter urging Bush to “step back from the brink of war,” but it received little attention—possibly because their moral credibility was shot with the clergy sex-abuse scandal, but also because most bishops failed to speak up about the war in their dioceses. In the Diocese of Brooklyn, where I live, the diocesan newspaper ran so many columns disputing John Paul’s view of the war that I wrote one defending the pope. At the time it seemed to be a strange thing to do—to have to defend the pope from a diocesan newspaper’s coverage.
Others would try to reinterpret the plain meaning of what the pope and Vatican officials were saying, or argue that as a religious leader, John Paul lacked the competence to apply just-war principles in a specific case. “The questions raised to religious spokesmen are inescapable: On the basis of what expert knowledge do you advocate policy x against policy y?” the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus wrote. “By what authority or by whose authority do you speak?”
Pope Francis will face such questions too, as he tries to calm tensions that once again threaten to worsen relations between Muslims and Christians—which he, like John Paul, has strived to mend. He began with a statement after the Angelus prayer on January 5, warning, like a string of his predecessors, that “War brings only death and destruction.” He added: “I call upon all parties to fan the flame of dialogue and self-control, and to banish the shadow of enmity.”
“Self-control”: an interesting choice of words to apply to world leaders. All the more reason to join in repeating words St. John Paul II wrote to Bush: “I implore God to inspire you and all those charged with the highest civil authority to find the way to lasting peace, the noblest of human endeavors.”