When Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, took questions at a Sept. 11 press conference outlining the Church’s case against U.S. military intervention in Syria, a reporter pressed him to explain why diplomacy should still be pursued when it had failed to work thus far.
Implicit in the reporter’s question was the suggestion that Catholic Church leaders were tilting at windmills, while President Obama had to grapple with a brutal reality on the ground.
Cardinal Dolan acknowledged that diplomacy under such conditions was hard going. But he pointed to Russia’s 11th-hour proposal to place Syria’s cache of chemical weapons under international control and said the development underscored the need for Washington to pursue diplomacy more intensively.
Then he used the reporter’s question to make a larger point about how the Church’s reality-based advocacy of political settlement could have a better chance of avoiding the death, destruction and unpredictable consequences of military action.
"The earthly leaders are thought of as the ‘practical’ people," noted Cardinal Dolan. And he prodded his audience to step back from a real-time debate on military intervention in Syria and remember a similar debate that took place a decade ago.
Cardinal Dolan recalled how Blessed John Paul II implored President George W. Bush to halt plans for a U.S. invasion of Iraq. At that time, Bush argued that intelligence reports pointing to Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of chemical weapons required U.S. intervention to secure weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) before they could be used again by the Iraqi leader against his own people or against the United States, his sworn enemy.
In the period leading up to the U.S. invasion, John Paul spoke out forcefully against military intervention and deployed Vatican diplomats to make the case in Washington and to U.S. allies. In late 2002, then-Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican secretary for relations with states, offered an ominous warning of the consequences of U.S. military intervention.
Archbishop Tauran said it was "necessary to think of the repercussions that [war] would have in the Muslim world. It could unleash a sort of anti-Christian, anti-Western crusade."
By 2007, an estimated 1 million Iraqis had died as a result of the political violence fueled by the invasion and the power vacuum created by Hussein’s removal from power. Today, the country’s Christian minority, which had been protected under Hussein, are still feeling the repercussions. Only a third of the pre-invasion Christian population remains in the country, according to Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom.
The flight of Iraqi Christians, followed by an explosion of anti-Christian persecution in Egypt, Syria and other parts of the Islamic world, has inspired Church leaders to speak out even more forcefully against the unintended impact of war — even when it is mounted to defeat a great evil.
"Yes, you can say, in a certain sense, that the invasion of Iraq did provoke this tremendous diminution of the Christian population in that country. And what the future holds — that still remains to be seen," said Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services in a 2012 interview.
Obama has acknowledged the need to learn from the mistakes made in 2003 by the Bush administration. During his Sept. 10 televised address to the nation that made the case for a "limited" U.S. strike on Syria to deter the future use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad, Obama insisted that diplomacy and economic sanctions had failed and only a military strike would force Assad to halt his use of WMDs.
But Cardinal Dolan challenged the president’s suggestion that all peaceful means had been exhausted and war-making was the only option.
Yes, the "earthly leaders are thought of as the practical people," said the cardinal. But the suffering of Iraqis over the past decade suggests that a "commonsense" response to a geopolitical crisis may indeed be found in St. Peter’s Square and not always in policies emanating from the Oval Office.
Continued Cardinal Dolan, "You ask now, ‘Who had the more commonsense approach to the Iraq War?’ … Practical realism was on the side of Pope John Paul II. He said, ‘If you do this, you will regret it. If you go down this road, you will regret it.’"
Blessed John Paul II, as a young Polish man, survived a world war, Nazi and Soviet occupations and an assassination attempt. He witnessed friends and neighbors taken away to concentration camps. He labored for a decade to help lay the spiritual and moral foundation needed for a non-violent overthrow of Soviet occupation in Eastern Europe.
Pope Francis witnessed a more limited but brutal ideology-fueled conflict in Argentina, where the "dirty war" executed by the country’s military government resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people. As the one-time provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina, he went secretly to successfully plead for the freedom of two Jesuits who had been arrested by the military. The "dirty war" has been over for decades, but the wounds inflicted by that battle continue to fester in Argentina.
Like John Paul, Pope Francis knows that once war is unleashed, the innocent as well as the guilty will be consumed by the fire. The pipe dream is that war can be "surgical" or "limited" or "narrow." Yet "the search for peace is long and demands patience and perseverance!" Francis said, as he implored the world to work toward a political settlement in Syria. "Let us keep praying for this!"