WASHINGTON (Our Sunday Visitor) -- Recent statements by Pope Benedict XVI reflect a notable shift in emphasis in the Vatican's approach to Iraq and the war on terror. Instead of assailing U.S. policy in Iraq, as he and the Holy See did three years ago, Pope Benedict now is stressing the evil of terrorism and the need to deal with it.
The pope repeated these themes in his 2006 World Day of Peace homily Jan. 1.The name "Iraq" appeared nowhere in the pope's annual message. Instead, the message contained a strongly worded critique of terrorism, which it said has roots in nihilism and in religious fanaticism.
The statement, dated Dec. 8, was issued Dec. 13.
Iraq was mentioned -- but only mentioned, along with other places meriting concern -- in the pope's Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi “ ("To the City and the World") message.
This was a marked change from late 2002 and early 2003, when the Vatican under Pope John Paul II was highly critical of the impending U.S.-led war in Iraq. Pope John Paul dispatched cardinals to plead for peace with President George W. Bush and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, while he and others at the Holy See outspokenly opposed American military action.
Among those stating such opposition was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who now is Pope Benedict XVI. In comments in late September of 2002, he said that as matters stood a U.S. military attack on Iraq would be immoral.
"The fact that the United Nations is seeking the way to avoid war seems to me to demonstrate with enough evidence that the damage would be greater than the values one hopes to save," Cardinal Ratzinger said. The idea of "preventive war" does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he also pointed out.
Once the major fighting in Iraq had ended, however, the Vatican moved to accept what had happened as a done deal and urged reconstruction of the country.
Iraq's apparently successful and relatively peaceful mid-December parliamentary elections were widely seen as a boost for U.S. policy. Referring after the voting to "this difficult, noble and necessary cause," Bush said, "Not only can we win the war in Iraq -- we are winning the war in Iraq."
Bush recently used the figure of 30,000 in estimating the number of Iraqis who had died violent deaths since the start of the Iraq war. About 2,140 American troops also had died, he said.
Commenting on the 30,000 figure, Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad said on Vatican Radio that the "absolute majority" of Iraqis killed were innocent civilians. The dead included people killed in the fighting in 2003, in bombings and in kidnappings, he said.
Terror and 'contempt'
Since becoming pope, Benedict XVI has taken up the cudgels against terrorism on several occasions. Speaking to Muslim leaders in Cologne, Germany, last August on the occasion of World Youth Day, he told them that as educators they had "great responsibility for formation of the younger generation."
"Terrorism of any kind is a perverse and cruel decision which shows contempt for the sacred right to life and undermines the very foundations of all civil society," the pope told his Muslim audience. "If together we can succeed in eliminating from hearts any trace of rancor, in resisting every form of intolerance and in opposing every manifestation of violence, we will turn back the wave of cruel fanaticism."
The peace-day message returned to this topic by linking terrorism to nihilist and fundamentalist roots. Presenting the document at a Vatican news conference, Cardinal Renato Martino, prefect of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, stressed its emphasis on the "theme of truth," which he said was central in the thinking of Pope Benedict XVI.
The relevant passage in the document read in part:
"Looked at closely, nihilism and the fundamentalism of which we are speaking share an erroneous relationship to truth: the nihilist denies the very existence of truth, while the fundamentalist claims to be able to impose it by force.... Both show a dangerous contempt for human beings and human life, and ultimately for God."
Even though the pope's message contained no overt criticism of U.S. policy in Iraq, criticism nevertheless is implied in what it says in a section on "international humanitarian law." Here Pope Benedict's comments can be read as referring -- along with much else -- to practices like the use of torture as a tool in the interrogation of prisoners.
American interrogation practices have been the focus of growing controversy in this country and abroad for months. Acting under pressure shortly before Christmas, Bush declared his support for an initiative pushed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to guarantee that the United States will not engage in "cruel, inhuman or degrading" treatment of prisoners.
Bush said the aim was to "make it clear to the world that this government does not torture."
The peace-day message quoted a declaration by the Second Vatican Council that "not everything automatically becomes permissible between hostile parties once war has regrettably commenced." It praised humanitarian law as a way of "limiting the devastating consequences of war as much as possible, especially for civilians."
"Respect for that law must be considered binding on all peoples," the document said.
- Russell Shaw is Washington correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor newspaper, a Catholic Online Preferred Publishing Partner.