Conservatives distort papal legacy on Iraq war

In commenting on the legacy of Pope John Paul II, nationally syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh, former Bush administration ambassador to the Vatican Jim Nicholson, and Fox News host Bill O'Reilly each tried to minimize the significance of the pope's stated opposition to the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq. Limbaugh suggested that John Paul II opposed the Iraq war because popes are obligated to oppose all wars, but in fact the pope made several statements demonstrating support for just and necessary wars; conversely, Nicholson tried to minimize John Paul II's objections to the invasion of Iraq, claiming falsely that the pope was never morally opposed to the war. O'Reilly suggested that the Vatican's opposition was motivated by the pope's deputies and their dislike for American secularism.

Rush Limbaugh

On the April 4 edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show, Limbaugh suggested that John Paul II opposed the Iraq war because of a universal opposition to war among all popes:

The point is, you know, Pope John Paul II after 9-11 talked to President Bush and said, "You got to do something about people like this that will bomb and kill innocent people and then retire into sovereign countries and hide." He told President Bush this. Now, publicly, he came out against the Iraq war, but I can't think of a war the pope has ever come out for publicly. It's almost something they can't do as men of quote, unquote "peace." But my point is, I throw that out. "The Pope opposed Iraq."

Limbaugh's assessment of the pope's unequivocal opposition to the war is unfounded because John Paul II, while ardently anti-war, accepted and understood the need for a nation to act in self-defense. In his 1995 encyclical "Evangelium vitae" (Gospel of life), John Paul II cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church and St. Thomas Aquinas to uphold "legitimate defence" for "the common good of the family or of the State":

Unfortunately it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life. In this case, the fatal outcome is attributable to the aggressor whose action brought it about, even though he may not be morally responsible because of a lack of the use of reason.

The Vatican used similar language prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, seemingly offering support to the impending action. According to a September 25, 2001, Washington Post article:

The spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, described the Vatican's views in an interview with the Reuters news agency at the end of a three-day visit to Kazakhstan, during which the pope repeatedly called on the world to maintain peace. Navarro-Valls's statement added a new dimension to the pope's pacifist message, seeming to allow for support of a military response to the Sept. 11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in which more than 6,000 people were killed.

"It is certain that, if someone has done great harm to society, and there is a danger that if he remains free he may be able to do it again, you have the right to apply self-defense for the society which you lead, even though the means you may choose may be aggressive," Navarro-Valls said.

Jim Nicholson

On the April 4 editions of CNN's American Morning and Fox News' Fox & Friends, Nicholson, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, acknowledged that the pope publicly opposed the Iraq war and that he was not a pacifist, but tried to downplay his opposition by falsely claiming several times that John Paul II "never said it would be immoral for us to go into Iraq."

But prior to the March 2003 invasion, the pope sent a letter to Bush that referred to the impending conflict as "immoral." According to a March 18, 2003, Dallas Morning News article: "One of the strongest anti-war voices belongs to the pope. He sent an envoy to visit with Mr. Bush this month with a letter that called the war 'immoral, illegal, unjust.'"

However, on Fox & Friends, Nicholson said:

They had a disagreement about Iraq but you have to pay careful attention to what the pope said about Iraq. He never said it would be immoral for us to go into Iraq.

And on American Morning, Nicholson twice made the inaccurate claim, unchallenged by host Carol Costello:

The pope never said it would be immoral for us to go into Iraq, and he never said it was. He said war is a defeat for humanity and war is not inevitable, and we agreed with that. And that's why the president made such an effort at the U.N. to get resolutions to get Saddam Hussein to cease and desist.

I worked that diplomatically. The pope sent a cardinal to Baghdad. Tariq Aziz [then-Iraqi deputy prime minister] came to Rome and we get -- tried very hard to get them to reveal what they had and so that we could avoid war, which is the -- the pope always wants to avoid war. He's a man of peace. But he's not a pacifist.


And the doctrine of the church is based on several centuries' worth of research that concludes there are evil forces in the world and that innocent people do need to be protected from them.

So that's why the pope never said it was immoral and, in fact, just a few months after we went into Iraq, the Chaldean Catholic [a Christian group in Iraq] patriarch came to Rome to see the pope and then asked to see me and came to my residence, where I received him, and he thrust his hand at me and said, "Thank you for coming to my country and freeing our people."

Bill O'Reilly

In an April 4 interview with Fox News contributor and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, O'Reilly attempted to minimize the significance of the pope's opposition to the Iraq war by claiming that in the last five to six years of his papacy, he was not engaged in "temporal," or non-spiritual matters. Rather, O'Reilly suggested, it was the pope's deputies who determined the papal position to oppose the Iraq war just because "[t]hey don't like America" and "they feel like we're on the road to secularism and damnation here."

From the April 4 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:

O'REILLY: Now, it was told to me privately by people who have access to him that, in the last five or six years, Pope John Paul II didn't confront any temporal matters. ... He spent most of his time, maybe 80 percent of it, in the spiritual realm, praying. And he let his deputies do it.


O'REILLY: The world feels that our action in Iraq is illegal, basically, throughout the world. And the Vatican did nothing to discourage that. In fact, it encouraged it by statements it made.

And I'm saying, maybe it was a mistake to do Iraq. Maybe that wasn't the right way to go about it. But surely, the goal of removing a man who has killed a million people, Saddam, you know, you've got to have some people behind you, the greater good. And I just didn't see it.

GINGRICH: Well, I think first of all that my experience with the church has been that it has been remarkably steadfast in a broad way in terms of the values of freedom. But I don't think you can expect the Catholic church to back America.

I think the Catholic Church and the pope are going to interpret what they understand to be God's will and God's intent, and to the degree that America is compatible with that, they're going to be happy. But I don't think any of the cardinals get up every morning and say, "Gee, how can I back America?"

O'REILLY: They don't like America, as we pointed out, because they feel like we're on the road to secularism and damnation here.

O'Reilly offered no support for his claim that the pope's opposition to the Iraq war was based on his deputies' alleged dislike of America. As noted above, the Pope made clear his reasons for opposing the war in a March 2003 letter to President Bush in which he stated that the impending conflict was "immoral, illegal, [and] unjust." And despite O'Reilly's claim, the Pope had expressed his support for the United States. In a statement issued on September 13, 2001, John Paul II said: "In my recent meeting with President Bush, I emphasized my deep esteem for the rich patrimony of human, religious and moral values which have historically shaped the American character." According to The New York Times, John Paul II visited the U.S. five times, including multicity tours in 1979 and 1987.

— S.S.M.

Posted to the web on Tuesday April 5, 2005 at 9:04 PM EST

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