In the spirit of Jonathan Swift, perhaps the Bush Administration should consider placing the Vatican on the list of rogue states that support terrorism.
Such a modest proposal might arouse Rome from the esoteric philosophizing, latent anti-Americanism and attitude of appeasement that characterizes the Holy See’s response to jihadism and Islam.
The Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, became the latest prelate to embarrass himself and his superiors with absurd public remarks. On May 12, Lajolo told the Roman newspaper La Repubblica that the Abu Ghraib scandal hurt the United States more than the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“The torture? A more serious blow to the United States than Sept. 11,” Lajolo said, “except that the blow was not inflicted by terrorists but by Americans against themselves.”
Lajolo also called the abuses “a tragic episode in the relationship with Islam,” and suggested that the overwhelming majority of Arab Muslims “cannot but feel aversion and hate for the West growing inside themselves” and added that “the West is often identified with Christianity.”
By comparing the victims of Abu Ghraib with the victims of Sept. 11 – and by assuming that the Iraqi prisoners were good Muslims instead of suspected terrorists – Lajolo unwittingly equates Islam with terrorism. By equating the United States with the West and the West with Christianity, Lajolo foolishly risks provoking the “clash of civilizations” that the Vatican desperately longs to avoid.
Lajolo’s remarks were the latest in a concerted campaign of criticism by the Vatican in the wake of Abu Ghraib. On May 7, Lajolo told Italian state television, “violence against people offends God himself, who made humans in his own image and likeness.”
Lajolo’s predecessor, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, told the Italian daily La Stampa a day earlier that the pictures from Abu Ghraib “have a terrible effect on Arab populations and throughout the world.”
“When one ridicules human dignity like that, one puts up barriers,” he said.
L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official newspaper, focused on Abu Ghraib in three of its five editions between May 6 and May 10. “Horror and Shame,” blared the front-page headline on May 8. “Mankind Has Been Scarred,” shouted another front-page headline.
“The abuse and cruelty against the prisoners,” the newspaper stated, “represents the radical denial of human dignity and of fundamental human values.” Yet as of May 17, L’Ossservatore Romano had said nothing about the gruesome beheading of Nick Berg.
New York Congressman Peter King, a Republican and a Catholic, offered the perfect rejoinder.
“This is the height of hypocrisy,” King told the Associated Press on May 13. “Whatever the United States has done to prisoners in Iraq is nothing compared to what priests and nuns did to Catholic kids for decades while the Catholic hierarchy covered it up.
“Think of the thousands of kids in the U.S. and Ireland who were abused by priests and nuns. You wonder where the Vatican’s moral compass is.”
The Vatican’s compass, despite the moralizing rhetoric, points directly toward its own geopolitical interests. As Front Page Magazine discussed in “The Vatican’s Pro-Saddam Tilt?” in January, Rome seeks to engage Islam as part of Pope John Paul II’s agenda to promote world peace through ecumenism, and to discourage a “clash of civilizations” that he believes would result in worldwide devastation.
But the Vatican’s strident rhetoric reflects two other factors. One is a view of President Bush – and of the United States in general – founded in religious bigotry.
Despite Bush’s well-documented declarations of Christian values, “an anathema against Bush as a ‘false Christian’ has taken shape within the Church in Europe,” writes Italian journalist Sandro Magister, who works for L’Espresso and has covered the Vatican for more than 25 years.
“Some Vatican figures have been the spokesmen for this anathema,” Magister continues. “The Holy See’s radio station sometimes echoes it. From private conversations with Pio Cardinal Laghi (the Vatican’s former emissary to Washington) after his return from his visit to the White House, an anecdotal report of Bush as a ‘fundamentalist’ and a ‘fanatic’ has developed.”
That report remains current though Bush “echoes central elements of Catholic orthodoxy,” Magister writes, including “the idea of vocation as a personal call from God, faith in providence, the struggle against evil within oneself and in the world, the knowledge of having been saved and converted by God, and freedom as a gift from God.”
But Bush worships as an Evangelical Protestant, and therein lies the rub. To Vatican prelates, Bush is the quintessential expression of the Calvinism they believe dictates American values – and in the United States, Evangelical Protestantism has a decidedly Calvinist tinge.
“In the view of some in the Vatican, underlying both the harsh American response on sexual abuse and its dualistic approach to foreign policy is the legacy of Calvinism,” writes John L. Allen, Vatican correspondent for the liberal National Catholic Reporter. “The Calvinist concepts of the total depravity of the damned, the unconditional election of God’s favored and the manifestation of election through earthly success all seem to them to play a powerful role in shaping American cultural psychology.”
Allen’s personal experience reinforces his analysis.
“Recently, I was in the Vatican and happened to strike up a conversation with an official eager to hear an American perspective on the war,” Allen wrote in May 2003. “He told me he sees a ‘clash of civilizations’ between the United States and the Holy See, between a world that is essentially Calvinistic and one that is shaped by Catholicism.
“’We have a concept of sin and evil, too’ he said. ‘But we also believe in grace and redemption.’ ”
That official’s snobbish attitude pervades Europe’s intellectuals and even profoundly affects the Vatican’s ecumenical strategy.
“Among the educated classes, ignorance and discredit especially strike an area of the Protestant world … defined as ‘fundamentalist,’ “ Magister writes, “all the more if they are American and even more so if they are identified by the faith professed by President Bush.
“It is a discredit that also influences the ecumenical dialogue pursued by the most committed Catholic circles. They are well disposed toward Lutherans, Waldensians, Calvinists and Anglicans but very closed off and hostile toward Pentecostals and Evangelicals.”
The Vatican’s strident rhetoric about American involvement in Iraq also betrays the public competition for internal influence as the Pope slowly deteriorates. Tauran, who once called the war in Iraq a “crime against humanity” while foreign minister, was reassigned to the Vatican Library in November.
Civilita Cattolica, the official magazine of the Vatican's secretariat of state, perfectly reflects that competition, as well as the intellectual schizophrenia among Rome's elite. For most of 2003, Civilita Cattolica condemned the war in Iraq. Then, in October, it published equally scathing criticisms of jihad and of Islam's historical behavior from the senior editor, Fr. Giuseppe De Rosa.
"In all of its history, Islam has shown a warlike face and a conquering spirit for the glory of Allah," De Rosa wrote. "In all the places where Islam imposed itself by military force, which has few parallels for its rapidity and breath, Christianity practically disappeared or was reduced to tiny islands in an endless Islamic sea. "For almost 1,000 years, Europe was under constant threat from Islam, which twice put its survival in serious danger,” he wrote.
Christians and Jews living in Muslim societies "belong to an inferior social order," De Rosa wrote. They must pay special taxes and cannot build new houses of worship, marry the daughters of Muslims, testify in trials between Muslims or inherit from Muslims.
Yet in February, Civilita Cattolica's vice-director and political commentator, Fr. Michele Simone, condemned efforts to teach Muslims democracy as "particularly offensive to the Muslim community."
For Simone, invading Iraq "lent support to the impression that the West... intends a new colonization of Islamic countries, aimed at taking control of their oil, on the pretext of wanting to bring 'democracy'... without realizing that, at least for Islamic fundamentalism, 'democracy' takes the sovereignty away from Allah and transfers it to the 'people,' which for a Muslim believer is an act of 'impiety.'"
Some may defend this balancing act as nuance dictated by diplomatic and ecumenical considerations. But John Paul II did not display such nuance during his courageous struggle against communism, a struggle that earned him profound respect throughout the West.
Yet consider the 1991 Gulf War, which the pope vociferously opposed. Had the world listened to him, Saddam Hussein not only would have annexed Kuwait. He then would have turned his forces against Saudi Arabia, thereby provoking a conflict that could have generated far more bloodshed – with the overwhelming number of military casualties being American.
The time for self-delusion is over. The Vatican – and this pope – must realize that the “clash of civilizations” they have tried to forestall is here. Rome can either forthrightly confront Islamic terrorism and imperialism – the greatest threat to Western civilization since World War II – or continue its slide into self-parody and moral irrelevance.