Why would a Roman Catholic cardinal who leads a papal commission express public sympathy for a murderous, sadistic tyrant? And more importantly, what does it mean about the Vatican's disdain for the West?
Cardinal Renato Martino unintentionally motivated thoughtful people to ask that question after his remarks following the capture of Saddam Hussein by American troops Dec. 12.
Martino, president of the Pontifical Commission on Peace and Justice, told a press conference that he "had a sense of compassion for him" after watching the video confirming Saddam's capture.
"I feel pity to see this man destroyed, being treated like a cow as they checked his teeth," Martino told reporters assembled Dec. 16 for the Vatican's World Day of Peace message.
Many prominent Catholics, such as Michael Novak and the Catholic League's William Donahue, say Martino was not speaking for Pope John Paul II or for the Catholic Church as a whole.
Nevertheless, Martino's comments cannot be divorced from the Vatican's opposition to the war, which reflects a complex mix of competing factors -- from the pope's fundamental worldview and geopolitical goals to latent anti-American and anti-Israeli attitudes among the hierarchy.
Ostensibly, papal opposition reflects the belief that preemptive war violates "just war" theory. Yet Novak and George Weigel, the official papal biographer, argued otherwise; Novak even traveled to Rome to present the Bush Administration's case.
Public pronouncements from various church officials also expressed concerns about the fate of civilians, particularly Chaldean Christians, who fared relatively well under Saddam. Yet Muslims who convert to Catholicism feel isolated in the face of persistent threats.
"We feel abandoned," a woman named Nura told the Italian daily Corriere Della Sera in 2002.
"After our conversion, we have no one to support us. We ask the Church and Italy: Protect us, defend us."
Much of papal thinking on the war, therefore, reflects John Paul's overriding geopolitical goal of preventing a worldwide conflagration through promoting international law and inter-religious dialogue - apparently, at all costs, writes Renzo Guolo, professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Trieste and a specialist in Muslim fundamentalism.
Guolo -- author of the book, Xenophobes and Xenophiles: Italians and Islam -- notes that those bishops who oppose the papal approach toward Islam remembered how the pope, "who ordinarily speaks about all topics, had spread a veil of silence over the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries," he writes.
John Paul II also hopes to keep Islam from hardening into a permanent fundamentalism that would "lead to the clash of civilizations that (he) considers ominous for the fate of humanity," Guolo writes.
Publicly opposing the war in Iraq, Guolo maintains, enables the pope to keep the channels of communication with Islam open. Concerning Iran, for example, the Vatican "is particularly careful to exploit reformist efforts as well as President Khatami's openness to inter-religious dialogue," Guolo writes.
But the pope's goals, while noble, I believe reflect a misguided view of human nature imbued with an excessive reliance on the ethereal.
"For Karol Wojtyla, religious dialogue is necessary . to foster the common good of humanity," Guolo writes. "This dialogue is sustained by the awareness (of) common values across cultures, because these values are rooted in human nature. He seems to believe that only the prophetic message, the utopian perspective, the mystical leap powered by an intense spirituality, can achieve this objective."
Papal objectives aside, Martino's comments also reflect pervasive and virulent anti-Israeli, anti-American and anti-Western sentiment within the Church's upper echelons. Witness L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's official newspaper, which published the following on its front page during the siege at the Church of the Nativity in 2002:
"Rarely has history been so rudely forced and pushed backward by a clear intention to offend the dignity of a people. The land of the Risen One is profaned with iron and fire, and is the victim of an aggression that amounts to extermination."
In that article, L'Osservatore Romano said a priest was killed in the convent of the Brigittine order and several nuns wounded. Two days later, the paper issued a retraction.
Two years earlier, Archbishop Hilarion Capucci, the head of a Vatican delegation to Baghdad, called his visit "one of solidarity with the Iraqi people in the face of the international embargo against their country" and "thanked Iraq for its moral and material support for the Palestinian cause (BBC News Web site, Dec. 5, 2000)."
Some of the pope's highest officials have criticized Western culture while ignoring the problems in Arab and Muslim cultures - and seem to reflect the terrorists' justification for attacking innocents. Take the comments of Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, made one day before the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks:
"Many of the so-called values of present Western civilization are anything but values . (T)he destruction of the family, the exaltation of homosexuality, the spread of pornography, growing immorality, abortion gratuitous violence, the exclusion of God in the edification of society . stir contempt and hatred for decadent Western society in other civilizations (Zenit, Vatican news service, Sept. 10, 2002)."
Or, take Cardinal Martino five months later:
"Not only the United States but the entire West should make an examination of conscience of how we oppress the rest of the world - unkept promises, spreading ways of life that are not moral or acceptable to the rest of the world (Reuters, Feb. 6, 2003)."
Unkept promises? To whom? For what? Osama bin Laden could not have said it any better.
Yet things in Rome seem to be changing. In October Civilita Cattolica, the official magazine of the Vatican secretary of state, published an article decrying Islam's "warlike and conquering face" throughout history and criticizing the "perpetual discrimination" Christians face in Muslim countries. Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican foreign minister who described the war against Iraq as a mortal sin and a "crime against humanity," was reassigned in November to the Vatican Library.
Given Rome's internal rivalries, however, it remains an open question whether a pope and his Vatican that behaved like Winston Churchill in the face of Communism will continue to behave like Neville Chamberlain in the face of Jihadism and Islam.