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Rome's Accidental Alliance By: Gerald Warner
The Spectator | Thursday, March 20, 2003


America’s self-imposed role as arbiter of the New World Order and its quest for a ‘coalition of the willing’ to support a pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein has encountered worldwide lack of enthusiasm. Yet it is the opposition of the Vatican that has most wounded American neo-conservatives. To these arch-materialists, John Paul II is an icon of anti-communism and a frequent champion of unpopular conservative causes. So what has gone wrong this time? The clamour of controversy fails to drown the puppy whimper of betrayed loyalty. Jacques Chirac is an opportunist, bogus conservative, subsidy junkie who was never going to come on side; but the Pope’s defection hurts.

One of the unforeseen consequences of the Iraq crisis is that it is exposing to the outside world the incompatibility of the conflicting strands of American conservatism. A previously blurred picture is coming sharply into focus. Most neo-conservatives would have liked to claim ownership of the Pope, like rival housewives inviting the mayor to tea. Now a surprising (to them) Vatican intransigence has dispersed the fog of ambiguity and revealed the true battle lines. The core issue dividing Rome and Washington may be moral — the Pope opposes the war on humanitarian and theological grounds — but the root of the present misunderstanding is cultural.

This chasm of incomprehension could not be better illustrated than by the recent visit to Rome of Michael Novak, the Catholic neo-conservative pundit, at the invitation of the American ambassador to the Holy See, which effectively means at the request of the White House. Novak, a born-again 1960s rebel turned globalist and liberal economist, went to the Eternal City on a Mormon-style mission of conversion. He met officials from the Vatican Secretariat of State and the unpromisingly titled Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, as well as delivering a public lecture in support of war.

His fruitless embassy was an expression of American frustration: if taking out Saddam plays so well in Peoria, how come it bombs in San Pietro? The Pope was on side when Richard the Lionheart was kicking butt, so why is Dubya being handed the frozen mitt? A fly-on-the-wall view of the encounter between Novak and the urbane Roman prelates would have been fascinating. It has resonances of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, except that this was a Pennsylvania Yankee. Hélas! The contrasting image of France’s Dominique de Villepin, with his aristocratic particule and a Talleyrand coiffure that would not have been out of place at Versailles, signals to the violet-piped monsignori that here is someone with whom they would prefer to have dinner.

Novak is not alone in tilting at the Vatican windmill. His fellow neo-conservatives George Weigel, author of a biography of John Paul II, and Robert Royal, together with a large supporting cast from the new Right, have similarly striven to persuade Rome that a pre-emptive strike on Iraq would be compatible with the Catholic teaching on the Just War.

‘How many divisions has the Pope?’ Stalin asked derisively. The role of the present pontiff in the subsequent liquidation of Stalin’s empire provided the answer, besides making him a hero in the eyes of American conservatives. The problem is that the Vatican cannot be wooed, like some dirt-poor member of the United Nations Security Council, by bunging it a power station and a couple of billion dollars. While the Holy See is influenced by geopolitical considerations — especially under the current pontificate — it is also constrained by theological imperatives dating from the 5th-century doctrinal formulation of St Augustine, recodified by St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.

The Thomist definition of the necessary conditions for a just war (Summa Theologica, II-II, Q.40) is, like all his writing, admirably straightforward. War must be declared by a competent authority; the US president and Congress fulfil this requirement constitutionally in terms of self-defence, but not to cast America in the role of international policeman. There must be just cause, i.e. attack by an aggressor or a need to restore rights lost under aggression; this validated the 1991 Gulf war, provoked by the invasion of Kuwait. There must also be proportionality — the likely suffering and destruction caused by war must be outweighed by the just cause. Most of the world disputes this in the context of Iraq. The remaining stipulation is the right intention, meaning that the belligerent must intend to re-establish justice and a lasting peace. America clearly has the intention of affording Iraqis an opportunity to live under a more just regime; but the acute hazard of destabilising the Middle East, with the possibility of other governments falling to militant Islam and a massive resurgence of terrorism, could be held to cancel that out.

The papacy has, historically, subjected itself to its own rules. When Papal Rome was besieged by the forces of Italian unification on 20 September 1870, Pius IX ordered the garrison to offer just sufficient resistance to demonstrate to the world that he was submitting to duress, then immediately to capitulate. Today, the Vatican is enjoying the rare luxury of finding its rigorous doctrinal posture endorsed globally by the secular zeitgeist. Unlike its opposition to abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, artificial birth control and a host of other controversies, Rome on this occasion is singing from the same hymn sheet as secularist progressive opinion. To the potential discomfiture of the Bush administration, many American Catholics will rally to the Pope on this issue, for the same reason that they defy him on contraception: it suits their convenience.

Yet the Pope’s accidental alliance with progressive forces is as misleading as the alignment which American neo-conservatives imagined they enjoyed with him. If he opposes ‘regime change’ in Baghdad, many of the premises on which he does so will be radically different from UN peaceniks’. Despite Islam’s fierce hostility to Catholicism, the societies it controls exhibit many values whose abandonment by the materialist Western world is deplored by the Pope.

Close-knit family life, in which women’s role — although unacceptably circumscribed — is closer to the Marian model of womanhood than to the extreme feminism of urban America; daily life revolving around regular prayer and, in season, fasting; even the misplaced fanaticism of Muslim fundamentalists, reflecting a certainty and a spirit of martyrdom long departed from his own Church — much of this, with heavy qualification, must strike a sympathetic chord with the pontiff. Nor can he have any illusions about the kind of society that America would like to substitute. McDonald’s burger bars, rap music, sexual licence, individualism demolishing family life and consumerism banishing all sense of religion: those forces have conquered Catholicism in the West — should the Pope take comfort from a similar overthrow of Islam?

These likely reservations reflect a deeper tension between Catholicism and American culture. Historically, the American identity was strongly antipathetic to Rome, deriving as it did from the British Whig tradition. The descendants of Puritan settlers devised the Declaration of Independence, a document in conflict with Catholic doctrine, which was also the inspiration for the French Revolution. The high-water mark of hostility came in 1899 when Pope Leo XIII, in the Apostolic letter Testem Benevolentiae, formally condemned Americanism — the socially progressive errors espoused by such prominent American Catholics as Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, who had gone native in the pluralist atmosphere of the United States. This miniature controversy subsided immediately; but Americanism came back with a vengeance at the Second Vatican Council, as the New World chapter of resurgent Modernism.

From 1917, the papacy and the United States were drawn together by their common crusade against communism, an alliance only fleetingly disrupted by the Vatican secretary of state Agostino Casaroli’s ill-judged policy of Ostpolitik, displaced in 1978 when the election of the present Pope engendered a more robust diplomacy. Since the liquidation of the legacy of the Russian Revolution in 1990, the removal of the Marxist distraction has brought the Church back into confrontation with the heritage of the French Revolution.

In that context, yesterday’s Free World champions are today’s globalist exploiters. American neo-conservatives are increasingly exposed as having little in common with Rome, but they are in denial. Dubya’s speechwriters pepper his orations with such Catholic vocabulary as ‘solidarity’, ‘common good’ and, most notably, ‘subsidiarity’. Among some Republicans, Catholic is the new black. Evangelicals have allied themselves with Catholics on pro-life issues. Yet, in such areas, Rome has as much in common with Muslims, and has even informally collaborated with them against population-control policies at United Nations conferences.

The Vatican’s true American allies are the cultural conservatives (to whom Dubya is ideologically closer than his father was) whose doyen the late Russell Kirk, an eminent Catholic, opposed even the 1991 Gulf war. Another prominent Catholic conservative, Pat Buchanan, does not share the total aversion to all forms of state intervention of the neo-conservatives. Beyond the Catholic fold, isolationism is the single greatest defining characteristic of American conservatism, reinforced recently by distrust of the United Nations.

That distrust must privately be shared by the Pope. Although Vatican rhetoric is resolutely internationalist, nothing could more menace the Church than eventual world government, predicated on some syncretic religion and employing anti-hate laws to suppress public expression of uncompromising Catholic orthodoxy. How many divisions has the Pope? Not as many as the divisions sundering the New World Order, is the evident answer.




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