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John Paul II's Criteria for War
Do Not Reflect Catholic Doctrine


Atila Sinke Guimarães

While the smoke of the last shooting is still in the air in Iraq, it is time to deal with the position of John Paul II on this war. Many people think that he is faithfully echoing the official doctrine of the Catholic Church on war, and particularly this war. It is worthwhile to see if this is correct.

JPII delivered his main statement on the topic, as far as I could verify [1], on January 13, 2003 to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Vatican. Other statements of the Pope and Vatican authorities normally are based on this one. Here are the words of the Pontiff regarding war in genere, and the war in Iraq in specie:
“No to war! War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity.

“International law, honest dialogue, solidarity between states, the noble exercise of diplomacy: These are methods worthy of individuals and nations in resolving their differences. I say this as I think of those who still place their trust in nuclear weapons and of the all-too-numerous conflicts which continue to hold hostage our brothers and sisters in humanity. ….

“And what are we to say of the threat of war which could strike the people of Iraq, the land of the prophets, a people already sorely tried by a more than 12 years of embargo? War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations.

“As the Charter of the United Nations and international law itself remind us, war cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations” (Speech to the Diplomatic Corps, January 13, 2003, n. 4, Origins, January 30, 2003, p. 544).
[1] This is based on 137 documents on the topic issued from January to April (Easter) 2003 by Zenit Agency, which is a Vatican source.

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John Paul II in a solemn address to the Diplomatic Corps.
L'Osservatore Romano, January 10, 2000
First, the point that shocks the Catholic sense is that John Paul II did not speak as a Vicar of Christ but as an international leader who echoes the instructions of the UN and sees it as the highest tribunal on earth to judge nations. Therefore, his argument did not pretend to be a continuation of Catholic Moral doctrine, but a consequence of the principles of the UN Charter.

I disagree with this point in both its presuppositions and its consequences.
    • A Pope does not have any temporal authority above him on earth. He is the supreme arbiter of nations. In the Papal coat of arms, this indirect power over the temporal sphere is represented by the Silver Key; the Golden Key being the symbol of power over the spiritual sphere. This dispute about the supremacy of the spiritual power over the temporal was resolved around one thousand years ago with the episode of Canossa, between Pope St. Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV. Thenceforth the Catholic Magisterium until Vatican II has always confirmed this supremacy. By implying that the UN has the supreme power to judge nations, John Paul II de facto is giving up one of the main prerogatives of the Papacy.
    • From a temporal perspective, the United Nations is not a supreme arbiter to judge nations. It is an institution with the utopian goal of establishing a peaceful international order independent of God, quite different from the ideal Our Lord came to found among nations. On the practical level the organization is just a forum for debates that can or cannot concur with international accords to harmonize relations among nations. It has not succeeded in preventing wars since it was founded in 1945. Further its unstable present day situation and increasing loss of stature presages a failure in the near future, if artificial means are not taken to avoid its collapse.
    • For me it seems absurd that a Pope should quote the principles of the UN as a reference point to resolve an imminent international conflict. Especially in view of the fact that he is the representative of 2,000 years of the richest treasure that exists to resolve human problems, which is the ensemble of principles of Catholic Morals. He did not, however, even mention it.

Second, it struck me that in dealing with the imminence of a war between the US and Iraq, the Pope only found words to praise Iraq – “the land of prophets” – and its people – “a people already sorely tried by a more than 12 years of embargo.” He did not have the evenhandedness to say a word of praise for the United States and the American people. With this unilateral approach, he was implicitly protecting the despotic regime of Hussein.

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Kurds gassed by Saddam Hussein in 1988.
Time, March 31, 2003
Other questions naturally came to my mind as I read the text:
    • Wasn’t JPII aware of the needs of Iraqi Catholics suffering under the tyrant?
    • When he spoke about the damages for the civilian population, had he forgotten the 5,000 innocent Iraqui civilians whom Hussein killed with lethal gas some years ago?
    • Didn’t John Paul II remember the river of money that was flowing into the regime from oil and that had not been used to alleviate the poverty of the Iraqi people? What did the regime do with this money? It built expensive weapons and filled the pockets of Saddam’s family members, government officials, and the inside clique.
    • Wouldn’t this have been a wonderful opportunity to say a few words from his well-practiced speech against those who have riches and should give them to the poor? Why didn’t he do so?
    • Why didn’t JPII criticize the despotic and socialist regime of Hussein and why did he instead bring up the embargo on Iraq that is mainly American?
Why did he forget all these points? In my opinion, it was to indirectly qualify the US as unjust and to present the Iraq regime of Hussein as a victim.

Third, John Paul II issued unclear criteria to judge whether a war is just or not. “War cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions.” Everything depends upon the “strict conditions,” but he did not spell out what these conditions are. It is quite strange! Why did he avoid it?

It could be because the UN Charter pretends that this organization must have the last word on the decision of war. In fact, the Charter Preamble states:
“We the peoples of the United Nations determined … to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained .... And for these ends to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest.”
Article 2 further specifies that the UN intends to be the ultimate reference point:
“All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations” (par. 4) [2]
The UN reserves to itself to determine what this “common interest” and “purposes” might be.
[2] Charter of the United Nations, Official Internet Site, www.un.org
Therefore, the Pope did not explain the “strict conditions” he was referring to, because he was veiling a demand that the United States and England renounce their decisions to go to war and obey the UN.

Fourth, if this conclusion is pertinent, one can go a step further. The sovereignty and independence of a nation are the basic cells of a legitimate international order. The weaker nations may sign mutual defensive accords to protect themselves; the stronger ones may establish friendly accords with others to prevent conflicts. The rule that governs the ensemble of nations is Natural Law. Each authority of a sovereign state stands responsible for its application and must answer before God for his actions.

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1990 - Hussein appears on TV holding electronic devices that could be used as atom-bomb triggers.
Time, March 31, 2003
Now, it seems that John Paul II is trying to change the present day international order by weakening the sovereignty of the nations. This purpose is confirmed, indeed, by the next part of his speech. In it he presented a curious notion of “interdependence.” Here are his words:
“It is vital to note that the independence of states can no longer be understood apart from the concept of interdependence. All states are interconnected both for better and for worse” (ibid., n. 6, p. 545).
Preaching this notion, the Pope is trying to do away with the sovereignties of nations and favor the establishment of the one world order. If this interpretation is correct, we are witnessing John Paul II acting as an architect of the Revolution, not only in the spiritual sphere, but also in the temporal one.

In conclusion, I would say that the criteria adopted by John Paul II against the war with Iraq were purposely different from Catholic ones. He did not intend to reflect Catholic Moral doctrine on war. He spoke as an admirer of the principles of the United Nations.

As impressive for me as the text itself has been the reaction of countless Catholics - lay and even Episcopates [3] - who have accepted it as a Catholic position. An analysis of the text of John Paul II, however, makes it clear that it did not intend to be and it is not a Catholic position. It is an agnostic position that does not require any kind of obedience and is open to discussion for anyone.

What would be the Catholic Moral doctrine on war? Let me address this in the next article.
[3] Official statements of the American, German, French, Italian, and Irish Episcopates, as well as those of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei have designated as Catholic this text by JPII on the UN.

blank.gif - 807 BytesWar, Just War




This argument is developed in Guimarães book War, Just War







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