In Defense of John Paul II, Peacemaker

Unfazed by the antiwar demonstrations that thronged the streets of London on the eve of war with Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was more concerned with the Pope’s disapproval as he prepared to meet with the Holy Father. After all, this was the man who had brought down the Soviet empire through the sheer power of his moral authority, and now he was threatening to strangle the emerging Anglo-American imperium in its crib.

A defeat for humanity” is how John Paul II characterized the Iraq conflict. The Vatican rejected the arguments of neoconservatives, who sought to replace the “just war” theory that had ruled the Church since the time of St. Augustine with their own preemptive war doctrine, a throwback to the pagan era. As Bush and his British poodle prepared to go to war over nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction,” the Pope sent a message to Roman Catholic military chaplains attending a Vatican-sponsored course on humanitarian law expressing the great “comfort” given to him by the antiwar movement, which was taking to the streets in massive numbers: “It should be clear” at this point in human history, he declared, that a “large part of humanity” has rejected war as a means of resolving conflicts between nations. (Self-defense, he averred, is another matter). Hailing the “vast contemporary movement in favor of peace,” the Holy Father backed up his rhetoric with action, calling on Catholics to fast in protest against the coming war and sending a diplomatic mission to Baghdad.

“The Pope? How many divisions has he got?” That’s what Joseph Stalin said to French Prime Minister Pierre Laval when the latter suggested conciliating the Vatican by going easy on Roman Catholicism in the Soviet Union. Half a century later, Stalin’s heirs discovered the essential error of Stalin’s thinking on this question as Karol Wojtyla went up against Poland’s Communist overlords and played a key role in the demise of the Soviet empire. Unsheathing the same sword – his own uniquely ecumenical moral authority – the Holy Father took out after George W. Bush’s war of “liberation” by granting an audience to Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and sending an emissary, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, on an extraordinary mission to Baghdad. It was in this context that Prime Minister Blair went to Rome in a vain attempt get the Pope’s imprimatur on the West’s latest Middle Eastern crusade.

The War Party was not at all pleased with the Pope’s vocal dissent. As “warblogger” Glenn Reynolds, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee, indelicately put it,

Before the child of Iraqi freedom was born, the Vatican was ready to kill it.”

A sickening and deliberately offensive metaphor, but one that truly displayed the emotional depth of the hatred directed at the Holy Father, emanating – like a bad odor – from certain quarters.

In this Pope, however, the War Party faced a formidable foe. While they could always ridicule, smear, and otherwise demonize their more secular enemies, such a strategy would be far more problematic with a man like John Paul. In a somewhat lame attempt at humor, Globalvision’s Ian William pretended to complain:

“Isn’t it time to put up the shutters on the Vatican windows and recognize that this oldest part of old Europe is no longer with the program? It was enemy territory in World War II and now it still is firmly in the camp of Germany and France. It is no surprise that the Pope opposes bold American leadership in the war on Terror and Iraq: he is living in jealous memories of the days when the Church was major power and when Rome was more important than Washington.”

I have news for those who actually believe this: Rome is still more important than Washington. If history is any guide, the papacy will endure long after American power is but a bittersweet memory to the world’s peoples. The satire continues:

“So why do we read the columns of vitriol printed about Germany and France, and nothing about John Paul and his undemocratic little autocracy tainted with anti-Semitism and anti-Militarism? Where is the New York Post dispatch from St Peter’s Square? Why doesn’t a Post reporter stand where Galileo was arraigned and say “It still sucks! Vivat wimpi!” Where are the cartoons showing white mushroom clouds coming from the Vatican chimney to symbolize the need for a new, young, vigorous and compliant Bishop of Rome?”

It’s not that they didn’t try, mind you. As U.S. troops moved on Baghdad, the evil Bill O’Reilly listed those who “are feeling Saddam’s pain,” including Vladimir Putin, Jacques Chirac, Vicente Fox, “the Hollywood Left,” and the Bishop of Rome:

“Apparently, John Paul II is on a personal crusade to destroy the Roman Catholic Church in America. He’s still allowing cardinals like Roger Mahoney in Los Angeles to stonewall priest sex abuse allegations. Then the Pontiff has the chutzpah to call the Iraq war ‘immoral.’ A miracle is needed. “

This theme of pedophilia as somehow entwined with Roman Catholic opposition to the war permeated the War Party’s propaganda: the idea was to get the phrase “sex abuse” in the same sentence as “John Paul II” whenever they dared to attack the Church’s position on the war. A similar theme suffused the remarks of warblogger Glenn Reynolds, whose Instapundit site was heavily promoted by right-wing outlets like the Wall Street Journal and National Review. Complaining about the Vatican’s condemnation of the revenge killing of Hamas leader Abdelaziz Rantissi, and the unwillingness of the Church to countenance Israeli military incursions around the Church of the Nativity, Reynolds wrote:

“Rod Dreher notes over at The Corner that the Vatican just issued a statement condemning Israel for ‘revenge attacks,’ which Dreher points out is an odd term for self-defense. You know, I’ve been reluctant to draw larger lessons from the whole priest-sex-scandal things, but it seems to me that the Vatican is having severe problems in the moral judgment department. Covering up for pedophiles, blasting people for self-defense – this is moral leadership?”

John Paul, pedophile, John Paul, pedophile: Rinse and repeat – and repeat again. When the Holy Father condemned the “deplorable events” at Abu Ghraib, Glenn sang the same chorus. Those child-molesting Catholics had better shut up about Iraq, the war, and Abu Ghraib if they know what’s good for them. According to Reynolds, John Paul II had no more moral authority than a convicted pedophile.

That was then, however, and this is now. Reynolds is all respectful and even wistful at the Pope’s passing, but he posted a more sincere version of John Paul’s obituary back in the summer of 2002:

“John Paul II came in with moral clarity. He’s not going out the same way. And when a potential successor feels free to mouth off as the Cardinal [Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga] does, above, then there’s something deeply, deeply wrong, and it’s going to have serious consequences for the Church. As it should.”

It gets uglier here, where Reynolds defends his contention that the Pope was an anti-Semite. Showing the least amount of concern for the Palestinians is enough evidence, in Reynolds’ kangaroo court, to convict anyone (yes, even the Pope: heck, especially the Pope) of having neo-Nazi sympathies. Israel and “the Jews” are conflated, and, as more “proof,” he posts e-mails from his readers, who (surprise!) agree with him. How dare a Roman Catholic cardinal appear in a photograph with Yasser Arafat: how very “damning”! When the Pope did the same, Reynolds and his crowd went ballistic.

Tough. The Pope’s courageous stance prefigured that of the Bush administration, which has been successfully pushing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to make concessions and agree to the creation of a Palestinian state. If not for the Pope’s evenhanded diplomatic and spiritual intervention in the struggle over the Holy Land, the American initiative would never have succeeded to the extent it has. Indeed, the credit for this achievement belongs as much to the Vatican as it does to the White House.

Weirdly, Reynolds can’t seem to understand the difference between Anglicans and Catholics, but, hey, they’re both foreign-based idol-worshipping anti-American robe-wearing pedophiles, so what’s with all the fine distinctions, anyway?

Here Reynolds tried – unsuccessfully – to defend himself against Reason magazine’s Jesse Walker, who trenchantly remarked:

“Glenn Reynolds argues that the Catholic Church ‘has consistently taken the side of Palestinians, and Arab Muslims generally, against Israel and Jews, to the point where I can’t really believe any excuses that it’s not about antisemitism.’ That’s quite an accusation. I have three questions for the man who made it:

“1. When, in the current pope’s reign, has the Catholic Church taken a stand ‘against Jews’? Not against Israel – against Jews qua Jews.

“2. Do you really believe that hatred of Jews is the only reason one might regularly criticize Israeli policy? Do you think it impossible for someone to argue against Israel’s behavior in – forgive the phrase – good faith?

“3. Elsewhere in the post, you say that your comments are ‘aimed at the Vatican, not at catholics [sic] in general.’ If it is possible to criticize the Vatican in harsh terms without engaging in anti-Catholic bigotry, shouldn’t it be possible to criticize Israel in harsh terms without engaging in anti-Semitic bigotry? Especially since Catholic doctrine pretty much requires one to venerate the Vatican, while it’s perfectly possible to be a Jew without feeling any loyalty to Israel?

“I should add that Glenn has one other piece of evidence for his charge: A cardinal has been photographed with Yasser Arafat. Got that? A church leader posed with a political opponent of a state run by Jews, therefore his church is anti-Semitic. I’d insert a remark here about Roy Cohn, but someone might take it the wrong way.”

It’s as if the Pope had never traveled to Israel, met with Israeli officials, and issued his historic apology for the key role of Christian anti-Semitism as a contributing factor to the Holocaust. Of course, some people are never satisfied: it didn’t matter what the Pope said or did, according to Reynolds and the anti-Catholic wing of the War Party. According to Reynolds, John Paul II was an anti-American, anti-Semitic enabler of pedophiles. He isn’t owning up to his previously expressed opinions, these days, but then neither is David Horowitz, the ex-Commie-turned-neocon, whose Frontpage website ran an article by one Joseph D’Hippolito, who ranted:

“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.”

To the neo-barbarian neocons over at Frontpage, Catholic “just war” theory is “esoteric” airy-fairy philosophizing. They much prefer the pre-Christian ethos of pure power politics – might makes right – when it comes to military and foreign policy. In another Frontpage piece, D’Hippolito likens the Pope to Neville Chamberlain.

I’m surprised the clueless Horowitz didn’t list the late Pope in his “Discover the Network” database of “subversion.” Forget ANSWER and Noam Chomsky: John Paul II was the most effective antiwar (and anti-authoritarian) agitator of all time.

The Weekly Standard‘s attack on the Vatican was more subtle, but not much more so. They ran a mocking piece a couple of years ago taking clerics – especially Catholics – to task for “getting it wrong” on the Iraq war:

“What of the wailing prophets? Susan Thistlethwaite, president of Chicago Theological Seminary, warned that if America attacked Iraq, ‘then it is Americans who have become the barbarians.’ Catholic Bishop John Michael Botean called the war an ‘objectively grave evil.’ Any killing associated with the conflict, he intoned, is ‘unequivocally murder.’ Even Pope John Paul II, no pacifist, declared it ‘a defeat for humanity.’ Compare all this with the cries of joy from Iraqis after Saddam’s 40-foot statue was toppled in Baghdad: ‘We are still scared but we are happy,’ said Maysoun Raheem. ‘Thank God this has happened and the Americans have come.’ For them, this was indeed a war of liberation. ‘I am 50 years old,’ said Kareem Mohammad Kareem, ‘but my life just started today.’

“The victims of tyranny always seem to understand the implacable nature of its evil better than anyone – better than those who safely hurl jeremiads at the world’s injustices as their bread and butter. The clerics were wrong about this war, wrong about the despicable regime it toppled, wrong about nearly everything. And yet they remain unrepentant: ‘Prophetic voices are always way out ahead of the congregation,’ boasted the NCC’s Bob Edgar. ‘None of the Old Testament prophets had a majority.’

“Perhaps, but at least their predictions conformed to reality. That’s a lot more than can be said of the prognosticators of our own day.”

Flushed with the adrenalin-pumping exhilaration of their Pyrrhic “victory” in Iraq, the neocons’ analysis of how John Paul supposedly got it wrong has not stood the test of time. Fifteen-hundred-plus American dead, one-hundred thousand Iraqis put in their graves by this act of “liberation” – and the country in the grip of a scary gang of theocrats. Those “happy” and “scared” Iraqis are now scaring us – and shooting at us.

For the Weekly Standard to lecture this Pope about the special moral authority of “victims of tyranny” has got to be the most brazen act of intellectual hooliganism since editor Bill Kristol was last hit in the face with a cream pie. After all, we are talking about a man, Karol Wojtyla, who lived under the Nazis and the Commies, hounded, persecuted, and enslaved by both. What were the editors of the Standard thinking? A more inapplicable critique of this Pope could hardly be imagined.

I’m glad the Holy Father refrained from taking the advice of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which opined that it was okay when he exerted his power to thwart the power of the Kremlin, but that it was time to defer to secular authorities when it concerned the U.S. government. But of course the Vatican would not kowtow to any temporal authority, least of all the contemporary equivalent of a Roman emperor with Caligula-esque delusions of grandeur.

With the Bush Doctrine, an American president had conferred on himself godlike powers to preemptively attack and destroy whomever, for whatever reason, anywhere in the world. The Church could never recognize such a claim to global suzerainty as legitimate and still uphold Catholic just war theory, which holds that even a retaliatory military action can only be undertaken by a government with a legitimate claim to authority over the afflicted area (and then only as a last resort). Spreading “democracy” at gunpoint isn’t covered in the Catholic scheme of things – and thank God for that.

John Paul II is a unique figure, a giant of a man who towers so high above his critics that to focus on the latter is, in a sense, an injustice. But somebody ought to remind the world of the sins of his detractors (even as today, they praise him, or hold their tongues), and it might as well be me, a sinful unbeliever. I may be “exuberantly pagan,” as neocon enforcer David “Axis of Evil” Frum put it, but I recognize a real saint when I see one: and so does the War Party, which is why it did so much to smear and besmirch his good name.

The Holy Father defended the Palestinian people, and tried to shield them from the relentless cruelty of their tormentors. He spoke out against the symbolic evil of the “wall of separation.” “The Holy Land does not need walls, but bridges,” said John Paul on his historic tour, much to Eli Wiesel’s chagrin. The wall, whined Wiesel, is “self-defense,” and the Pope “should have been more careful and condemned terrorism” – as if John Paul could ever be thought to be endorsing terrorism! Yet that is the clear implication of Wiesel’s weasely remarks. On another occasion, however, Wiesel was a bit more thoughtful:

“Wiesel said he was suspicious of Pope John Paul II in the beginning, because when the pope had made a trip to the site of Auschwitz to speak, he never mentioned the word ‘Jew.’ ‘But I must tell you,’ Wiesel said, ‘that over the last few years, I have felt a general respect for the man. He tries now to bring people together – for the honor of humanity, not just Christianity.'”

Yes, that’s why he was against Wiesel’s precious wall. That’s why he was against the Iraq war. That’s why he stood up to the War Party, and earned the respect of many millions – and that’s why, in the end, his spirit and cause will prevail.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].