Catholic Scholar Going to Rome to Make a Case for War
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 6, 2003; Page A30
With Vatican officials increasingly outspoken in opposition to a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See is bringing a conservative American Catholic intellectual to Rome to help make the case that war is justified.
The trip by Michael Novak, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, has generated fierce opposition from American Catholic leaders. Sixty of them, including the provincial heads of many men's and women's religious orders, sent a letter Tuesday to the U.S. Embassy saying, "Our church has spoken clearly and with an almost unanimous voice condemning this buildup to war."
In a cover letter to U.S. Ambassador James Nicholson, the Rev. Stan De Boe, a Trinitarian priest, referred to Novak as a "dissident theologian" whose support for a "preemptive" military strike against Iraq was at odds with the church's teachings on what constitutes a "just war."
Novak said in a telephone interview from Brussels yesterday that the Catholic catechism "makes clear that the judgment of whether to go to war has to be made by the authorities in charge of pursuing the common good, and in this case, that's the president and his Cabinet. Who else has the information to make the decision?"
Novak added that he does not expect to change the Vatican's position against the war. "My job is to make the case that I have in my own conscience," he said. "The people who say we shouldn't fight are taking a huge risk on their conscience as well, should something happen to American citizens because of Saddam's weapons."
As a scholar and author, Novak is probably best known for his moral defense of capitalism. At one time, he was a leading critic of the Catholic Church's teaching on contraception. But he changed his mind, and for the past decade he has been known not as a dissenter, but as a defender of orthodoxy.
After the weekly National Catholic Reporter first reported the controversy over Novak's trip in its online edition Tuesday, Nicholson issued a statement saying that the letter from U.S. Catholic leaders was based on a "misunderstanding of the nature of Novak's visit to Rome."
"Novak is coming to Rome as a private citizen to present his own views on the relation of the current crisis to traditional notions of just war theory," Nicholson said. "He is not coming here to represent Catholic teaching or the Conference of U.S. Bishops; he is also not representing the U.S. government."
U.S. Embassy spokesman Ian Kelly said Novak was invited to Rome under the embassy's public speakers program and was scheduled to arrive tomorrow for three days of meetings, including private sessions with Vatican officials over the weekend and a public lecture on Monday.
The controversy over Novak's trip reflects the broader debate within religious groups on the morality of a "preventive" war against Iraq.
Pope John Paul II, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the leaders of most mainline Protestant denominations, including the United Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian (USA) churches, have repeatedly questioned the justification for war.
In his annual address to the diplomatic corps Jan. 13, for example, the pope said: "War is never just another means that one can choose for settling differences between nations. . . . War cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option."
Since then, Vatican officials have taken an increasingly sharp line. On Jan. 20, the director of Vatican Radio, the Rev. Pasquale Borgomeo, said a unilateral U.S. attack would amount to "imposing the hegemony of a superpower by force and not by law." On Jan. 29, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who, as the pope's secretary of state, oversees the Vatican's foreign policy, said: "We want to say to America: Is it worth it to you? Won't you have, afterwards, decades of hostility in the Islamic world?"
Novak, however, is far from the only American Catholic who supports the Bush administration's position. When the Rev. Fred Edlefsen declared in his sermon last Sunday at St. James Catholic Church in Falls Church that a preemptive strike on Iraq would be outside the boundaries of a just war, a few parishioners stood up and walked out. Others showed their support for the priest by applauding.
Protestants have faced similar dissent. John R. Hudson, a Presbyterian in Houston, said he thought his denomination's membership was more conservative than its leadership on many issues, including the possible war. "I believe this divergence exists in other Protestant denominations, and contributes to the declining membership in the mainline denominations in favor of the more conservative evangelical denominations, like the Southern Baptists," he said.
But the Baptists are not wholly united, either. While five evangelical leaders sent a letter to President Bush supporting military action against Iraq, four Southern Baptists were among 100 Christian ethicists who signed a statement saying they "share a common moral presumption against a preemptive war."