A "crime against humanity": those are the forthright words chosen by John Paul II to characterise the coming war with Iraq, which he told Mr Blair yesterday would create "new divisions in the world"...The Pope, a veteran of the Polish wartime resistance and a lionhearted enemy of Communism, is no weak-willed peacenik. Quite the opposite, in fact: he knows better than any of the West's current crop of political leaders what war really entails. I imagine that the soft-spoken opposition of this towering figure troubles Mr Blair much more deeply than the hostility of the million or so voters who marched through London eight days ago.
The Sunday Telegraph (UK)
February 23, 2003
The Pope's disapproval worries Blair more than marchers
By Matthew d'Ancona
It used to be the solemn practice of medieval crusaders to seek the indulgence of the Pope before they rode off on their steeds to the Holy Land. Some wrote impassioned letters to the Pontiff for the good of their souls, but many made the pilgrimage to Rome in person. Yesterday, on the eve of another mighty conflict in the sands of the Middle East, the Prime Minister was granted a private audience by John Paul II. But there was to be no indulgence - no papal imprimatur - for this Christian soldier. Mr Blair may believe that he is embarking on a "just war": the Holy Father does not.
When President Bush called the war on terrorism a "crusade" he was pilloried as a Bible-bashing redneck. It is too easily forgotten that Tony Blair deployed that word first, in a Newsweek article on the Balkan war in 1999, long before the atrocities of September 11. The Prime Minister's robust Christian convictions and his readiness to take military action have always been intimately linked in his own mind. He does not see himself as a crusader in any aggressive sense; but there is no doubt that he seeks authorisation for war, as well as personal spiritual solace, in the Gospels.
For this reason, yesterday's meeting was unique in British political history. Mr Blair is not the first prime minister to be so honoured: Churchill, for example, had an audience with Pius XII in August 1944. "Not only did the Papal Guard in all their stately array line the long series of ante-rooms and galleries through which we passed," he later recalled with relish, "but the Noble Guards, formed of representatives of the highest and most ancient families of Rome, with a magnificent medieval uniform I had never seen before, were present."
Churchill discussed the evils of Communism with the Supreme Pontiff, and as he left, quoted, with some emotion, a passage from Macaulay's essay on Ranke's History of the Papacy. But that meeting was held towards the end of a war, rather than on the eve of one. And, however moved Churchill was by the splendour of the Vatican, he did not go in search of spiritual endorsement, or to engage in theological argument. Officially, yesterday's audience was a courtesy extended privately to the Prime Minister's family by the Vatican because of Mrs Blair's devout Catholicism. In practice, it was an event crackling with doctrinal and political significance.
A"crime against humanity": those are the forthright words chosen by John Paul II to characterise the coming war with Iraq, which he told Mr Blair yesterday would create "new divisions in the world". Last weekend, His Holiness met Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's Roman Catholic deputy, while the papal envoy, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray held talks with the Iraqi dictator himself in Baghdad (Saddam ranted about the racism of the West).
The Pope was, it should not be forgotten, strongly opposed to the last Gulf War in 1991, which he foretold would have "certainly disastrous consequences". George Weigel, his most authoritative biographer, observes diplomatically that "the Vatican's performance in the Gulf War crisis between August 1990 and March 1991 did not meet the high standards set in the previous twelve years of the pontificate." Indeed not.
Yet the Pope, a veteran of the Polish wartime resistance and a lionhearted enemy of Communism, is no weak-willed peacenik. Quite the opposite, in fact: he knows better than any of the West's current crop of political leaders what war really entails. I imagine that the soft-spoken opposition of this towering figure troubles Mr Blair much more deeply than the hostility of the million or so voters who marched through London eight days ago: this weekend, there is only one Pole he is worrying about.
The extent of the Prime Minister's attraction to Roman Catholicism remains a matter of controversy. Downing Street was furious in 1998 when the Press Association revealed that he had been attending Mass at Westminster Cathedral on his own. Cardinal Hume wasn't too thrilled either by what appeared to be doctrinal dilettantism. On the Anglican side, it was claimed that the Prime Minister, as an alleged crypto-Catholic, could not make sound appointments to the episcopal bench. I recall an unswervingly Protestant minister seething to me at the time that his boss's decision to take Catholic Communion was "unconscionable": as so often over the centuries, London murmured of a "Popish plot".
Number 10 tried desperately to close the story down: one of the most menacing phone calls I have ever taken from Downing Street was from a spin doctor convinced The Sunday Telegraph was going to disclose an alleged discussion between Mr Blair and a Catholic priest. In short, I would be amazed if the Prime Minister converts to Rome while he is in office. But there is no doubt that he is powerfully drawn to the certainties and liturgy of Catholicism (and to its canon law: visitors to his study have been startled on occasion to see a well-thumbed copy of Paul VI's bull on human reproduction, Humanae Vitae). So yesterday's audience will have been freighted with personal significance for Mr Blair as a station on his own private pilgrimage.
Downing Street insists that the Prime Minister has a "clear conscience" on Iraq, and that may well be so. But that clarity has been hard won. According to one Cabinet Minister, the Prime Minister spent a great deal of time towards the end of last year wrestling with the prospect of war and convincing himself that it was just. "It was very private," the minister told me, "and very intense." The joke among his officials before Christmas was that it was easier to engage the Prime Minister's interest on the nuances of St Thomas Aquinas than on the detail of public service reform.
There has always been a strongly Christian strain in the British Labour movement, of course, but one which has emphasised the duty of the believer to avert war at almost any cost. Labour pacifism and CND have their roots in Christian socialism. The theologian to whom Mr Blair says he owes most, John MacMurray (1891-1976), offers little comfort to the politician about to commit troops to battle. "We went into war in a blaze of idealism," wrote MacMurray of his experience in the Somme and at Arras. "We learned that war was simply stupidity, destruction, waste and futility."
The Prime Minister's faith has led him to a quite different, more muscular position on the morality of conflict. "Christianity is a very tough religion," he wrote in 1993. "It is judgmental. There is right and wrong. There is good and bad." In an interview with this newspaper in 2001, he avowed his belief in "the necessity to make judgments about the human condition" and drew an explicit connection between that conviction and his conduct during the Kosovo crisis. There is, in fact, a consistent recoil from appeasement in what he has said about Christianity over the years.
When I interviewed him in 1996 on his religious beliefs, he dwelt upon Pontius Pilate as "the archetypal politician, caught on the horns of an age-old political dilemma … his is the struggle between what is right and what is expedient that has occurred throughout history". Amongst the precedents cited by Mr Blair in that interview was the Munich Agreement - a "classic example", in Blair's own judgment, of the great ethical choices which face politicians. His point was that Chamberlain, in treating with Hitler, had chosen expediency over moral rectitude, with appalling consequences.
Mr Blair made that observation to me sprawled on an ancient sofa in the Leader of the Opposition's office at the House of Commons. He spoke with the excitement that must have filled his all-night debates as an undergraduate at St John's College, Oxford, with the Australian priest Peter Thomson. It seems a very long time ago now. Could he possibly have imagined that, seven years later, he would be facing a similar decision, encouraged, as Chamberlain was by public and churchmen alike, to cut a deal with a terrible dictator? Has the image of Pilate washing his hands passed through his mind again as he has looked ahead to the gathering storm?
In the first months of the Iraqi crisis, the Prime Minister did his best to evade forthright debate on the matter. Wait and see what the United Nations resolves, he said. No decisions had been made, he insisted - even as Allied troops began to amass in the Gulf. Last weekend, however, Blair the Moralist finally emerged from behind Blair the Legalist and Blair the Diplomat.
Yes, the Prime Minister said, the proximate cause of the war, if it were fought, would be legal: Saddam's contempt for UN mandates would be the official casus belli. But there was an ethical dimension, he continued. "If the result of peace is Saddam staying in power, not disarmed, then I tell you there are consequences paid in blood for that decision too." The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and his Roman Catholic counterpart, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, parried swiftly with a joint statement questioning the "moral legitimacy" of the prospective campaign to dislodge Saddam and deploring its "unpredictable humanitarian and political consequences".
What is so depressing about this debate is its intellectual poverty. Those churchmen attacking Mr Blair over Iraq seem to do so primarily on procedural grounds. Echoing the archbishops' joint statement, Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, said on the BBC's Today programme on Thursday that the Prime Minister had not made a "morally persuasive case". The bishop went on to say, however, that if the UN passed a second resolution,"people like myself and the churches and the archbishops have to think seriously again".
So let's be clear: does this mean that what the Security Council says is somehow intrinsically "morally persuasive"? And that - in practice - Jacques Chirac now gets to decide what is a "just war", and what isn't? This is the topsy turvy logic employed by churchmen in this country, who seem to be abdicating their own responsibility to make moral decisions, expecting the Security Council to pronounce on ethical questions as the Holy See used to on behalf of all Christendom.
Interestingly, a much more vibrant debate on what constitutes a "just war" in the wake of September 11 is now under way in America. Michael Novak, the Catholic theologian, recently travelled to the Vatican to tell a sceptical audience that "a limited and carefully conducted war to bring about regime change in Iraq is, as a last resort, morally obligatory".
George Weigel, an acknowledged authority on the theology of the "just war" as well as the Pope's biographer, has argued that the development of weapons of mass destruction by rogues states linked to terrorist groups "requires us to develop and extend the just war tradition to meet the political exigencies of a new century" - namely, to encompass pre-emptive strikes.
Critical to St Augustine's theory of the "just war" is the duty to maintain the "peace of order" - the tranquilitas ordinis - and it is this which theologians such as Weigel claim is under grave threat from Iraq and other rogue states. Mr Blair, in contrast, focuses on the distinct Augustinian notion that Christian love may require force to protect the innocent. Thus, it is the neighbourly duty of the West to liberate the Iraqis from their captivity at the hands of Saddam: the war would be just because of the suffering it would end.
The Vatican is not yet convinced by any of this. Soon after the destruction of the World Trade Center, a papal spokesman speculated that the atrocity showed that "an action of active prevention" against a terrorist force could be doctrinally justified. However, Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the Church's supreme doctrinal body - has since ruled with pitiless clarity that there is no basis in the Church's Catechism for the concept of "pre-emptive war".
Abstruse as this may sound, it is the sort of thing the Prime Minister thinks about all the time. Alastair Campbell has more or less banned his boss from discussing religious matters in public, but that has not diminished their importance to him by a jot, or discouraged his impressive theological literacy. Yesterday's meeting was much more than an exercise in protocol. Mr Blair let it be known in advance of the audience that he was "not going to try to change [the Pope's] mind", but we can take that claim with a pillar of salt. In every phrase, spoken and unspoken, this was an attempt by a fervently Christian politician to convince the most influential Christian leader on earth that war against Saddam is needed.
In this, the Prime Minister failed, as he must have expected he would. The Pope is not easily persuaded to alter his view. But he respects the limits of his own power, too. Paragraph 2309 of the Catholic Church's Catechism is unambiguous: "The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy [of a just war] belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good." Or to put it more crudely: if politicians want to go to war, then, in the end, it's up to them. The Prime Minister was surely deep in thought as he left the Vatican yesterday. For what His Holiness made clear to him was not only that he was wrong about Iraq, but that he was on his own. It is for the crusader-prince to decide what to do, in prayer, in silence, in the long watches of the night. That is the way of things: render unto Blair that which is Blair's.