What About the War, Benedict?
By Ray McGovern
Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Washington
last week against a macabre backdrop featuring reports of torture, execution,
and war. He chose not to notice.
Torture: Fresh reporting
by ABC from inside sources depicted George W. Bush’s most senior aides
(Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Rice, and Tenet) meeting dozens
of times in the White House during 2002/03 to sort out the most efficient
mix of torture techniques for captured “terrorists.”
initially ABC attempted to insulate the president from this sordid
activity, Bush abruptly bragged that he knew all about it and
approved. That comment and the action memorandum Bush signed on Feb. 7, 2002
, dispelled any lingering doubt regarding his personal responsibility for authorizing torture."
Execution: Meanwhile, the
Supreme Court with a majority of judges calling themselves Catholic,
was openly deliberating on whether one gram, or two, or perhaps three
of this or that chemical would be the preferred way to execute people. Always colorful prominent Catholic layman Antonin Scalia complained
impatiently, “Where does it say in the Constitution that executions
have to be painless?”
Scalia did not seem at all concerned
that the pope might remind him and his Catholic colleagues about the
Church’s teaching on capital punishment; i.e., the cases in which
the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare,
if not practically non-existent.”
It was enough to bring this student of
German history (and five-year resident there) vivid memories of frequenting
those places where precisely these kinds of torture and execution policies
were conducted at similarly high levels by Hitler’s inner circle—yes,
War: Can the pope possibly
be so suffused with his peculiar brand of theology that he is oblivious
to what happened when he was a young man during the Third Reich.
Is it possible that papal advisers forgot
to tell him that the post-WW II Nuremberg Tribunal described an unprovoked
war of aggression, of the kind that the Third Reich and George W. Bush
launched, as the “supreme international crime, differing from other
war crimes only in that it contains the accumulated evil of the whole?” Could they have failed to tell the pope he would be hobnobbing with
war criminals, torturers, and the enabling cowards in Congress who refuse
to remove them from office?
For this Catholic, it was a profoundly
sad spectacle—profoundly sad. Not since WW II, when the Reich’s
bishops swore personal oaths of allegiance to Hitler (as did the German
Supreme Court and army generals) have the papacy and bishops acted in
such a fawning, un-Christ-like way.
During the Thirties, with very few exceptions,
the bishops (Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran) collaborated with the
Nazis. Meanwhile, Hamlet-like Pius XII kept trying to make up
his mind as to whether he should put the Catholic Church at some risk,
while Jews were being murdered by the thousands.
In 1948, in the shadow of that monstrous
world war, the French author/philosopher Albert Camus accepted
an invitation from the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg. To their credit, the Dominicans wanted to know what an “unbeliever”
thought about Christians in the light of their behavior during the Thirties
and Forties. Camus’ words seem so terribly relevant today that
it is difficult to trim them:
“For a long time during
those frightful years I waited for a great voice to speak up in Rome. I, an unbeliever? Precisely. For I knew
that the spirit would be lost if it did not utter a cry of condemnation.
“It has been explained
to me since, that the condemnation was indeed voiced. But that
it was in the style of the encyclicals, which is not all that clear. The condemnation was voiced and it was not understood. Who could
fail to feel where the true condemnation lies in this case?
“What the world expects
of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and
that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a
doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest
man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the
blood-stained face history has taken on today. (emphasis added)
“It may be… that Christianity will insist on maintaining a compromise,
or else on giving its condemnations the obscure form of the encyclical. Possibly it will insist on losing once and for all the virtue of revolt
and indignation that belonged to it long ago.
“What I know—and
what sometimes creates a deep longing in me—is that if Christians
made up their mind to it, millions of voices—millions, I say—throughout
the world would be added to the appeal of a handful of isolated individuals,
who, without any sort of affiliation, today intercede almost everywhere
and ceaselessly for children and other people.” (emphasis
Resistance, Rebellion, and Death: Essays)
Sixty years ago!
Perhaps the Dominican monks took Camus
seriously; monks tend to listen. Vatican functionaries, on the
other hand, tend to know it all—and typically caution the pope to
be “discrete.” You saw that this past week with the pope in
Washington and New York, as he forfeited the opportunity to follow the
biblical injunction to speak truth to power—to speak out clearly,
as Camus insisted, with whatever moral authority he could summon.
Catholics All Around
Think back to last week and the many
prominent Catholics who flocked to see the pope—many of them officials
with considerable influence in the Judiciary and Legislature, with important
players in the Executive Branch as well.
There they were, with their families,
the five Catholic Supreme Court justices, fresh from detailed deliberations
on how best to implement state-sponsored killings, executions that are
banned by virtually every civilized country.
Justice Scalia audibly salivated over
how much noxious chemical should be shot into the veins of a “condemned,”
and how quickly. (For those with strong stomachs, C-SPAN captured
I am embarrassed to acknowledge that,
like me, Scalia is the product of a Jesuit education (Xavier H.S. in
Manhattan and Georgetown College). Despite his advocacy of “soft”
torture techniques like driving nails under fingernails, Scalia continues
to be lionized by many Jesuits and bishops alike.
In the House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, erstwhile doyenne
of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and now San Francisco and minority leader
John Boehner (R, Ohio)—also a Catholic—seem about to allocate another
hundred billion dollars to death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan
for the most reprehensibly crass of political purposes—the coming
election. Congressman Jim McGovern (D, Massachusetts) last week
tried to guild the lily, noting that Pelosi now insists that, in McGovern’s
words, “We’re an equal branch of government; we’re no longer
a cheap date.” Right.
Sadly, it appears that Pelosi’s key
functionaries on House Appropriations (both of them Catholics) will
cave in once again. It is not as though they do not know the right
thing to do. Just six months ago Appropriations chair Dave Obey
(D, WI) declared, “I have no intention of reporting out of committee
anytime in this session of Congress any such [funding] request that
simply serves to continue the status quo.”
Subcommittee chair John Murtha (D, PA)
put it even more strongly a year before Obey did, and came close to
calling the occupation of Iraq a lost cause—which, of course, it is. But it is not politic to say that before the election. Never mind
the troops on the front lines.
Obey and Murtha caved last time. I will find it particularly devastating if Obey caves again now, for
I have always considered him among the best legislators in Congress. And since he is from Wisconsin, Obey recognizes better than most others
the McCarthy-ite demagoguery coming from the likes of Texas Republican
Michael Burgess, to the effect that anything short of giving the president
all the war funding he demands is “basically giving aid and comfort
to the enemy.”
Pelosi also has been unusually candid
in admitting that it is electoral politics, pure and simple, that explain
her resistance to holding President George W. Bush and Vice President
Dick Cheney accountable for high crimes and misdemeanors via the orderly
procedure given us by the Founders for precisely this purpose—impeachment
in the House; trial in the Senate.
If, as widely expected, the war funding
goes through, several hundred more American troops are likely to die
before some common sense can be injected into U.S. policy next year—not
to mention how many Iraqis.
Iraq is a shambles. Two million
Iraqis have fled abroad; another two million are internal refugees. Am I the only one who finds macabre the raging debate as to whether
the attack and occupation of Iraq has resulted in a million or “only
300,000” Iraqis dead?
Apparently, the pope did not have any
opinion on the Iraq war.
Surely the pope would speak out against
the kind of torture for which our country has become famous: Abu Ghraib,
Guantanamo, CIA “black sites”—the more so, since Jesus of Nazareth
was tortured to death. The pope chose silence, which presumably
came as welcome relief to five-star torturer’s apprentice, Gen. Michael
Hayden, now head of the CIA. The White House has made clear that
Hayden is ready to instruct his torturers to water board again, upon
Hayden proved his mettle when he was
head of the National Security Agency. He saluted smartly when
the president and vice president told him to disregard the Foreign Intelligence
and Surveillance Act and his oath to defend the Constitution. One of Hayden’s predecessors as NSA director asserted that Hayden
should have been court-martialed. Pelosi was briefed both on the
illegal surveillance and the torture, but did nothing.
Having demonstrated his allegiance to
the president, Hayden was picked to head the CIA. The general
likes to brag about his moral training and Catholic credentials. At his nomination hearing, he noted that he was the beneficiary of 18
years of Catholic education.
And all the while it was quite clear
he was positively lusting to be in charge of water boarding and other
torture techniques—whatever you say, boss. I was somewhat crestfallen
after adding up my own years of Catholic education—only 17. Clearly I missed “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques 301.”
Keep It General; Focus on Others’
Saturday at the UN, the pontiff pontificated
on “God-given human rights” and “massive human rights abuses,”
but pretty much left it at that. The Washington Post reported
that the pope was “short on specifics and long on broad themes.”
But there was one specific. Here
in the U.S., the pope seemed to prefer to dwell again and again on the
pedophilia scandal—to the exclusion of much else. He is to be
applauded for meeting with victims of clergy sexual abuse and expressing
deep shame, but he got a free pass from the media in disguising his
own role in trying to cover the whole thing up.
While still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger,
he headed The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the Vatican
office that once ran the Inquisition. In that capacity he sent
a letter in May 2001 to all Catholic bishops throwing a curtain of secrecy
over the widespread sexual abuse by clergy, warning the bishops of severe
penalties, including excommunication for breaching “pontifical secrets.”
Lawyers acting for the sexually abused
accused Ratzinger of “clear obstruction of justice.”
Very few American bishops have been disciplined. And when Bernard Cardinal Law was run out of Boston for failing to protect
children from predator priests, he was given a cushy sinecure in Rome;
many believe he should be behind bars.
In an interview with the Catholic
News Service in 2002, Ratzinger branded media coverage of the pedophilia
scandal “a planned campaign…intentional, manipulated, a desire to
discredit the Church.”
It is nice that the pope has now changed
his tune. And nicer still for him as he found himself in the congenial
atmosphere of Washington, where it has been a very long time since powerful
miscreants have been held accountable.
So What Did You Expect?
I do wish my friends would stop asking
While it was good that the pope addressed
the pedophilia issue head on, it seemed as though he and his politically
astute advisers made a considered decision to devote inordinate amounts
of time and energy to the abuse. An all-too-familiar side-benefit
of this focus on below-the-belt sexual issues enabled the pope to speak
in glorious generality on other major issues—war, torture, capital
punishment—in all of which, as we have seen, many of “the faithful”
are deeply engaged—embarrassingly engaged. Or am I the only
I had hoped—naively, it turned out—that
the pope might encourage his brother bishops to find the courage to
state plainly what 109 bishops of the Methodist faith, George W. Bush’s
tradition, declared on Nov. 8, 2005:
“We repent of our complicity
in what we believe to be the unjust and immoral invasion and occupation
of Iraq. In the face of the United States Administration’s rush
toward military action based on misleading information, too many of
us were silent.
“We confess our preoccupation
with institutional enhancement and limited agendas while American men
and women are sent to Iraq to kill and be killed, while thousands of
Iraqi people needlessly suffer and die.”
I had thought that perhaps the U.S. Catholic
bishops could adopt the kind of resolution that 125 Methodist bishops
signed on Nov. 9, 2007. Speaking truth to power, the Methodists
called for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the reversal
of any plans to establish permanent military bases there.
The Methodist bishops’ resolution noted: “Every day that the war continues, more soldiers and innocent civilians
are killed with no end in sight to the violence, bloodshed, and carnage.” Bishop Jack Meadors summed up the situation succinctly:
Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem
“The Iraq war is not
just a political issue or a military issue. It is a moral issue.” (emphasis added)
Visiting Yad VaShem, the Holocaust museum
in West Jerusalem last summer, I experienced painful reminders of what
happens when the church allows itself to be captured by Empire. An acquiescent church, it is clear, loses whatever residual moral authority
it may have had.
At the entrance to the museum, a quotation
by German essayist Kurt Tucholsky set a universally applicable tone:
“A country is not just
what it does—it is also what it tolerates.”
Still more compelling words came from
Imre Bathory, a Hungarian who put his own life at grave risk by helping
to save Jews from the concentration camps. Explaining why, Bathory
Bush, Bible, and
“I know that when I
stand before God on Judgment Day, I shall not be asked the question
posed to Cain: ‘Where were you when your brother’s blood was
crying out to God?’”
According to former President George
H. W. Bush, George W. has “read the Bible straight through—twice.” Perhaps he skipped by that passage too quickly; or maybe he is highly
selective with respect to whom he considers his brothers.
No excuse for Benedict, though; he knows
better. And yet he opted to squander his glorious chance to speak
out and make a difference.
Methodist bishop Meadors is right; the
war is a moral issue. But President Bush has refused, time and
time again, to meet with his Methodist bishops. And now he has
the imprimatur of the pope.
The bottom line is challenging: to the
degree that right and wrong, moral and immoral considerations are to
be injected into discussions about war, executions, torture—well,
let’s face it. There is only us.
Are we up to it? Shall we punt,
like Benedict? Shall we behave like “obedient Germans,” waiting,
as if for Godot, for top-down moral guidance we know in our hearts will
“Hope has two beautiful
daughters: their names are anger and courage. Anger that things
are the way they are. Courage to make them the way they ought
The Founders gave us incredibly precious
gifts we dare not fritter away. I sense a lot of anger; I am confident
we can summon the necessary courage. What about you?
Ray McGovern works with Tell the
Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour
in inner-city Washington, DC. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran
Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
This article first appeared