Why do so many American Catholics support war in Iraq, when the Pope and their bishops are strongly against it? Why is there no dilemma for them? Our American correspondent explains
THE parishioners of “St Perpetua’s”, Staten Island, New York, are more Catholic than the Pope – and they wanted war. Several of them asked me not to name their church, and so I use a pseudonym. But they were otherwise very forthcoming with their views on the second Gulf War and on the Pope. They were enthusiastic about both.
That, you would think, is the rub; but not for them; and if we can understand why not, we can trace the border between the spiritual empires of John Paul II and the second President Bush, the two most influential men in the world.
It was a sunny morning, the second Sunday in Lent, breezy, almost mild, with grey grass re-emerging and the last of the snow beaten into icy mounds. The faithful were streaming out of Mass. On one side of St Perpetua’s door trembled a yellow and white banner with a set of keys on it; on the other (as outside most churches in the United States) a red, white and blue arrangement of stripes and stylised stars.
Surely it would place these parishioners in a dilemma to stand between these two handsome flags? Should not their loyalties be torn? On the one hand, here on this Sunday the federal government was on the brink of launching a pre-emptive invasion of a republic of 23 million people. On the other hand, the worshippers knew that the Vatican had been rancorous against the war, condemning it as risky, immoral, an illegality. Rome, as much as Paris, was the rallying point for those who were hoping to thwart the war.
Many of those outside St Perpetua’s wore little metal lapel pins of the stars and stripes, and they told me they were prouder to be Americans now than for many years. No one I spoke to doubted the justice of the American cause, although some worried about the consequences; all seemed braced by churchgoing for the fight. “If it’s a crusade, then it’s got be our crusade”, said one youngish mother. And a thoughtful middle-aged man told me: “You know, throughout history, standing up to evil has been the Catholic way.”
But it is not a way endorsed by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which recently pronounced that this war did not and “would not meet the strict conditions of Catholic teaching for the use of military force”. It is a way forbidden by the Vatican, which calls the war “a crime against peace”, and which sent Cardinal Pio Laghi to warn Bush off. The cardinal issued a statement boasting that there is “great unity on this grave matter on the part of the Holy See, the bishops in the United States, and the Church throughout the world”; the White House riposte was that the war “would make the world better”, and that the President’s first duty was to protect his people.
Still, a quarter of his people are Catholics. Must not the enmity of their Communion to the President’s great enterprise impede it, or at least threaten his hold on half the Catholic vote?
Well, no. Dan Bartlett, Bush’s communications director, shrugs off the Church’s condemnation of the war: “There are many Catholics who support it; I am one of them.” Polls showed American Catholics in favour of a unilateral assault on Iraq by two to one: much the same proportion as non-Catholics. Laghi is right that the Pope and his bishops stand united against the war. But this episcopal unity does not matter. For most American Catholics the dilemma of divided loyalty is simply not much of a dilemma.
Why not? Why do American Catholics, especially conservative Catholics who are usually strongly attached to papal authority, find defying papal authority over Iraq so easy?
The first reason is one I have heard, again and again, from Catholics of every stripe, both from those who support it and those who decry it, although it is naturally hard to trace or measure its effect. That is Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical letter on which the papacy has staked its prestige, but whose teaching has been rejected for more than a generation by most Catholics throughout the West.
Catholic faith implies a good deal of cheerful natural obedience to the apostolic Church. The Church historically had political power because it could draw on that obedience to, say, break Parnell, or forbid Catholics to vote in reunited Italy. But now most observant American Catholics habitually disregard the papal ban on contraception reaffirmed in the encyclical (we no longer say “French letters” in America since Chirac promised to veto the second UN resolution, but “freedom letters”; we also now have freedom fries, freedom dressing and freedom toast).
The Pope has judged this war to be, along with contraception, immoral; what of it?
Moreover, the American Church is hobbled by another, different, erotic distress: clerical abuse of minors, a scandal which has evolved from last summer’s media circus and episcopal emergency into a sort of desperate, permanent crisis in the local Church. All over the country bishops are besieged by prosecutors who accuse them of callous or even indictable indifference to the suffering of their own flock at the hands of their own priests. This crisis undoubtedly diminishes the Church’s moral seriousness in all other spheres. Thus the president of the Brent Society, a national organisation of Catholics, supports the President’s war and flatly denies that the bishops “should get into this area, especially with their credibility entirely shot”. And yet the Brent Society is a doctrinally conservative group.
For Catholics of the Right, no matter how buoyantly they champion Roman authority in principle, have become adept at evading certain papal pronouncements. Rome cuts across party lines. This Pope in particular is not consistently congenial to either Left or Right; and indeed the magisterium’s line on social justice has sat awkwardly with American capitalism for a century. Deal Hudson, editor of the conservative monthly Crisis, darkly calls the Vatican’s opposition to invasion “a significant departure from the traditional understanding of just war principles”, and, worse still, one more mistaken addition to “Catholic social teaching”.
It is easier for the Roman Catholic Right to shrug off Rome because, as it happens, Rome is being shifty. During his mission to Washington, Cardinal Laghi declared: “We have always insisted on the framework of the United Nations. Without it, I’d say war is illegal.” But Americans have not forgotten their first bout of warfare with Iraq, in 1991. That conflict had fervent UN approval; Providence had apparently crafted it to meet Aquinas’ standards for a just war; yet it was still condemned by the Pope and Vatican. People also remember that the UN sanctions designed since then to contain Saddam and enforce inspections have also been steadily damned by Rome.
Thus John Paul, despite his approval of forcible intervention in East Timor and Bosnia, is widely perceived as a pacifist, and therefore not a serious commentator. “It’s the Pope’s job to shake his head over the wicked way of the world”, I was told by another white-haired, loyal worshipper at another parish, forthright and cheerful in sensible shoes and medal of Lourdes. “And it’s our job to do something about it.”
And with that remark we come to the core of the matter.
It has often been observed that American Catholics sound more like American Baptists or Presbyterians than like Old World Catholics. They share with their Protestant compatriots an intensely privatised religiosity, an intensely privatised conscience. Nancy Pelosi, Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, has given an amazing interview to the National Catholic Reporter explaining that, despite her views on women priests and abortion, she remains a conservative Catholic because she enjoyed a “strict upbringing in a Catholic home where the fundamental belief was that God gave us all a free will and we were accountable for that, each of us”. In the United States, that does not seem an eccentric definition of Catholicism.
American Catholicism is ethnic, not dogmatic. The descendants of Irish and Italian and Polish immigrants, long bereft of the old country’s language, maintain their ancestors’ religious identification, which does for them what Catholic nationalism did for Ireland and Poland in the days of British and Soviet rule. It makes a people where there would otherwise not be a people. Yet in this land of voluntarist and intensely subjective Protestants, Catholics who are, in the sense of ethnic identity, “more Catholic than the Pope”, still share the radical Protestant “fundamental belief” that, to quote Pelosi, “God gave us all a free will and we are accountable for that”. Each believer stands alone with his God, and no Pope intervenes on that solitude.
And here is another facet of the paradox of America’s martial Catholicism. Bush is, like Clinton and Gore and Carter, and almost half of their compatriots, an evangelical Protestant. The Bush family being what it is, young George W. was naturally an altar boy in the Episcopalian Church, America’s only socially distinguished faith; he married into Methodism, as his brother, the governor of Florida, married into Hispanic Catholicism; but George W. was nonetheless brought to evangelical conversion in 1985, by Billy Graham himself. Bush’s evangelical faith is overt in his speeches; yet he seems perfectly congenial to America’s “more Catholic than the Pope” Catholics.
Bush returns the compliment. He has successfully courted the traditionally Democratic Catholic vote, winning half of it in 2000; he has twice carefully visited the papal court; he sincerely abhors teenage sex and abortion; he visibly defers to the Catholic faith. Over the Iraq crisis, Bush has paid Rome the compliment of strenuous contradiction. The President received Cardinal Laghi and argued with him, and the administration launched a remarkable theological offensive against the Vatican – with the 1994 winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, Michael Novak, carrying the debate to the enemy’s Roman citadel. By contrast, Bush has simply ignored all the Protestant Churches, including his own, which have denounced the war.
For America’s right-wing Protestants are in the same dilemma as America’s Catholics. And they too find it a non-dilemma. They are not ecclesial Christians: their faith is a private matter, founded on vivid and therapeutic experience of God. Their greatest religious loyalty beyond themselves is not to any denomination, but to what they conceive to be the Christian and democratic cause; and of that cause Bush, not Karol Wojtyla, is both sultan and caliph.
“Saddam’s got to go; we’ve got to do it; let’s get it over with by Easter”, they told me outside St Perpetua’s on Staten Island (72 per cent Catholic, 74 per cent Republican). “Let’s roll.”