The facade of respect did not hide President Bush's utter disdain for the pleas for peace from Pope John Paul II. In his press conference Monday to announce that he would attend John Paul's funeral, Bush was asked by a reporter: ''How do you think this pope has affected America's spiritual and political life? And how much weight did you give to his opposition to the Iraq war?"
Bush began his answer by calling the pope courageous, moral, and godly. He talked about how the pope had a ''huge influence not only amongst, for example, young people in America, but around the world. One of his great legacies will be the influence he had on the young. He spoke to the poor. He spoke to morality."
Bush never answered the question on the Iraq invasion of 2003. The closest he got was, ''Of course he was a man of peace and he didn't like war. And I fully understood that. And I appreciated the conversations I had with the Holy Father on the subject."
Bush fled to a more pleasant facade, meandering to 2001 when he and his wife, Laura, looked out over a lake from the pope's summer residence, ''talking about his views of the world." Bush said of the funeral, ''We look forward to the majesty of celebrating such a significant human life."
Many legacies of John Paul are being deeply covered and debated, from whether he helped or hindered the Catholic Church's relationship to modern times to whether he was too detached and lenient in the American clergy sex abuse scandal. One that has received little play is the pope's desperate efforts to stop the world's wealthiest and most militarily powerful nation from invading Iraq. Bush called the pope a man of peace. Bush could not answer the question on Iraq because the pope's presence, even in death, continues to expose him to be a man of war.
Now that the invasion has been revealed to be a lie, with no weapons of mass destruction ever found, it makes it even more appalling how the pope's efforts were rebuffed. Bush said the pope had profound influence on children. On Iraq, Bush treated the pope like a well-meaning but naïve child.
Just before the war, the pope sent an envoy, Cardinal Pio Laghi, to ask Bush to exhaust every last means of diplomacy and work through the United Nations for a peaceful solution. The Vatican called the war illegal and unjust. But before the cardinal even touched down in Washington, the administration said the meeting would not matter. The White House countered the pope's claim that an invasion was unjust with apocalyptic visions of needing to stop a Hitler.
''The president thinks the most immoral act of all would be if Saddam Hussein would somehow transfer his weapons to terrorists who could use them against us," said Ari Fleischer, then the White House spokesman. ''And so, the president does view the use of force as a matter of legality, as a matter of morality, and as a matter of protecting the American people."
After Bush gave his 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam, the Vatican warned that ''whoever decides that all peaceful means under international law have been exhausted is assuming a grave responsibility before God, his conscience, and before history." Secretary of State Colin Powell responded by saying, ''We understand the Holy Father's concerns, but sometimes issues come before us that cannot be avoided because we are peace-loving and we hope they'll go away."
In other words, thank you, but please go away. When the war began in mid-March, Laghi said it was a ''tragic initiative, and we pray that it can be eased without so many victims." A few weeks after the invasion, John Bolton, the US arms control undersecretary, visited with Vatican officials and painted a picture of a rosy reconciliation. He told reporters that the officials ''respected the conscience with which he took that decision." Bolton added, ''There wasn't any criticism about the conduct of the war." He said he told the Vatican the United States was doing ''everything possible to avoid" casualties.
Of course, we have learned since then that the invasion has likely cost tens of thousands of lives (we do not know for sure because, despite the US insistence it was doing ''everything possible," it refused to attempt to count the casualties). Bush praised the pope as a man of peace. Yet the architects of his war are fanning out all over the globe. Bolton is Bush's nominee to be US ambassador to the United Nations. Paul Wolfowitz is headed to the presidency of the World Bank.
John Paul said war is a defeat for humanity. The United States and Bush represent one of John Paul's biggest defeats in the search for humanity.
© 2005 Boston Globe