A Dove in Good Company

I get a lot of hate mail from conservative Catholics who are furious at my criticism of the Iraq war. You have no right to use your office, I am told, to criticize our fine Christian president. You are a disgrace to the priesthood. I may leave the Catholic church because of you. Why don't you quit the priesthood now and stop harming the church? You are even worse than the priests who abuse little boys.

Those are some of the printable messages. At least half of the hate letters are obscene.

I am also told that I don't support the troops. I do indeed support the troops, with the plea that the government get them out of the quagmire in which they're bogged (as the administration's recent intelligence report makes clear).

Anyone who reads a column has the right to attack the writer. I don't mind the hate -- even the obscenity of some of the haters. I would be disappointed if my columns, designed to make people think, did not stir up some animosity. Moreover, the favorable mail exceeds the hate mail, though sometimes just barely.

Yet I am curious that the writers think that a priest does not have the right -- and indeed the obligation -- to express a moral teaching. If a priest believes a war is immoral, he should say so. Moreover, in my criticism of the Iraq war, I have a priest of considerably more importance than I in the same camp -- and potentially much more troublesome.

The pope.

His Holiness and his colleagues in the Vatican have opposed the war since the very beginning. John L. Allen in his superb book on the Vatican -- All the Pope's Men -- devotes 65 pages to detailing, day by day, the Vatican's position on the war. Allen comments that this mobilization of the Vatican apparatus around opposition to the war is unique in modern history. The papacy does not accept the theory of unilateral preventive war. It does not agree with the Bush administration's foreign policy. It did not think that all possible grounds for a peaceful solution were exhausted before the American attack and, like most of Europe, it did not believe that there was sufficient evidence of weapons of mass destruction -- and it turns out that they and not the Bush administration were right. It urged that nothing happen until the completion of the U.N. arms inspection -- and it turns out that here again the pope was right and the president was wrong.

''War,'' the pope said on Jan. 13, 2003, ''cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring common good except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after military operations.''

The teaching on the Iraq war is not ''authoritative.'' Yet, ought not Catholic conservatives, who virtually worship the pope, at least listen to him respectfully on this subject?

Why don't American Catholics react to the pope's warning about the war? Mostly, I suspect, because they don't know about it. The national media pay little attention to the pope save when they bash him for something. The rhetoric of the Vatican is often so complicated that it is not entirely clear what is being said. The Catholic media (official diocesan papers), with some exceptions, are afraid to offend their super patriotic leadership. Some parish priests may be reluctant to quote the pope on the Iraq war for fear that their people will be angry.

A constant concern in the pope's comments is fear of the death of innocent civilians. Iraqi deaths don't count, quite literally. The Defense Department refuses to count them. Some estimate that Iraqi casualties are as high as 30,000. If the war goes on long enough, Americans may kill as many Iraqis as did Saddam Hussein. Today, every time someone dies in Iraq, Americans are blamed because if they had not come, these people would still be alive.

Yet, most Americans are unconcerned about the death of Iraqi civilians. They wear towels on their heads and walk around in their pajamas. They speak a funny language and believe in a funny religion. They scream at us with hate. Why should Americans worry about them? They're barely human.

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