On Ash Wednesday 2003, a high-level envoy from the Vatican visited the White House to hand-deliver a letter from Pope John Paul II to President George W. Bush. The president set the letter aside and was soon engaged in a pointed and sometimes heated debate with the emissary, Cardinal Pio Laghi, over his administration’s plan to go to war with Iraq.
The following month, I made the first of several attempts over the years to get a copy of that letter through the Freedom of Information Act. Last month, the archivist at the George W. Bush Presidential Library contacted me with the news that my “Mandatory Declassification Review” had been granted.
I wish that I could tell you that the declassified letter contains some startling new information, but the pope’s opposition to Bush’s war in Iraq is well known. Since President Donald Trump has brought U.S. relations with Iran and Iraq to the brink of catastrophe with his order to slay Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani on January 3 in Baghdad, it is a good time to recall John Paul II’s deeply held objections to the Iraq war and the tepid reaction from many American Catholics.
The pope did not detail his case against the war in his letter. Instead, he urged Bush to heed what Laghi was going to tell him. John Paul notes in the letter that in dispatching Laghi, former papal nuncio to the United States, he was sending someone “whom I am sure you know.” Laghi was a family friend of the Bushes; he’d been a tennis partner of former President George H. W. Bush. But this was no social call.
“I ask you to receive him as my personal Envoy and to listen to the message that he bears on my behalf,” the pope wrote. “It represents what lies in the depth of my heart for the good of all people.”
While substantial segments of the news media and members of Congress from both parties swallowed the claims Bush made about the danger Iraq posed, the pope and his envoy did not. In a detailed account he gave in a speech seven months later, Laghi described the encounter.
When Bush dominated the conversation, Laghi told him: “I did not come here only to listen, but also to ask you to listen.” When Bush claimed that al-Qaeda was training soldiers in Iraq, Laghi retorted, “Are you sure? Where is the evidence?”