U.S. President George W. Bush listens as Pope John Paul II makes a point at the end of their meeting at the Vatican June 4, 2004. (CNS photo/Reuters)

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?”

In Brooklyn, the diocesan newspaper ran so many columns disputing John Paul’s view of the war that I wrote one defending the pope.

These would be good questions for Trump, too, as he makes misleading claims about the conflict with Iran. But it’s hard to imagine Trump having a lengthy, detailed conversation like the one Laghi and Bush had.

“We spoke for a long time about the consequences of a war,” Laghi said. “I asked: ‘Do you realize what you’ll unleash inside Iraq by occupying it?’ The disorder, the conflicts between Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds—everything that has in fact happened.”

Bush responded that the result would be democracy. The president tried to end the meeting on common ground, speaking about his opposition to abortion rights and cloning. “The cardinal replied that those issues were not the purpose of his mission,” Catholic News Service reported.

The letter makes clear that St. John Paul II fully backed what Laghi said—the cardinal told reporters after his meeting with the president that the war would be both “unjust” and “illegal” because it lacked United Nations sanction. And the letter, along with the high-level, personal diplomacy involved, shows how deeply convinced the pope was that this war in particular was a disaster in the making, one that would further poison Christian-Muslim relations, a subject so important to him. He was not going to be bowled over by what turned out to be false claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Even though the pope used all of his influence to try to stop the war, the reaction among American Catholics was noticeably cool. With the start of the war three weeks after Laghi met with Bush, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, then the vicar for U.S. military services, issued a letter to Catholic chaplains stating: “Given the complexity of factors involved, many of which understandably remain confidential, it is altogether appropriate for members of our armed forces to presume the integrity of our leadership and its judgments and therefore to carry out their military duties in good conscience.”

The U.S. Catholic bishops issued a letter urging Bush to “step back from the brink of war,” but it received little attention—possibly because their moral credibility was shot with the clergy sex-abuse scandal, but also because most bishops failed to speak up about the war in their dioceses. In the Diocese of Brooklyn, where I live, the diocesan newspaper ran so many columns disputing John Paul’s view of the war that I wrote one defending the pope. At the time it seemed to be a strange thing to do—to have to defend the pope from a diocesan newspaper’s coverage.

Others would try to reinterpret the plain meaning of what the pope and Vatican officials were saying, or argue that as a religious leader, John Paul lacked the competence to apply just-war principles in a specific case. “The questions raised to religious spokesmen are inescapable: On the basis of what expert knowledge do you advocate policy x against policy y?” the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus wrote. “By what authority or by whose authority do you speak?”

Pope Francis will face such questions too, as he tries to calm tensions that once again threaten to worsen relations between Muslims and Christians—which he, like John Paul, has strived to mend. He began with a statement after the Angelus prayer on January 5, warning, like a string of his predecessors, that “War brings only death and destruction.” He added: “I call upon all parties to fan the flame of dialogue and self-control, and to banish the shadow of enmity.”

“Self-control”: an interesting choice of words to apply to world leaders. All the more reason to join in repeating words St. John Paul II wrote to Bush: “I implore God to inspire you and all those charged with the highest civil authority to find the way to lasting peace, the noblest of human endeavors.”

Paul Moses is the author, most recently, of The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia (NYU Press, 2023). He is a contributing writer. Twitter: @PaulBMoses.

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