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An American Catholic Scholar Argues Iraq War Would Be 'Just'

Michael Novak's trip to Rome, backed by U.S., aims to counter Vatican views on an invasion.

February 11, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Keen to build support for military action against Iraq, the U.S. government is sponsoring a conservative American Catholic scholar's visit to Italy to challenge the Vatican's opposition to a war on moral grounds.

Michael Novak, an author affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, has been meeting with senior Vatican officials since his arrival in Rome last week and on Monday delivered a public lecture arguing that attacking Iraq now constitutes a "just war."

His visit comes amid mounting opposition to war from both the Vatican and Pope John Paul II himself, and it underscores the wider debate among religious groups in Europe and the U.S. over military action in Iraq.

The pope has been consistently critical of the risks involved in any U.S.-led invasion aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein and eliminating what the U.S. alleges is his cache of weapons of mass destruction. A preventive war is never justified, he and Vatican officials maintain.

In his strongest statements, issued last month and reiterated in part Sunday, the pontiff said war should be launched as "the very last option." Even then, he said, war is "always a defeat for humanity."

Novak, in his remarks Monday, was careful not to criticize the pope, saying John Paul has made "heroic" efforts on behalf of global peace. But he suggested that other senior Vatican officials were mistaken in their interpretations of what justifies an attack on another nation. "The church is human and divine," he said. "We cannot be surprised if sometimes [the church] takes human attitudes."

In an interview with Vatican Radio, he went a step further, saying some Vatican officials have in recent weeks made comments that are "a little bit emotionally anti-American."

Novak was brought to Rome by the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Jim Nicholson, as part of a U.S. Embassy-sponsored lecture series. In introducing Novak on Monday evening at a news conference, Nicholson stressed that the lay theologian did not represent the U.S. government or its embassies.

The trip triggered angry opposition among many American Roman Catholic leaders. Sixty signed a letter to the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican last week protesting the choice of Novak, whose opinions, they said, do not reflect the majority view among American Catholics.

Novak, best known in the U.S. for his defense of capitalism, based his argument on the church's centuries-old "just war" doctrine that says attacks may be justified when they target aggressors but not innocent civilians. He said striking at Hussein now -- unless he disarms and proves he has disarmed -- would be a war of self-defense to which the "just war" doctrine applies.

The pope came close to citing the doctrine when he stated narrow support for U.S.-led attacks in Afghanistan and for the right to defend oneself against terrorism. But he emphatically opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf War -- a position that strained Vatican-U.S. relations for years.

Meanwhile, the pope was engaging in last-ditch diplomacy. A papal envoy, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, left Rome for Iraq on Monday, where he hopes to persuade Iraqi officials to cooperate further with U.N. arms inspectors.

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