Of popes, presidents and peace

Too often today, we hear complaints about the church meddling in politics. We are accused of trying to take the reins of political power and imposing our religion on others. The church, however, does not seek to control the state nor does it wish to impose sectarian beliefs on the public.

Instead, the church seeks to be the conscience of the state, reminding society of the objective norms that are accessible to all and which govern right action. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, the church seeks to “help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.”

This year, we should com­mem­orate one occasion for which everyone should be grateful that the church intervened in the public arena to remind all people of their common humanity.

Averting war

2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which took place in October 1962. The placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba put the world on the brink of nuclear war, with neither the Americans nor the Russians wanting to back down for fear of looking weak.

Both President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, facing “assured mutual destruction,” sought to avert war, but both were being pressured by agents of war in their respective governments to stand firm and launch a first strike if necessary.

To break the stalemate, it was suggested to President Kennedy that he seek the help of Pope John XXIII.  The president agreed, which was ironic given his promise not to let the Holy See dictate his policies as the first Catholic president.

Over the ensuing two days, a flurry of messages was sent between the White House and the Kremlin, with the Vatican serving as the intermediary. Blessed Pope John proposed a public message addressed to all people of good will and, after both leaders agreed, it was read publicly. The pope’s statement, which appeared in newspapers around the world and in the Soviet Union, read as follows:

“We beg all governments not to remain deaf to this cry of humanity. That they do all that is in their power to save peace. They will thus spare the world from the horrors of a war whose terrifying consequences no one can predict. That they continue discussions, as this loyal and open behavior has great value as a witness of everyone’s conscience and before history. Promoting, favoring, accepting conversations, at all levels and in any time, is a rule of wisdom and prudence which attracts the blessings of heaven and earth.”

The pope’s “decisive intervention,” as the Associated Press later described it, helped avert nuclear war. It allowed Krushchev to save face and not look weak by being the reasonable leader who kept the peace by removing the missiles from Cuba.

Papal diplomacy — as well as the efforts of local churches — to secure and maintain peace, or what St. Augustine called “the tranquility of order” (CCC 2304), has long been a feature of international affairs. The Holy See is a permanent observer at the United Nations because of this tradition.

Sadly, the church’s role as a neutral, diplomatic intermediary, which seeks to remind nations of the horrors of war and their obligations to respect international law and justice, often goes unheeded.

In our country, Pope John Paul II’s pleas to the Bush administration not to invade Iraq in 2003 were politely, but arrogantly dismissed. The result was a war that brought devastation and hundreds of thousands of deaths, has facilitated the near extinction of the ancient Christian community in Iraq, and has unleashed unforeseen political turmoil that has destabilized the entire region.

Few wars satisfy the very strict criteria of a “just war” (CCC 2309). The use of nuclear weapons, in particular, cannot be justified because their use aims to bring an enemy into submission by killing innocent, non-combatant civilians (CCC 2314).

Blessed John Paul II stated clearly the church’s view that war is not a useful tool for solving political disagreements: “No, never again war, which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution of the very problem which provoked the war” (“Centesimus Annus,” No. 52).

Threat still lurks

Today, sadly, the drumbeat of war continues. Besides the recent American incursion into Libya, and the decade-long war in Afghanistan (not to mention our continued presence in Iraq), the threat of war lurks in relations with Iran, North Korea and Syria. The current administration is even rattling sabers in Southeast Asia, where we are expanding our military presence in places such as Australia to thwart Chinese expansion in the region.

The best efforts of popes, bishops, and church diplomats to avert war will be ignored unless all Catholics and people of good will stand against it. “All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war” (CCC 2308).

Let us join our voices and prayers to those working for just solutions to the political conflicts of today.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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