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An Unhappy Anniversary

March 25, 2023 Frontpage No Comments


On Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2003, George W. Bush met with Pio Cardinal Laghi, the Pope’s personal emissary, at the White House. The cardinal had once served as the Holy See’s first Ambassador to the United States, and Pope John Paul II had chosen him to deliver a personal letter to the president,
According to White House sources familiar with the meeting, Bush put the letter aside without reading it. After he lectured the cardinal for half an hour about the threat of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, the meeting was over.
Bush often treated Republican senators in the same fashion. While the “yes-men” (and women) on his White House staff were easily intimidated, senators weren’t. When the Republican Senate Caucus invited him to strategy meetings on Capitol Hill, Bush would arrive, lecture, and leave. He didn’t leave much time for conversation.
Thus did the spurned peace mission on that fateful day go down in history as the last chance for sanity to prevail before the United States launched its most disastrous war in history.
After leaving the meeting, the cardinal was diplomatic despite the insult. Yes, he told reporters the truth: the invasion was “illegal and unjust.” But he did not criticize Bush. After all, while his mission for the Holy Father had failed (American forces invaded Iraq just two weeks later), the Pope’s opposition to the invasion was already widely known. In fact, it had made many patriotic Catholics in the military wonder whether they could serve in Iraq at all.
That widespread uneasiness prompted an American prelate, Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, to write another letter. Like Pope John Paul’s letter to Bush, it might be even more relevant today that it was twenty years ago.

The Lie: A Dagger In
The Heart Of Trust

Who was Archbishop Edwin O’Brien?
Catholic servicemen and women, wherever they serve, have their own “diocese” called the Military Ordinariate. The Ordinariate has its own archbishop, and in 2003, Archbishop O’Brien held that post. His pastoral letter of March 25, 2003, commemorating the Solemnity of the Annunciation of Mary, addressed all the Catholic military chaplains around the world under his command.
With the failure of Cardinal Laghi’s mission, the archbishop faced a formidable challenge. His pastoral letter addressed the difficult issue in a most curious fashion.
O’Brien told Catholic military chaplains that, should those in combat units under their pastoral care be troubled in conscience about the war, chaplains could comfort the troops with the following assurances:
“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,” Archbishop O’Brien wrote.
He continued: “Long after the hostilities cease the debate likely will continue as to the moral justification for the armed force recently initiated by the United States and its allies. It is to be hoped that all factors which have led to our intervention will eventually be made public and that the full picture of the Iraqi regime’s weaponry and brutality will shed helpful light upon our President’s decision.”
Translated: truth was scarce, but Bush had told the world, “Trust me.”
Archbishop O’Brien was careful not to endorse the invasion, nor did he indulge in patriotic rhetoric to motivate the troops. Instead, he carefully and clearly addressed the persistent secrecy surrounding the genesis of the war, secrecy which, as it turned out, persisted long after 2003.
Many “complex factors” contributed to Bush’s decision, he wrote. We have yet to hear the whole story, but for now, it’s “Forward, march!”
“The debate likely will continue” until “all factors which have led to our intervention [are] made public.” Only then will we know the truth about the “integrity of our leadership.”
And when would that happen?
Some eighteen months later, Archbishop O’Brien came to Christendom College to bless and dedicate the college’s new St. John the Evangelist Library. At the reception, I had a chance to greet him, and, since I had laryngitis at the time, the group of visitors surrounding him were politely silent for a moment as I asked, “Your Excellency, in March of last year, you hoped that all factors which have led to our intervention in Iraq will eventually be made public. Do you think they have been?”
Archbishop O’Brien didn’t answer. He just sighed, and looked at the ceiling for the longest time….

Truth — The First
Casualty of War

We know today that Archbishop O’Brien and the rest of us were lied to in 2003. But it wasn’t the first time. students at Catholic University in Washington supported Woodrow Wilson’s re-election in 1916 because he lied to them about his intentions regarding World War I. “He Kept Us Out Of War,” was Wilson’s campaign slogan, and my father led the cheers outside the Democrat National Committee on election night.
Six months later, my dad and every other able-bodied male at Catholic U were in the Army.
That same year, according to our beloved Paul Likoudis, “Joseph Matt was both indefatigable and courageous in opposing the war. . . . He was, to put it bluntly, ashamed and embarrassed that James Cardinal Gibbons thwarted Pope Benedict XV’s peace plan, even refusing to press President Wilson, as asked by the Pontiff, to accept it.”
That’s right. James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, Primate of America, didn’t want Catholics to be perceived as loyal to “a foreign power” — the Vatican — so he assured Woodrow Wilson early on that Catholics would serve with honor if the U.S. entered the “War to End All Wars.”
“The primary duty of a citizen,” Gibbons said on April 5, 1917 — five days after Congress declared war on Germany — “is loyalty to country. It is exhibited by an absolute and unreserved obedience to his country’s call.”
For Gibbons, it was a tough call indeed. When Pope Benedict called for peace on August 1, 1917, the cardinal assured Archbishop Giovanni Bonzano, Benedict’s apostolic delegate, “that he would use to the utmost whatever influence he might possess to induce the government and the public toward a favorable consideration of the Pope’s note,” according to John Tracy Ellis, Gibbons’ biographer.
There is no record of the Primate of America having done so.
But to paraphrase Dickens, it is the same with any war. Two decades later, many (but certainly not all) Catholics supported Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election in 1940 because he lied too.
On October 30, 1940, Roosevelt told a crowd in Boston that, “I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”
On November 1, he told a crowd in Brooklyn that “I am fighting to keep our people out of foreign wars. And I will keep on fighting.”
By the 1940s, Gibbons’ alliance between America’s Catholic bishops and the Democrat Party was carved in stone. In July1941, Bishop Joseph Hurley of Florida announced on a national radio broadcast that Catholics would support U.S. entry into the war. That was five months before Pearl Harbor, when a sizable majority of Americans, including American Catholics, still opposed getting into the war.
Ignore Congress, Hurley said. “The problem [of entering the war] should be left to the Commander-in-Chief, who alone…is capable of bringing us safely through…As for the people,” Hurley said, “they have neither the experience nor access to the facts to decide whether we go to war.”
In the interest of full disclosure, those “inexperienced, uninformed” Catholics opposed to the war included my father, who by then had become the Dean of the Law School at Notre Dame and legal adviser to General Wood, the leader of America First.
But that’s another story.

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