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Norman Birnbaum schreibt in über...

Norman Birnbaum schreibt in über die anstehende Bush-Visite bei Papst Johannes Paul:

Rome, of course, is the center of the Roman Catholic world. It is always full of a multicultural and multiracial crowd of Catholic pilgrims. The permanent contingent of thousands of priests and nuns attached to the Vatican is equally colorful. It is a pity that the president will not be having a coffee at one of the cafes in the streets around St. Peter’s Basilica. He might get a firsthand look at how global the Roman Catholic Church has become and consider enlarging his own version of faith, in which self-congratulatory moralism has crowded out empathetic humanism. If he were to talk to the American Catholics studying and working in Rome, he would learn that the church is no monolith and that its spirit is frequently renewed by conflict. (In the period of Vatican II, President John F. Kennedy made an enthusiastically received visit to American seminarians in Rome.) But Bush’s theological interest is simple: He seeks Catholic votes in November and Karl Rove thinks a visit to the pope is an obvious way to get them. Or is it?

It’s true that the Protestant evangelicals indispensable to Bush have contracted an alliance with some of the Catholics they once abjured. On issues like abortion, gay rights (and now gay marriage), school prayer, and medical research involving stem cells, they have set aside their once profound differences in a common front against a more liberal, nuanced, and open Christian morality and the hated secularism they think lurks behind it. A majority of Catholics, however, have not signed on to this alliance. They agree with the considerable number of Catholic bishops and theologians, and lay leaders, who argue that Catholics do indeed have political responsibilities connected with their faith. But, they insist, that means not treating any one issue or set of issues as a litmus test of the acceptability of candidates and parties; instead, they are determined to make political choices in the light of a broader moral perspective.

The church itself, after all, is 1,500 years older than the sects that issued from the Protestant Reformation. These Catholics credit themselves with the capacity to survive morally in a very imperfect world. The political traditions of many American Catholics — their interest in fair wages and workplace rights, their support for programs of social welfare and economic fairness and racial equality — are a consequence of Catholic doctrines that insist on the rights of community. It is this sense of universal justice that has made of the American Catholic church a champion of human rights and a critic of the dogma of the sovereignty of the market. And it is why, for example, John Sweeney, the president of the AFL-CIO, is at home in the social teachings of his church.

Of course, neither the American Catholic church nor the Holy See is dominated by liberation theologians. A strong conservative streak runs through both institutions. For example, Archbishop Burke of St. Louis has announced that he would refuse Communion to Sen. John Kerry on account of his tolerance of abortion. But the archbishop’s position has been criticized by Archbishop Keeler of Baltimore, by professors of canon law in the Catholic universities, and angered a great many of the Catholic laity. American Catholics, after all, have considerable skepticism about authority; many believe that the church isn’t the property of the hierarchy, but belongs to all Catholics. Recent polls suggest that Kerry is doing at least as well among Catholics as he is faring elsewhere. Bush will have to contend for votes not on the grounds that, in his White House, holy water flows from the faucets but on the basis of his performance in his secular office.

There, the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference has been an unrelenting critic of his foreign policy. The doctrine of preemptive attack, the war on Iraq, his systematic rejection of international agreement and cooperation, his embrace of the harsh policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and abandonment of the Middle East road map, have moved the Bishops to serious argument for alternative policies. Our press has found much, much more space for their huge embarrassment by pedophile priests than for the bishops‘ briefs for a less militarized, more generous and reflective foreign policy. The message, however, is getting through in the parishes and the Catholic organizations.

Catholics are about a quarter of the population, but about a third of the officers in the armed services: There, too, the bishops are being listened to. Still, it is regrettable in terms of press coverage that one has to go the conference’s Web site to learn that the bishops have also opposed, in the past few weeks, Bush’s attempt to heighten hostilities with Cuba.

Bush may have a provincial, even primitive, view of how Catholicism works. By calling on the pope in Rome, he obviously hopes to still critical Catholic voices at home. But there is a large difficulty: The American bishops, when they talk about our nation’s role in the world, have the ear of Pope John Paul II. The old gentleman is not easy to sway, and their views and his have common roots. His staunch opposition to communism was tempered by his experience of Catholic-communist coexistence in Poland. As cardinal archbishop of Crakow, he did not want to see Poland “liberated” by nuclear weapons. Now he warns that Bush’s doctrines of preemption threaten limitless violence. He has insisted on the duty of nations to respect international law, declared that the war on terrorism must not consist of punitive and repressive actions only, and called for recourse to the United Nations rather than action by single groups of states.

On the eve of the Iraq war the pope sent his personal emissary Cardinal Pio Laghi, the former papal nuncio in Washington, to see President Bush with a clear message: „There are still peaceful avenues within the context of the vast patrimony of international law and institutions which exist for that purpose. A decision regarding the use of military force can only be taken within the framework of the United Nations.“ That, precisely, is what Bush did not do.

Laghi has been negotiating with the White House on Bush’s visit of next Thursday. In the meantime, he gave an extraordinarily frank interview on May 13 to Corriere della Sera that dispenses with diplomatic nuance. „We are at the edge of an abyss and we have to stop. Above all, America has to re-establish respect for humanity and return to the family of nations, conquering the temptation to act alone.“ Laghi recalled that the pope warned the president against „preventive war“ in March of last year, and that the president did not listen. „Now we see how much more we know,“ said Laghi, who cited the horrors of Abu Ghraib. He had not imagined that the U.S. he knew and loved could be responsible for such a thing.

A visit by a president in an election year, the cardinal noted, was usually from the Vatican’s point of view inopportune. The president requested it twice, and the pope finally agreed, he said, because he viewed the president as the successor of the president who was in command of the 1944 liberation of Rome. „But the present choices of the U.S. do not bring human rights to the Mideast,“ Laghi noted. He declared that it is necessary to „build bridges to Islam, not dig trenches between us.“ Above all, said Laghi, „priority has to be given to the solution of the Israel-Palestine question, the primary source of terror.“ Finally, asked whether the U.S. should stay in Iraq or leave, he said, „The forces in Iraq not only should not be under U.S. orders, but should not give the impression of being under those orders.“

The Vatican has been practicing diplomacy for the better part of two millennia, and Laghi for 60 of his 80 years. In giving the interview to Italy’s most prestigious newspaper, he knew exactly what he was doing: making it clear that the pope would ask the president to correct a fatal mistake.

The pope himself, receiving a group of American bishops, opened another front last week. He told them that it was their duty to respond to the „profound religious needs and aspirations of a society which is ever more in danger of forgetting its spiritual roots and which is giving in to a merely materialistic view of the world, without a soul.“ That is light-years distant from the president’s pious bromides, religious happy talk, prescription of tax cuts for the wealthy as solution for all ills, and repetitious narcissism of the phrase (not just the property of the president, to be sure) „the greatest nation on earth“ as an excuse to shun the international community. Thus the pope sets the task of a spiritual politics as the expansion of human moral possibilities in the future, not as the defense of the profits accumulated in the past.

The encounter between the finely educated pope and an unread American president could be an hour of religious instruction. If he manages to listen, our president may come away with a somewhat deepened appreciation of something his own Protestant tradition warns against — the sin of pride. The White House has no hesitation about lying about its domestic adversaries and insulting or snubbing its constructive critics. The president’s political host in Rome, Berlusconi, is a clown. In the pope, however, he is meeting a giant. One hopes against experience he can make the distinction.

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