The accidental pilgrim

Bush stumbles to Rome in search of Catholic votes -- but the pope may give him a much-needed lecture instead.

Norman Birnbaum
June 3, 2004 11:30PM (UTC)

On June 4, 1944, Romans crowded their streets to welcome the U.S. Army come to liberate them from Italian fascism and German occupation. On June 4 of this year, the streets will again be full of citizens -- this time protesting the visit of President Bush. The president won't see much of them from his helicopter, and if he were to stop to admire Rome's statues, he'd find their heads hooded: Italians are masters of political theater. When Bill Clinton was in Italy, he stopped at an ordinary pizzeria to talk with the entranced customers. But the Secret Service has already let it be known that they wish Bush would avoid the city.

Like his transatlantic colleague, Premier Silvio Berlusconi seems incapable of acting as if political disagreement were legitimate in a democratic society. His interior minister has depicted the citizens preparing to demonstrate as making it easy for "terrorists." That is a term used by Berlusconi's coalition of the right, dominated by patronage seekers, post-fascists and xenophobes to describe almost anyone they dislike. The center-left parties confronting Berlusconi have warned that gangs of violent trouble seekers (possibly infiltrated by police provocateurs) will seek to discredit the marchers and, indeed, the entire opposition. Many of the politicians opposing Berlusconi won't, then, be at the demonstration, but some will express their dismay at the war by staying away from the formal reception for the president.


Berlusconi invited Bush in order to shore up his own sinking political fortunes. He has just gone on Italian television (most of which he either owns in his private capacity or controls as premier) to describe Bush as a warm family father, caused much pain by the sufferings of the Iraqis: "He's a normal man, absolutely open to everyone's feelings." The Italian public, despite its liking for the United States, will need a lot of convincing. A recent poll put those rejecting Bush's policies at 61 percent, and 54 percent think that the coalition forces should leave Iraq at once. Asked to name their favorite foreign leader, the Italians put the new Spanish premier, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who recently fulfilled his campaign promise and pulled all Spanish troops out of Iraq, in first place. Zapatero, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the coalition of the unwilling, received a total of 44 percent; Bush received 17 percent.

Berlusconi fears that the smaller Catholic parties, in particular, may leave his coalition on account of his alignment with Bush and force his departure from office. His party and the parties allied to it are expected to do very badly in the imminent elections for the European Parliament. The Italian debate is at least as intense as the British one. After earlier fatalities amongst the Italian forces sent to Iraq (only 2,700), four Italian civilians working there were kidnapped. One was murdered and three are still captive. When a broad coalition of civic groups marched to demand their release and protest the barbarities of the war, Berlusconi, instead of joining them, was patronizingly distant.

But there is one figure he cannot deride, the highly respected president of Italy, Carlo Ciampi. Berlusconi was able to obtain approval for his Iraq venture from his own fragmented parliamentary majority (some of the Catholics were especially skeptical) only by depicting the Italian contingent's task as reconstruction and peacekeeping. When the Italian force came under fire, the Italian chief of staff explained why it did not sweep into the city of Nasiriya and attack the shooters. The Italian military tradition, he said, did not allow Italian forces to take the risk of injuring civilians. Now President Ciampi, in an unprecedented letter to Berlusconi, has reminded him that peacekeeping was the aim of the mission. That is a clear threat that the president will order the forces home if he regards Berlusconi as having violated his parliamentary mandate. The opposition is divided about whether to move in parliament to withdraw Italian troops at once -- or to wait for the uncertain end of the latest round of U.S.-British maneuvering in Baghdad and the Security Council. Under the circumstances, Bush may not help Berlusconi with his increasingly unstable base. Instead, the visit will likely underscore Berlusconi's isolation in Europe and embattlement at home.


Bush won't make much political capital off the trip either -- not even with Americans of Italian descent. As usual, he was at the annual dinner of the Italian-American Foundation (with Berlusconi, who never misses a chance to come to Washington, even if the Italian press noted that the American media did not think his visit worth mentioning). The atmosphere at the dinner encouraged by the White House was exemplified by a New York restaurateur who proudly told the Washington Post that he threw people out of his establishment if they criticized the president. We should shut up, he said, and let those on top get on with matters they know much more about than we do. He, clearly, is a man deeply rooted in tradition -- the one that Italians have been trying to eradicate for decades. But polls show that Bush will be trounced in states with large populations of Italian descent. Berlusconi's imprimatur cannot help him in, say, New Jersey.

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 Bushs 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.

Norman Birnbaum

Norman Birnbaum is Professor Emeritus at the Georgetown University Law Center. His most recent book "After Progress, American Social Reform and European Socialism in The Twentieth Century" is an Oxford University Press paperback. He has just returned from Spain.

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George W. Bush Iraq Karl Rove Middle East United Nations

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