Pope John Paul II is causing heartburn among one of the president's key constituencies: conservative Catholics. The pope is unequivocally and fervently against the war in Iraq, and George W. Bush, who fancies himself something of a spiritual leader, has to grin and bear it.
His holiness cannot be attacked like other war critics, such as France and Germany.
Even Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the designated hit man for "appeasers," dares not inveigh against the supreme pontiff of a church with a congregation of a billion. Ari Fleischer, spokesman for a White House that is now wooing nations such as Angola, said stiffly, "It is the papacy's right to engage in dialogue."
Despite the fact that he has, as Joseph Stalin memorably pointed out, no divisions, and that he is so elderly and infirm that some regard him as of no consequence, John Paul seems to have been revived by the chance to take the lead in resistance to preemptive war.
Our ambassador to the Vatican, Jim Nicholson, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, was in Washington in January bewailing the difficulties of convincing the prelate that the war so ardently sought by President Bush would be "a just war." He sent for Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute, a sometime Bush speechwriter. Novak never did get in to see the pope to straighten him out.
Bush and John Paul see eye to eye on abortion and cloning, but they are worlds apart on a preemptive strike against Iraq, and his holiness never misses a chance to show or tell his opposition to a war that Bush and his principal ally, Tony Blair, have sought to invest with a high moral content.
No matter what they say, his holiness says war is "always a defeat for humanity."
He has also insisted that Saddam Hussein make "concrete commitments" to disarm. He sent one of his cardinals, the venerable Roger Etchegaray, to Baghdad with an urgent message to that effect. Bush and Blair both suggest that they made their decisions for force on their knees and that they regard participation in the fight as their Christian duty. Blair, in one of his suicidally loyal pro-Bush statements, has declared that ridding the Iraqis of Saddam Hussein would be "an act of humanity." The pope may well think that as a theologian and a moralist he outpoints both Bush and Blair. He understandably may consider himself a superior diplomat as well -- he is credited with a major role in the bloodless victory against communism in his native Poland. His spokesmen note the folly of enraging a billion Muslims by attacking a Muslim nation. It is because of such pronouncements and a stubborn refusal to acquiesce to the inevitable that the Independent newspaper of London referred recently to the vicar of Christ as being, "from the Anglo-American perspective, a considerable nuisance."
His holiness's list of visitors has been provocative: U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Germany's militantly antiwar foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, and, most annoying to the Oval Office, Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz. Tony Blair and his Catholic wife were greeted like royalty, and nothing is said about the conversation.
Some Catholics want the pope, the only card the peaceniks have since Colin Powell went south, to do more. Tom Fox, intrepid publisher of the National Catholic Reporter, who was here recently with a new book, "Pentecost in Asia," would like John Paul to make his last pilgrimage for peace to Baghdad. The father of Fox's Jewish daughter-in-law suggested it to him, and Fox thinks that "it would be terrific if the presence of the pope would avert this slaughter."
Richard McBrien, the prominent Notre Dame theologian, disagrees. He fears that Hussein would turn a papal visit into a propaganda bazaar and that its purpose would get mangled. Unfortunately, Hussein thinks he won a victory in the massive worldwide peace marches. McBrien thinks that if any traveling is involved, John Paul should head for Washington and the Oval Office to see Bush, "the only man who could stop the war."
The president declines to see representatives of the antiwar National Council of Churches, which is headed by fellow Methodist Robert Edgar. He could not refuse to see the pope.
For the pope, an American journey could be a restoring finale to his many pilgrimages for peace. His relations with U.S. Catholics were strained during the recent pedophile scandal and his defense of Cardinal Bernard Law. A curia cardinal suggested to the press that the pontiff was more concerned "over peace in the world." Now, when it is in such peril, he is the last best hope of reprieve.