Pope John Paul II apparently loves to travel, going places no pope has ever been. Since 1978, he has been to the United States, Brazil, the Philippines, Pakistan, Guam, Japan, Portugal, Poland, West Germany, Ireland, France, Zaire, Kenya and now he has arrived in Britain in the midst of a war. For such an experienced traveler, he has packed in haste. He forgot to take along his moral indignation.
Instead, for this trip, he has packed his moral blinders, visiting Britain in spite of the war in the Falklands and then, just to be even-handed, announcing plans to travel a bit later to Argentina. In this way, he will have shown no partiality nor suggested--perish the thought--that the Argentines were less deserving of a papal visit than the British.
You would be forgiven for not understanding why the trip had to be made at this time. After all, it has been 448 years since Henry VIII formally broke with Rome over its refusal to grant him a divorce. A couple months more could not have made all that much difference and a delay, or even a cancellation, would have sent the message that war, even when it is provoked, is not to be condoned. But the pope pressed ahead anyway, merely canceling meetings with British political leaders like Margaret Thatcher out of deference to the war that is raging in the South Atlantic--and to the feelings of the Argentines.
This pope is a good man, a brave man. He is a product of the Polish church, which is not short on either commitment or courage. So it would be foolish if not downright disrespectful to suggest that he does not know a moral issue when he sees one. Instead, he seems to be adhering to the papal tradition of trying to be above both petty politics and the controversies that separate nations and, occasionally, drive them to war.
But his trip to Britain and his subsequent trip to Argentina are a statement of sorts. To the British, it is certainly no snub even though they have chosen to go to war over next to nothing. As for the Argentines, the pope's announcement that he will soon be coming their way, too, has been interpeted by them as almost an endorsement--certainly not the condemnation they deserve. After all, the British may be foolish and in some sense criminal for drawing a line at the Falklands, but they are not the ones who precipitated the crisis--they are not the ones who first chose to use force to settle a dispute.
In some sense, the pope is a man of his times. We live in a world where it is commonplace to declare moral neutrality or to suggest that there are more important things than mere issues. An example of this is American politics, where nothing, but nothing, is supposed to get in the way of camaraderie. Thus the speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, had to reassure President Reagan a while back that their differences somehow evaporated after 6 at night.
Some of this is understandable. No system, especially a political system, could function if each and every issue was fought to the bitter end. Politicians have to go from one issue to another and their alliances, like those of nations, change from time to time. The same is true of a church, any church. Its first consideration has to be its own survival.
But it was just this preoccupation with church, as opposed to moral matters, that so stained the Vatican's record during World War II. Its incredible ability to get along with Mussolini and its refusal to issue a ringing condemnation of Hitler, turned it into some sort of clerical Switzerland--cynical, neutral, and with an agenda of its own.
There comes a time, after all, to assert what is the preeminent role of the church: moral leadership. This was what the late Archbishop Oscar Romero did in El Salvador and it is what gives the Roman Catholic Church its enormous authority. The pope, as Stalin once pointed out, has no divisions. He does, though, have moral authority.
Now the pope has shelved even that. He has gone on with his trip, issuing calls for peace that are blunted by his presence in a nation making war. He will go on to Argentina, treating it as if it were the moral equivalent of Britain when it is nothing of the sort. He is the pope, but he has the itinerary and agenda of a diplomat. He ought to return to Rome. He forgot to pack something.