A Pope for the Ages: Hardly a Conservative Icon

by Rodel Rodis on April 8, 2005

President George W. Bush has embraced the late Pope John Paul II as a fellow conservative citing their common opposition to gay marriage and to abortion. But he is conspicuously silent on the Pope’s opposition to capital punishment and to the war in Iraq.

When Bush was governor of Texas, he oversaw the execution of 150 death row inmates. On each occasion, the Vatican pleaded with him to commute their sentences to life imprisonment. Each and every Vatican request was denied.

Because of his support for the “culture of life”, the Pope was remarkably consistent in his opposition to both abortion and the death penalty, unlike many Christian conservatives like Bush.

Bush will also want to conveniently forget that John Paul II described the impending 2003 US invasion of Iraq as a war that would be a “defeat for humanity which could not be morally or legally justified.” He was opposed to a “preemptive” or “preventive” strike. The “just war” theory, he said, could not justify such a war.

John Paul II even dispatched his personal representative, Cardinal Pio Laghi, a friend of the Bush family, to plead with President Bush before the war began and to carry his personal message: “God is not on your side if you invade Iraq.”

The Pope spoke out almost daily against the Iraq war and in support of diplomatic efforts for peace. J. Francis Cardinal Stafford, the highest ranking U. S. Bishop in Rome, criticized the U.S. government’s push for military strikes on Iraq, saying war would be morally unjustified and a further alarming example of increased global use of violent force. Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran called it a “crime against peace”. Archbishop Renato Martino added that it was a “crime against peace that cries out for vengeance before God.”

After the United States began bombing Iraq, FOX News reported the immediate comments of the Pope made in an address at the Vatican to Italian religious television channel, Telespace: “When war, as in these days in Iraq, threatens the fate of humanity, it is ever more urgent to proclaim, with a strong and decisive voice, that only peace is the road to follow to construct a more just and united society,” John Paul said. “Violence and arms can never resolve the problems of man.”

Conservatives may also be silent on the Pope’s opposition to globalization which has been aggressively promoted by the United States. “In the process of world globalization,” the Pope said, “the gap between rich and poor countries is ever greater. In the face of populations that live in conditions of unacceptable misery, in the face of those who are in situations of hunger, poverty and growing social inequalities, it is urgent to intervene to safeguard the dignity of the person and to foster the promotion of the common good.”

“The challenge”, the Pope said, “is to give life to a solidaristic globalization, identifying the causes of economic and social imbalances and presenting operative options capable of ensuring a future of solidarity and hope for all.”

Pope John Paul II will be especially and most fondly remembered in the Philippines for his first visit in 1981 when Ferdinand Marcos was at the peak of his dictatorship.

Marcos wanted the Papal visit to bestow the Vatican’s approval of his brand of “constitutional authoritarianism.” But on February 17, 1981, in Malacanang, the Pope castigated Marcos for human rights violations: “Even in exceptional situations,” John Paul II reminded Marcos, “one can never justify any violation of the fundamental dignity of the human person or of the basic rights that safeguard this dignity.”

Correspondent Robin Wright recalled the impact of the Pope’s remarks, which were broadcast on live television: “The papal speech was a wringing and humiliating rebuke of Marcos’ dictatorship. During Marcos’ 21-year rule, no other visiting chief-of-state, before or after the pope, was ever so publicly candid.”

Marcos had better luck with then US vice-president George Herbert Bush, who visited him four months later, and gave him the infamous toast: “We love your adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process.”

In that same Papal visit in 1981, the Pope visited Bacolod City and spoke before an audience of 750,000. “Injustice reigns”, the Pope said, “when within the same society some groups hold most of the wealth and power, while large strata of the population cannot decently provide for the livelihood of their families, even through long hours of backbreaking labor. Injustice reigns when the laws of economic growth and ever greater profit determine social relations, leaving in poverty and destitution those who have only the work of their hands to offer ” If a Filipino worker had uttered these words, Marcos military men would have surely arrested the worker for Communist sedition.

The Pope placed his Church squarely on the side of the oppressed when he announced in his Bacolod speech: “The Church will not hesitate to take up the cause of the poor and to become the voice of those who are not listened to when they speak up, not to demand charity, but to ask for justice.”

Father Brian Gore, a long-time Columbian missionary in Bacolod, recalled the impact of the speech: “For the ordinary people this was terrific, because they’ve been under pressure, they’ve been persecuted. Now the Pope was on their side.”

As the Philippine Daily Inquirer editorialized on April 3: “Many do not realize it now, but John Paul II’s first papal visit to the country changed Philippine history*in much the same way his other visits changed the history of Poland and Brazil. It strengthened the Church, preparing it for the role it would eventually play in the thousand days between the Aquino assassination in 1983 and the People Power revolution in 1986. It gave hope to a dispirited people, emboldening them for the changes that were to come.”

Thank you, Pope John Paul II, for your courage and wisdom.

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