Flames of Dialogue

clockwiseLast month the George W. Bush presidential library declassified a secret letter Bush received from Pope John Paul II in 2003.

The papal letter contains no surprises, according to Paul Moses, contributing editor to Commonweal magazine. The Pontiff strenuously objected to Bush’s plans to go to war against Iraq. Presciently, John Paul feared a U.S. intervention would destabilize the already volatile Middle East for years to come.

Moses reports that Cardinal Pio Laghi handed the letter to Bush and directly challenged the president’s rationale for war.

Moses writes: When Bush dominated the conversation, Laghi told him: “I did not come here only to listen, but also to ask you to listen.” When Bush claimed that al-Qaeda was training soldiers in Iraq, Laghi retorted, “Are you sure? Where is the evidence?”

Moses adds his own opinion about the exchange:

These would be good questions for Trump, too, as he makes misleading claims about the conflict with Iran. But it’s hard to imagine Trump having a lengthy, detailed conversation like the one Laghi and Bush had.

The Commonweal story raises other contemporary questions about the tendency of politicians and media to oversimplify complex issues.

The U.S. National Council of Churches (NCC) and the worldwide ecumenical community also opposed the war in Iraq. NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar led a delegation to Bagdad to show solidarity among U.S. and Iraqi religious leaders. The delegation met with Tariq Aziz, a nominal Christian who served as deputy prime minister in Saddam Hussein government.

After the Iraq War, Fox News and other right-wing media in the U.S. singled out Edgar for special disdain, not only because he was a liberal United Methodist minister but because he was a liberal Democrat and six-term Congressman from Pennsylvania.

When I was media relations specialist for the NCC (2004-2012), I fielded calls from talk-show producers who wanted Bob to come on their show. Conservative pundits dominated most of the conversation on Fox News and they knew Bob was a liberal voice with media experience who could hold his own in a spirited discussion. Bob rarely turned down these invitations because he thought the views of progressive Christians in the National Council of Churches should be heard. He wore a clerical collar on television so it would be obvious he was clergy. Despite that, to my chagrin, most news shows introduced him as a former Democrat congressman.

Bob enjoyed the give-and-take of television debates and usually did well. He was treated with respect by Joe Scarborough, who served in Congress with Bob, and he had vigorous but civilized exchanges with Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs (who would address him as “doctor.”) I would cringe when Bob accepted invitations from Bill O’Reilly who usually sought a liberal straw man to shout at, but Bob usually made his point before he was dismissed. Once in a radio telephone interview Bob made O’Reilly so mad he screamed, “You liberals make me sick” and slammed the phone down.

Bob carried a list of talking points in his head and was at his best when a reporter would call his office for a quick interview. When he was scheduled to appear on national TV, Pat Pattillo, the NCC’s assistant general secretary for communication, and I would sit with Bob to discuss probable questions and suitable answers. Then Pat and I would go home to watch Bob on television, often trying to prompt him telepathically when an unexpected question arose.

One night Bob was a part of a panel that included Pat Buchanan, the former Nixon aide, conservative columnist, and erstwhile presidential candidate. Buchanan is a devout Catholic and when Pope John Paul died Buchanan began referring to him as “John Paul the Great.”

The discussion that night was the war on terror. I can’t remember what led up it, but Buchanan started criticizing Bob and other liberals for being soft on terrorism. With a sneer, Buchanan attacked those who had opposed the war in Iraq.

I squinted at the television screen as I sent Bob an urgent telepathic message:

“Tell him John Paul the Great opposed the war in Iraq!”

Bob already knew that, of course. But the panel discussion ended abruptly and the camera focused on Buchanan, smirking condescendingly. I shook my head, wondering if Bob had missed an opportunity for the perfect squelch.

But I wonder if Buchanan would have cared what John Paul thought of the war in Iraq, or any other war. Wars are always intensely nationalistic and in many ways personal events. Millions of people in the churches have sons, daughters, parents, and other relatives in uniform and in harms way. It’s easy to interpret opposition to war as opposition to the young people who get caught up in it. Church leaders who speak out against war do so at great political risk.

Catholics in the U.S. had mixed feelings about John Paul’s peace overtures.

Moses writes:

Others would try to reinterpret the plain meaning of what the pope and Vatican officials were saying, or argue that as a religious leader, John Paul lacked the competence to apply just-war principles in a specific case. “The questions raised to religious spokesmen are inescapable: On the basis of what expert knowledge do you advocate policy x against policy y?” the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus wrote. “By what authority or by whose authority do you speak?”

The question has not gone away.

“Pope Francis will face such questions too, as he tries to calm tensions that once again threaten to worsen relations between Muslims and Christians—which he, like John Paul, has strived to mend,” Moses concludes. “He began with a statement after the Angelus prayer on January 5, warning, like a string of his predecessors, that ‘War brings only death and destruction.’ He added: ‘I call upon all parties to fan the flame of dialogue and self-control, and to banish the shadow of enmity.’”

Clearly, the dialogue taking place now on Fox News and in the White House is not subject to self-control. And no amount of telepathic messaging to our television screens will be enough to keep the shadows at bay.

About Philip E Jenks

Philip, a synodical deacon in the ELCA Metropolitan New York synod, is a retired communicator for American Baptist Churches USA, the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches, the U.S. National Council of Churches, and two Philadelphia area daily newspapers. He and his spouse, the Rev. Dr. Martha M. Cruz, are the parents of six adults and are members of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rye Brook, N.Y. They live in Port Chester, N.Y.
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