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Spotlight Report

  James Carroll  

The church and foreign policy in US

By James Carroll, 8/13/2002

WHAT EFFECT will the collapse of American Catholic moral authority have on US foreign policy? Some might dismiss that as the question of an obsessive Catholic who sees everything through the narrow lens of a parochial church problem. Indeed, the media's preoccupation with the Catholic scandal can seem a distraction from the more grievous problem of George W. Bush's warmongering. But in fact, the issues are related. American Catholicism's confrontation with its own flawed character can mitigate a broader American self-righteousness to the benefit of the world.

Roman Catholic moral absolutism has been a pillar of US foreign policy since the beginning of the Cold War. Indeed, Catholicism joined the American consensus only as that consensus jelled around an anti-Communism that smacked, as Bernard Baruch warned in 1947, of ''religious war.'' Nothing wrong with that, President Truman might have said. His foreign policy aimed to embody nothing less, he said, than the Sermon on the Mount. The religious character of America's new crusade prompted Truman to issue his most belligerent anti-Soviet call to arms at Cardinal Francis Spellman's annual St. Patrick's Day dinner in 1948.

Spellman became the champion of American anticommunism. Every Catholic seemed enlisted. Hence Fulton J. Sheen, a media celebrity; hence Senator Joseph McCarthy as tribune of ideological purity. This quasi-religious politics gave a sacred edge to US strategy and made Spellman the most influential Catholic bishop in American history. He then helped shape perceptions of the post-colonial crisis in Vietnam as centrally about Catholic anticommunism and helped his protege Ngo Dinh Diem become premier in 1954. Overwhelmingly Buddhist, South Vietnam was seen in the United States as a mainly Catholic country, with Catholics seen fighting for all that was good and the protesting Buddhists seen linked with evil communists from the North. In fact, Diem was waging a Catholic religious war against his own people, but the moralist worldview prevented that from coming through. The American misadventure began with this mistake. (When Diem was assassinated in 1963, he wore the disguise of a priest.)

The absolutism of Catholic anticommunism was tempered by Pope John XXIII, who questioned the US reliance on nuclear deterrence and fostered US-Soviet detente. A Catholic peace movement helped end the Vietnam War, and a broad Catholic constituency for dissent emerged, with even the bishops joining in nuclear skepticism by 1983. But unnuanced Catholic moralism made a public comeback when Pope John Paul II's apocalyptic view of communism meshed with Ronald Reagan's. CIA funds went to the Contras through Catholic Church channels, for example, even as the Vatican undercut Catholics allied with Latin American liberation. US priests and nuns were ordered out of (left-wing) politics, and Catholic bishops resumed their function as mascots of the American consensus. So firmly were American Catholics again rooted in the sense of their nation's purity that not even bishops seemed to notice as John Paul II began to object to Washington's wars. The Indispensable Nation was immune to criticism from outside, incapable of self-criticism.

With the Catholic Church's blessing, the word ''evil,'' as applied to enemies became a staple of American rhetoric fifty years ago. That tradition has been reinvigorated by George W. Bush, along a new axis. Bush's ideological soulmate in all of this was Cardinal Bernard Law, whose particular imprimatur Bush sought during the 2000 election campaign. The cardinal's worldview of good and evil in absolute ontological conflict mirrored Bush's, with each man certain of his own alliance with good.

No more. See how Bush keeps his distance from the men in red robes. The priestly child abuse-and-cover-up scandal has fully discredited the church's claim to be a moral exemplar. Its function as a pillar of American exceptionalism is ended. As legitimizing patrons of the cause of righteousness, the American Catholic bishops are about as useful as Enron executives. Yet the church scandal continues. Catholic prelates who still speak in legalese, threaten dissenting clergy, reject alternative financial donations, and forbid concerned laity to gather in church halls only show how total is their moral failure. The collapse of this self-obsessed clerical establishment is a literal Catholic purgatory, but the purging is right and just for the church.

It can be a good thing for the nation, too. The ongoing revelations of the hierarchy's self-deceit, cruelty, and grievous crimes should remind every person that every institution is morally deficient - America included. Evil is not an axis but an orbit encircling the planet, a universal problem.

The Sermon on the Mount as American foreign policy? President Truman, in claiming for himself and his successors the role of Jesus Christ, may not have noticed how, in Matthew, that sermon includes the question, ''Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not see the log that is in your own?''

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 8/13/2002.
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