WASHINGTON — It was an astonishing intervention by the Holy See at a moment of high tension. Interviewed last month by John L. Allen Jr., Rome correspondent of the American National Catholic Reporter, Archbishop Renato Martino, a close adviser to Pope John Paul II, said he had heard that 100,000 body bags had been unloaded at the US naval base at Sigonella, Sicily.
The archbishop, who is president of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, did not say where this word had come from. The Pentagon would not discuss it when I called last week. An official, who asked not to be identified, said, "We are doing what needs to be done ... some of the planning is unpleasant and best discussed in only the most general terms."
The Vatican has opposed wars in the past - specifically the Gulf War of 1991. But the campaign against invading Iraq is being fought with a new level of passion.
The pope has seized several public events, like noon blessings, to warn of the "grief and grave consequences" that violence against Iraq may lead to. The pontiff gave an audience to Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and sent a cardinal as emissary to Baghdad, bringing the pope's message of peace.
Pressing his personal crusade, the pope sent Cardinal Pio Laghi, the former Vatican ambassador in Washington and a Bush family friend, to warn the president that, without UN sanction, the US was heading for a war that the church would consider both illegal and unjust.
Almost explicitly, the pontiff was rejecting the principle of preventive war, on which Bush administration strategy is based. The 40-minute meeting between the president and the cardinal was apparently vehement. The former nuncio was said to have pointedly asked Mr. Bush to consider whether he was doing all he could to avoid a war.
The sharp disagreement was not simply a matter of doctrine. The president has reached out to Catholic voters in America and presumably has reason to worry about the political effects of a breach with the Vatican. The Vatican, on the other hand, expressed concern that war with Iraq would deepen the chasm between the Islamic and the Western worlds.
If there was any hope that church and state would reach some accommodation on the Iraq war issue, it was not evident as the president prepared to act.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.