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ROME -- In an unusual effort to counter increasingly fierce criticism by the Vatican against a war in Iraq, the U.S. government hosted a theologian here Monday who argued that a military strike against Saddam Hussein would meet the definition of a "just war" in Catholic doctrine.
"Public authorities are responsible for one supreme duty: to protect the lives and the rights of their people," said Michael Novak, a Catholic thinker and a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, speaking to an international group of journalists invited by the U.S. Embassy.
"And no president of the United States is going to put the United States at risk again, knowing full well that if there was something he could have done and didn't do, he would be blamed for it forever."
Novak's visit, which included meetings with Vatican officials last week, was organized at the behest of Jim Nicholson, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See and a Vietnam combat veteran who previously chaired the Republican National Committee. Nicholson introduced the theologian at Monday's news conference.
Although both men took pains to say that Novak was not speaking for the U.S. government, his presence underscored the split between the Catholic Church and the Bush administration over military action against Iraq.
On Sunday, Pope John Paul II, who has spoken against a pre-emptive strike against Hussein's regime, dispatched an envoy to Baghdad in a last-ditch effort to avert conflict.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the pontiff made a point of saying that nations have a right to defend themselves against terrorism, and he did not criticize the subsequent war to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
But Iraq has been different. In a speech to diplomats last month, the pope, who also opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf War but did not object to NATO action in Kosovo, said, "No to war!"
His top aides have criticized U.S. policy in explicit terms. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's foreign minister, questioned why the United States would want to "irritate a billion Muslims." One official Vatican newspaper contended the United States wanted war to seize control of Iraq's oil supplies, and another said U.S. policy lacked "intelligence."
Novak argued that if Hussein does not agree to disarm, a pre-emptive strike against his regime fits the definition of a "just war," a concept first spelled out 1,600 years ago by St. Augustine and now enshrined in Catholic catechism.
A "limited and carefully conducted war" to bring about a change of regime in Iraq would be morally just, he said. "I don't think there's anybody who wants to go to war. There are those who are trusting in containment. It's a reasonable position, which I believe to be wrong. It's foolhardy."
Political leaders who believe the threat from Iraq to be minimal will "bear a horrific responsibility if they guess wrong," Novak said.
"In fact," he said, "we may be too late."