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The situation in the Middle East has been changing so rapidly, it seems impossible to have timely commentary on it.

The best outcome one can imagine is a restoration of Lebanon. Hezbollah has been for years an organization existing in the cracks of modern nation-states. It is in certain ways a nation: The de facto ruler of a good piece of territory, it collects taxes, imports military weapons, operates a militia, and deals out local justice. In another way, it can claim merely to be a Lebanese political party with a strong base in a particular area: It runs candidates in national elections, holds seats in the parliament, and negotiates with other parties for ministerial posts. And, of course, in yet another way, it is an underground terrorist organization: Hiding its operatives and weapons, it attacks in the small raids and bombings of a classic terrorist group.

The anomaly of this situation¯an ideological organization varying, as it pleases, from nation to political party to terrorist group¯has been excellent for Hezbollah, but it has prevented Lebanon from unifying itself, and it has gnawed at Israel as thousands of rockets have rained across the border. So Israel has mobilized its army in response to the latest set of terrorist outrages¯treating Hezbollah, in essence, as a nation that is responsible for the attacks of its military on other nations.

I cannot decide whether I think this a good thing to do. At its best, it does offer the chance to disarm Hezbollah, and thus for the Lebanese government to assert actual control over lands that nominally belong to it. Hezbollah would cease to be a territorial government¯and thus lose the governmental privileges it has been using: large-scale importing of military-grade weapons, for instance, and open maintenance of a militia.

But that does not address¯as modern military action can almost never address¯the existence of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization or a political party. Lebanon remains a divided country, ideologically, and the destruction of Hezbollah’s militia and stockpiled weapons can erase only the physical representation of that fact, not the reality.

Still, no nation can be expected to suffer national attacks the way Israel has, and the elimination from Lebanon of Hezbollah’s state-within-a-state seems a legitimate military goal, within the canons of just-war theory, if we conceive of the conflict in this way.

Last weekend, I wrote for the Weekly Standard a claim that the Vatican appeared to be misunderstanding the nature of the conflict, and that Cardinal Sodano, the Vatican’s soon-to-be-replaced secretary of state, in particular was wrong in his denunciations of Israel. Some of the facts have changed¯the pope, for instance, has echoed the G-8 statement, and the multinational meeting in Rome has brought a new set of statements¯but the basic analysis of the Vatican’s problem with the Middle East remains, I think, accurate. The article was titled "The Sodano Code," and it ran:

For more than twenty years, Pope John Paul II showed a way to work for the defeat of totalitarianism. It was not by armies, although it relied on the threat of American power to keep the dictators from military adventures. And it was not by appeasement, although it knew how to practice patience when it had to. At its deepest, the pope’s vision required simply that we refuse government by the lie, that we name and know things for what they are, and his Catholic call for democratic reform seemed to have effect everywhere, from Paraguay to Poland.

Everywhere, that is, except the Middle East, where from Algeria to Afghanistan dictatorships flourished during his pontificate. But the problem may not be that John Paul II’s method failed there. The problem may be that it was never tried¯not even by John Paul II.

Since the founding of Israel in 1948, the Vatican has never had a clear idea how to respond to tensions in the area. Too much seemed to swirl out of control. There were questions of how best to protect the various ancient Catholic populations, delicate relations with the Orthodox churches, and complex disputes about ownership of the holy places in Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Galilee. And tinting everything was the rising Arab-Israeli conflict. For the Roman diplomats, the disproportion was obvious: Supporting Israel risked the murder of Christians in Islamic countries; supporting the Arabs risked a stern note from the Israeli ambassador.

The Vatican was never anti-Israeli, and it certainly never condoned or praised terrorism. But, bit by bit, Rome’s advisers and experts on the Middle East came to be those whose first impulse was to take the Arab, and particularly the Palestinian, side in any dispute with Israel or the United States. Relations were formed with Islamic and Baathist governments, and as the Christian communities of the Middle East weakened¯their decline over the last 50 years has been precipitous¯protecting the little that remained came to seem even more important.

Meanwhile, a kind of functional pacifism gradually took hold among Roman theologians, as the traditional canons of Catholic just-war theory were ratcheted up to a standard impossible for any military action to meet. And layered on top of all this was the hunger of the foreign-policy bureaucrats in Rome to be like government advisers everywhere else in Europe: So many other things¯especially homosexuality and abortion¯separated them from their secular counterparts, they were grateful for a topic on which they could share elite European opinion.

The nadir may have come in February 2003, during the agitation before the invasion of Iraq, when Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein’s deputy prime minister, was brought to Italy to be feted at St. Francis’s church in Assisi and treated to an audience with John Paul II in Rome. But you can see the same impulse in the Vatican’s current secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who announced on Vatican Radio last week: "As it has done in the past, the Holy See condemns the terrorist attacks of one side as well as the military reprisals of the other. In fact, the right to defense of a state is not exempt from respect for the norms of international law, especially as regards the safeguarding of civilian populations. In particular, the Holy See now deplores the attack on Lebanon, a free and sovereign nation."

The moral equivalence between terrorism and the response to terrorism was troubling¯and, indeed, Sodano was indulging in more than moral equivalence, for he singled out the Israelis for blame "in particular." The problem Israel faces is precisely that Lebanon is not "a free and sovereign nation," but a weak and captive nation, unable to assert its sovereignty over areas dominated by a terrorist organization.

Meanwhile, the Italian press trumpeted, as a denunciation of Israel, Pope Benedict’s request that the Carmelite nuns he was visiting "also pray for the terrorists because they don’t know that they are doing evil not only to their neighbor but to themselves as well"¯though that is, in fact, sound Christian theology, and it names the terrorists precisely as terrorists, who must turn away from violence. But when Benedict later announced "neither terrorist acts nor reprisals can be justified," he appeared to be back in the territory of Cardinal Sodano.

Of course, in one sense, Sodano was merely indulging the kind of ritual statement¯everybody’s wrong, but Israel most of all¯that the Vatican has been issuing for decades. It didn’t mean much in 1973, and it doesn’t mean much now.

In another sense, however, Sodano’s remarks on Vatican Radio¯and similar statements by other Catholic figures, from the custodians of the holy places in Israel to the editorialists in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano ¯are most disturbing precisely because of their datedness. The situation in the Middle East is no longer simply a battle between Israelis and Palestinians. With the increasing role of the Iranians, and the refusal of the Arab League to involve itself, the fight doesn’t even really center on the Arabs.

It is, rather, a war between the Islamists and the West¯a proxy fight, in which the totalitarian governments of Syria and Iran have aimed the weapon of terrorism at modern democracies. And, for the Catholic Church, the answer cannot remain the old, ritual statements about the Middle East, dusted off one more time. John Paul II had a vision for confronting totalitarianism¯a way of refusing government by the lie and naming things for what they are. It is time for the Vatican to apply that vision to the Middle East.

In addition to which :

From the beginning, First Things has been a collaborative enterprise. It is not just a magazine but—as we rather pretentiously put it—a universe of discourse. Which is another way of saying that it is a moveable feast of personal and intellectual friendships. From time to time, we’ll be posting here pictures of some of the people who sustain the First Things conversation.

A younger George Weigel being instructed by Robert Louis Wilken, who is still the same age.

To access the running gallery, click here .

Shakespeare’s plays didn’t contain cryptic Catholic messages, the Bible is not a numeric code, and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is full of errors. But that doesn’t stop such tales from being written and, in many cases, well received. Why are people attracted to and excited by this genre of fiction? Alan Jacobs takes up this question in "The Code Breakers," inside the August/September version of First Things . Don’t keep First Things a secret. Tell your friend, or better yet, send him or her a gift subscription .

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