Palace has felt a bit like the set of the Tonight Show recently — a different
celebrity guest every day.
On Feb. 7, the German
Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was here to meet the pope, Feb. 14 brought
Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz, then on Feb. 18 U.N. Secretary
General Kofi Annan. The same day the pope was briefed by Cardinal Roger
Etchegaray, who had just returned from his high-profile special mission
to Baghdad. On Saturday, Feb. 22, British Prime Minister Tony Blair will
arrive for a private tet-a-tet with John Paul II.
Looking at this activity
through the lens of secular geopolitics, it is striking that, in a world
that worships wealth and power, the Holy See — with no economy and no army
— nevertheless manages to make itself relevant. This may be witness to
the charisma of John Paul II, but it also reflects the unique nature of
Vatican diplomacy. Because the pope and his emissaries aren’t seeking territorial
or economic advantage, in many cases they will be heard with sympathy by
all sides to a conflict.
Tarik Aziz provided testimony
to this point, when asked by CNN for his reaction to John Paul’s insistence
that Iraq comply with the weapons inspectors and United Nations resolutions.
“I am not annoyed by
that, you see,” Aziz said. “There is a different motive when a good-hearted,
impartial person like the Holy Father says that. When an American says
it, with a different motive, it’s different. It looks like the same thing,
but it’s different.”
From the point of view
of church politics, it’s remarkable how John Paul’s anti-war line has,
at least outside the United States, produced clear public unanimity across
the spectrum of Catholic opinion. In Europe, even traditionally conservative,
pro-Western voices are joining the anti-war chorus. The conservative Catholic
movement Comunione e Liberazione, for example, put out a statement
in February that was headlined: “We are against this war; we are with the
Yet this is to some extent
an artificial unanimity, created by the strong undertow of papal authority.
How long it will hold up, especially if war does break out, is an open
question. There are already signs of strain.
Respected Italian journalist
Sandro Magister, for example, voiced the discomfort some conservative Catholics
felt over Cardinal Roger Etchegaray’s peace mission to Baghdad in a mid-February
analysis. Reflecting on an interview Etchegaray gave upon his return, Magister
complained of an “incomprehensible” and “deafening” silence on Hussein’s
brutality to his own people.
“The cardinal does not
devote a single word to the horrible sufferings endured for decades by
the Iraqi people, not at the hands of external agents, but at those of
its tyrant and those who surround him,” Magister wrote.
Taking into consideration
the Etchegaray interview and another given by one of the Franciscan friars
who welcomed Aziz to Assisi, Magister sounded a warning about moral fuzziness.
Both suggest “a certain
confusion between true and false, between good and evil, between just and
unjust,” Magister wrote. “On a question like that of Iraq, so critical
for the destiny of the world, the danger is … that same indiscriminate
relativism, in the dressings of peace, that the church itself is the first
to identify as the great temptation of today’s Christians.”
Moreover, not all of
those who have been brought into line behind the pope are necessarily thrilled
about it. The Comunione e Liberazione statement hinted at this tension.
“The pope does not de-legitimate
America,” the statement insisted, obviously taking aim at some in the Catholic
peace movement who might. “He does not say that America is the bilge of
all the vices of the rich West; he does not de-baptize or excommunicate
all the Catholic soldiers who have left for Iraq; but he invites everyone
to join him in prayer.”
“We are citizens of Italy,
allies of the United States,” the statement reads. “We do not burn American
flags … we’re not seeking the utopia of a society so perfect that it would
be useless for us to be good.”
This Catholic challenge
to the anti-war line in Europe is still rather implicit. In the United
States, however, there is an open form of Catholic support for a war in
Iraq, centered on intellectuals such as Michael Novak and George Weigel.
After his recent trip to Rome, Novak has published another paper on the
subject, arguing that the decision to use force belongs to lay political
authorities, not clergy, who sometimes overstep their competence in expressing
judgments on political issues. (www.nationalreview.com/novak/novak021803.asp)
This is how things go
in the Catholic Church. When the pope speaks clearly on an issue, it marginalizes
alternative views, but it doesn’t make them go away. There are some in
the Catholic world, both hawks on the right and human rights advocates
on the left, who think that the peace movement is naïve about Hussein’s
cruelty and his capacity to wreak further havoc.
I suspect this ambiguity
was to some extent behind the Feb. 17 interview given to L’Avvenire,
the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, by Cardinal Angelo Sodano,
the Vatican’s Secretary of State.
“The Holy See is not
pacifist at all costs, as it admits legitimate defense on the part of states,”
Sodano said. “What should be said, rather, is that the Holy See is always
peace-making, as it works intensely to prevent the outbreak of conflicts.”
* * *
Media interest was strong
for the visit of Aziz, the cigar-smoking, white-haired emissary to the
West of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Aziz is a Chaldean Catholic, an Eastern-rite
church loyal to Rome. When he met John Paul, the pope pressed a rosary
into his hand and asked him to take it home “to his wife,” who is said
to have a strong Marian devotion.
In January I asked an
Iraqi Chaldean Catholic bishop if Aziz practiced his faith. He told me
that Aziz “has no time,” but that his family is very devout.
Friday night I attended
a press conference given by Aziz at Rome’s Foreign Press Club. At Aziz’s
right hand was Fr. Jean-Marie Benjamin, a 56-year-old French priest who
has long been a fierce critic of the U.N.-imposed sanctions in Iraq, and
more broadly of Western policy in the Middle East.
(Benjamin, by the way,
is a remarkable Renaissance figure. A classical music composer, he worked
for the United Nations from 1983 to 1988, and in 1983 composed the official
UNESCO hymn. After being ordained a priest in 1991, Benjamin accompanied
former Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli on diplomatic missions.
Today he directs the Beato Angelico Foundation, which deals with cultural
issues, in Assisi.)
It was Benjamin who invited
Aziz to Rome and who arranged his schedule.
“Why this initiative?”
Benjamin asked rhetorically at the press conference. “To remind the world
that Iraq is a lay republic, with a Christian minister,” he said. “Cooperation
between Christians and Muslims is exemplary.” Bin Laden, Benjamin said,
would never allow one of his men to go pray at the tomb of St. Francis.
Aziz was, predictably,
positive about the pope’s stance on the war.
“I came first and foremost
to meet the pope, and to deliver a message for His Holiness from Saddam
Hussein,” Aziz said. “The president and people of Iraq appreciate the clear
position of the Holy See in rejecting the logic of war and in saying straightforwardly
that this war is immoral. I can add, illegal,” Aziz said.
Aziz warned European
nations to stay out of a U.S.-led war.
“If the Christian countries
of Europe participate in a war of aggression, it will be interpreted as
a crusade against the Arab world and Islam,” he said. “It will poison relations
between the Arab world and the Christian world.”
Aziz was also asked about
the possibility of a papal trip to Baghdad.
“We have excellent diplomatic
relations with the Holy See,” Aziz replied. “A visit to Iraq by the Holy
Father or any Vatican official is a matter of principle. It is a normal
thing. Right now there is a high-ranking official in Baghdad, Cardinal
Etchegaray. But in the present crisis, such a visit would not be a good
idea, for security reasons, as you know.”
The dramatic peak of
the press conference came when Menachem Gantz, the Rome correspondent for
in Israel asked Aziz if Iraq had any plans to attack Israel, and what Aziz
thought about Arab states such as Qatar and Kuwait, which are supporting
the U.S. position.
“When I came to this
press conference, it was not my intention to answer questions from the
Israeli media,” Aziz said. “I’m sorry.”
The president of the
Foreign Press Club insisted that Gantz is an accredited journalist and
member of the society, and asked Aziz to respond to his question. Again,
Aziz refused. Some journalists booed and whistled, and a few walked out,
but the press conference continued. That angered some of my colleagues,
who wondered aloud what the effect might have been had Ariel Sharon refused
to take a question from an Arab journalist.
Later, Rome’s center-left
mayor Walter Veltroni announced that he had cancelled an appointment with
Aziz to protest the action.
“I can’t accept that
a public figure and representative of a country would deny to anyone, whatever
position they represent, the right to express himself, creating vetoes
and discrimination,” Veltroni said.
Benjamin told me in an
exclusive Feb. 17 interview that while Aziz’s choice not to respond was
a mistake looked at through the lens of Western politics, it has to be
understood from Iraq’s point of view. “Israel has defied 31 United Nations
resolutions, and no one is threatening to bomb them,” Benjamin said. Anyway,
he said, refusing to respond to the Israeli media is official Iraqi policy,
and Aziz couldn’t adjust it on the fly.
Benjamin denied, by the
way, that Veltroni ever had a meeting with Aziz to begin with.
Aziz next spent a half-day
on Saturday, Feb. 15, in Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis. He prayed
in front of the Porziuncola, the small church built by Francis by hand,
which is now contained within the massive basilica of Santa Maria degli
Angeli. Then Aziz moved on to the lower basilica and the tomb of St. Francis.
The Franciscans gave
Aziz a replica of the perpetual lamp John Paul II lit during the Jan. 24,
2002, gathering of world religious leaders to pray for peace, and showed
him the ivory horn that Sultan Kamil of Egypt gave Francis in 1219 at the
height of the crusades. It is a symbol of Christian/Muslim understanding.
The congregation of some
25 people then read a prayer the pope wrote for the Jan. 24 event: “Violence
never again. War never again. Terrorism never again. In God’s name, may
all religions bring upon the earth justice and peace, forgiveness, life
Fr. Vincenzo Coli, custodian
of the Franciscan convent in Assisi, rejected suggestions of a political
subtext to the visit.
“Here we follow the teachings
of Francis,” he said. “We never put ourselves in the position of asking
a pilgrim, ‘Who are you? What is your program?’”
* * *
Which brings us to one
of the more striking sidebars to the Assisi visit, the conspicuous presence
alongside Aziz of Archbishop Hilarion Capucci, an auxiliary bishop of the
Greek Melkite church in communion with Rome. Capucci, who led a tiny Melkite
community in Jerusalem in the 1960s and 1970s, carries the personal title
To call Capucci’s past
“checkered” would be an under-statement. He first came to public attention
when he was arrested on August 18, 1974, by Israeli security forces in
after returning to Jerusalem from a trip to Lebanon. His car was found
stuffed with TNT and guns headed for the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
At the time, Israeli
interrogators said Capucci had blamed “blackmail” by Al Fatah guerillas,
claiming that they had threatened him with physical force and “disclosure
of actions that might threaten his position in the church.” In August 2002,
Franciscan Fr. David Maria Jeager, spokesperson for the Franciscan custodians
of the holy sites in Jerusalem, supported this hypothesis in an interview
with the Italian publication Libero. Jeager said Capucci in the
1960s had developed “personal interests, not at all compatible with the
dignity of the priestly or episocopal office” that had left him vulnerable
to Palestinian blackmail.
Reports suggest that
prior to the 1967 war, Capucci had worked easily with Israeli authorities,
so much so that some regarded him as a “collaborator.” After his arrest,
however, he became an ardent champion of the Palestinian cause.
Capucci was sentenced
to 12 years in prison and began organizing an international campaign to
secure his release. At one point he declared a hunger strike. Pope Paul
VI intervened with a personal letter to then-President of Israel Ephraim
Katziv. Capucci was released in 1977, with, Israeli sources insist, an
understanding that he would stay out of politics.
If so, the deal has been
honored largely in the breach. Capucci served as a member of the Palestine
National Council, the PLO’s parliament-in-exile, and in 1980 was dispatched
by Yassir Arafat to negotiate the return of the bodies of American soldiers
lost in the attempt to rescue the embassy hostages in Iran.
Capucci, now 81, has
lived in a private apartment in Rome since his release, and according to
sources, has maintained a low profile within Melkite circles in town. Yet
he is quite visible on the political scene, often taking part in demonstrations
or appearing on TV. Italian author Oriana Fallaci, whose recent anti-Islamic
polemic La Rabbia e L’Orgoglio was a publishing sensation in Italy,
has called Capucci “that saintly man with a Mercedes full of bombs who
lives in the Vatican.”
In December 2000, Capucci
made a visit to Lebanon to visit Sheikh Nabil Qaouq, a Hezbollah leader.
In front of reporters, when he reached the Lebanese-Israeli border, Capucci
picked up a stone and hurled it in the direction of the Israeli territory.
“I wish I had been with
the heroes of the intifada to take part in their battle for the
independence of Palestine,” Capucci said.
In March 2002, Capucci
participated in a march in Rome which had been billed as an apolitical
appeal for peace in the Middle East, but which some believe turned into
a pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli exercise, with slogans and banners that
even members of Italy’s secular left described as “anti-Semitic.” A group
of young Palestinians dressed as suicide bombers led the procession.
In October 2002, Capucci
and Benjamin held a press conference during a trip to Baghdad to oppose
a U.S.-led war. “If Bush attacks Iraq, the resentment and hatred of the
Arab-Islamic world will be accentuated against him personally and against
the interests of the American people,” Capucci warned.
Privately, Israeli sources
express irritation at this activity, arguing that it violates the spirit
of their agreement with the Holy See. Vatican officials say Capucci has
no official church assignment and speaks only for himself, though they
concede that no canonical process has ever been brought against him.
In Assisi, Capucci was
quasi-ubiquitous alongside Aziz. He spoke freely to the press.
“I said to Aziz that
he must not give anyone an excuse for attacking Iraq, and hence resolution
1441 must be scrupulously observed. The Iraqis, he assured me, will respect
these norms. … I pray that the angels may return to sing in heaven of peace
Capucci then added a
critical remark about Israel.
“Israel is like a spoiled
child that has ended up living a double standard,” he said.
As this column went to
press, it was not clear whether the Israelis planned to lodge a formal
protest with the Vatican about Capucci’s presence. For those already alarmed,
however, that the Catholic Church’s version of the peace movement is unbalanced
and insufficiently critical of Arab regimes with sketchy human rights records,
Capucci’s high profile in Assisi probably did not help.
Yet Benjamin, who said
Capucci more or less invited himself to the event, didn’t see it that way.
“It would be incredible
if a bishop of the Catholic Church couldn’t go to pray at the tomb of St.
Francis,” Benjamin said. “Everyone can go to Assisi, even followers of
other religions. Why not Capucci?”
* * *
I recently asked new
Auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad Andraos Abouna, whom I met on the occasion
of his Jan. 6 episcopal ordination in Rome, what he made of Etchegaray’s
“It was as a light of
hope among the darkness of unstable politics,” Abouna said. “It showed
Iraqis the solidarity of the Vatican, and it was a pastoral visit as well.
His Eminence was a messenger of peace to Abraham’s homeland, Ur of the
Chaldeans, and a voice against the immoral war.”
The alarm among Iraqi
Christians there is palpable. Some 200,000 Christians have fled the country
since the first Gulf War. At the start of 1991, the Catholic population
of Baghdad was more than 500,000. Today, Catholics number about 175,000.
“It’s like a biblical
exodus,” one Vatican official said in mid-February.
* * *
I have been asked on
several occasions why the pope doesn’t send an emissary to George Bush
to make the case for peace, as he did to Saddam Hussein. At one stage it
was rumored that he might ask Cardinal Pio Laghi, former papal ambassador
to the United States, to undertake such a mission. Other potential envoys
include Archbishop Renato Martino, who spent 16 years in the States as
the Holy See’s observer at the United Nations, or Etchegaray. On
Friday, Feb. 21, a Roman newspaper reported that Etchegaray has been tapped
for such a role, though it wasn't immediately clear how seriously to take
Why not do it?
For one thing, John Paul
already has an emissary in the United States, in the form of his nuncio,
Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo. Unlike the pope’s man in Iraq, Montalvo is
free to speak as he likes, to make the case against government policy both
in public and through channels. If he wants to see Bush, presumably he
could get on his calendar. Hence the diplomatic need for a special emissary
is not as compelling.
In fact, diplomatic sources
tell me that high-level contacts between the Vatican and the U.S. government
are ongoing and intense.
I have also been told
on background that a papal emissary to Bush as a way of balancing Etchegaray’s
visit to Hussein would be viewed negatively in Anglo-American circles,
since they believe the dispute is not between Hussein and Bush, but between
Hussein and the United Nations. In that sense, one senior Western diplomat
told me, Kofi Annan’s visit to the pope was the appropriate counter-measure.
The Vatican will take this view into consideration. It also coheres with
the Vatican’s conviction that the United Nations must resolve this crisis,
not one country acting alone.
Despite the media focus
on geopolitics, it must also be remembered that an important part of the
logic for Etchegaray’s trip was not his meeting with Hussein, but outreach
to the local Iraqi Christians, reassuring them that the pope would not
forget them. The fate of Christian minorities exercises an enormous weight
on Vatican diplomatic activity in the Middle East.
Finally, as I noted above,
there is already alarm in some circles that the Vatican’s anti-war push
may be feeding the propaganda aims of the Hussein government. Vatican diplomats
want to avoid a war, but they don’t want to hand Hussein a public relations
triumph in the process.
If there is one thing
that those of us who cover the pope have learned, however, it is never
to feel too confident about what John Paul II will or will not do.
* * *
A final footnote from
the Aziz visit: On Friday night, after the press conference, Aziz, Benjamin,
and a few friends went to one of my favorite restaurants for dinner, Da
Fortunato, near the Pantheon. (Among other things, it features a bread
with olives baked in that’s terrific). Located just around the corner from
the Italian Senate building, the place is a Roman classic, and the walls
are full of pictures of VIPs from all walks of life — Helmut Kohl, Arnold
Schwarznegger, Elizabeth Taylor. Therein lies the tale. According to the
Roman daily Il Messagero, the staff took down the pictures of ex-American
presidents for the evening, citing a “duty of hospitality” to their Iraqi
guest. If so, I suspect Da Fortunato may have lost some business from the
U.S. embassies in town.
* * *
Bishops and staff of
the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, the translation
body that has been overhauled in recent months to bring it more into line
with the literalistic approach favored by Rome, were in town Feb. 18 for
meetings in the Congregation for Divine Worship. The topic was the statutes
that govern ICEL, which Rome has insisted must be revised to give the congregation
a direct role in governance, especially the appointment of staff and advisers.
Though no details from
the meeting were released, sources tell NCR that solutions more
or less acceptable to all parties were reached. To some extent those compromises
will give Rome the oversight authority it has been seeking. The new secretary
of ICEL, English Fr. Bruce Harbert, has already received a nihil obstat,
a formal clean bill of health, from the congregation.
While critics of the
ICEL overhaul regard the congregation’s desire to vet staff and advisors
as a Vatican power-grab, sources in Rome offer a different interpretation.
It is important to protect ICEL from the various liturgical watchdog groups
in the English-speaking world, they say, such as Adoremus and Credo, who
go over the backgrounds of ICEL personnel with a fine-tooth comb. The process
of granting a nihil obstat, from this point of view, is a means
of insuring that the agency’s key personnel have no theological skeletons
in their closet.
The Feb. 18 meeting was
not the final stage in the process. The statutes will now return to an
ICEL drafting committee, which will incorporate the results into a draft
text. Then they will go to the ICEL executive board for review, then to
the full commission of bishop delegates from English-speaking bishops’
conferences that form ICEL. The statutes will then be sent to the English-speaking
conferences for approval, and will be approved by the commission after
the conferences sign off. Finally, the statutes will be submitted to the
congregation for recognitio, formal legal approval.
Though the process sounds
complicated, sources say the aim is to have it wrapped up by this summer.
That in itself would represent a compromise from the Vatican, since the
congregation had fixed March 28, 2003, as the cut-off date for completion
of the process.
Sources say that Cardinal
Francis Arinze, the Nigerian who took over as prefect of the Congregation
for Divine Worship last October, played a hands-on role in the Feb. 18
deliberations. Part of the logic behind his appointment was to have an
English-speaker in charge, given the controversy that has surrounded liturgical
issues in English, and this meeting suggests the strategy is bearing fruit.
At the level of atmosphere,
the tensions that used to cloud relations between ICEL and the congregation
seem to have largely dispersed. Proof? During the Feb. 18 meeting, congregation
personnel took the unprecedented step of serving sandwiches and tea to
their ICEL guests. Given that not so long ago the ICEL staff wasn’t even
permitted through the front door, it was a considerable step forward.
I asked Harbert after
the meetings wrapped up if this impression of “good vibrations” was correct.
“The vibrations are excellent,
and the sandwiches are the sacrament of that,” Harbert said.
* * *
An interesting conference
on “Media and Truth: An Interreligious Perspective on Ethical Reporting”
took place Feb. 17-18 in Rome, at the Campodoglio, the city hall.
It was co-sponsored by the city of Rome, the Foreign Press Association,
the Austrian government, and the World Conference on Religions and Peace.
The impresario was Lisa Palmieri-Billig, Rome correspondent for the Jerusalem
Post and the Italian head of “Religions for Peace.”
I had been asked to make
a brief presentation on religious minorities in the Islamic world, a subject
for which I am woefully under-qualified. Fortunately most panelists were
better prepared to handle their tasks, and their remarks stimulated some
Jesuit Fr. Robert White
of the Gregorian University presented a paper on the “ideological filter”
in the press. It was an analysis of dynamics in the mass media, arguing
that the less reporters know about a topic, the more likely they are to
recycle stereotypes and official propaganda.
I was troubled, however,
by one point White made. “Great journalists are people who have a sense
of when a group is being treated unjustly, who have a passion for justice,”
he said. Personally, I get nervous around journalists driven to oppose
what they perceive as injustice, because sometimes they end up skewing
the facts to support their crusades. I would rather say that a great journalist
is one who feels a passion for the story.
Myrna Shinbaum from the
Anti-Defamation League in New York and Italian scholar Annamaria Rivera
presented presentations on media stereotypes of Jews and Muslims, respectively.
Shinbuam passed along
a packet of editorial cartoons culled from Arab and European papers, and
some of the imagery was truly hair-raising: Sharon as Hitler, the Wailing
Wall spelling out the word “hate,” a Hasidic-looking Jew sexually assaulting
the Statue of Liberty. The association of the Nazi swastika with Israeli
soldiers, politicians, etc., is by now a staple in Arab papers.
Rivera pointed out that
the media frequently reports arrests of Muslim immigrants for alleged terrorist
activity on the front page, but when they are released for an absence of
proof, as recently happened in Naples, that development receives nowhere
near the same level of attention.
Rivera argued that anti-Islamic
prejudice is the mirror image of anti-Semitism. The newspaper La Padania
of the far-right Italian Northern League, for example, recently carried
an editorial cartoon of Osama Bin Laden with the caption: “Allah is God
and the Kalishnikov is his prophet.” The parallel with some of the material
Shinbaum distributed was striking.
Unfortunately, at some
points the exchange broke down into the sort of tit-for-tat swipes
between Israelis and Arabs that are all too common in this sort of international
meeting. (At one stage an Israel journalist declined to answer a question
about the position of the Israeli government, saying he doesn’t represent
the state. That led an Iraqi panelist to observe that it isn’t only Tarik
Aziz who doesn’t take questions, which in turn prompted the Israeli to
respond testily that the two situations were hardly comparable. On it went).
But perhaps this is a
question of perspective. Is the fact that Israeli/Palestinian tensions
are reproduced in public dialogues the remarkable point, or is the very
fact of the dialogue, despite the tension, the truly striking thing?
* * *
Recently I learned that
a rumor has made the rounds in some circles that I was somehow responsible
for eliciting the letter signed by 62 Catholic leaders in the United States
raising concerns about Michael Novak’s visit to Rome. NCR ran a
story on the letter Feb. 7, and the complete text is posted on the NCR
The rumor is false, as
I have assured both Novak and the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, James
Nicholson. I am a firm believer in the prime directive of journalism, which
is that we report and analyze the news, but we don’t make it. Enough said.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111