National Catholic Reporter ®

May 10, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 37

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U.S. ambassador takes on issue of trafficicking in humans;
Vatican view on health care; Fides director departs

According to U.S. government figures, at least 700,000 persons, especially women and children, are trafficked each year across international borders. (Nicholson told me that the International Labor Organization in Geneva pegs the actual number at around four million).


On May 15-16, Rome’s Gregorian University will host a most intriguing conference. Sponsored by diplomats accredited to the Holy See, as well as the Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace and for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, plus Urbi et Orbi Communications, the theme is “Stop Trafficking in Human Beings: Together it’s Possible.”

     The driving force is James Nicholson, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. On May 7, I sat down over coffee with him at the embassy, located near the Circo Massimo, to discuss the conference. (Nicholson had just returned from a weekend trip to Lourdes with the Knights of Malta).

     Nicholson explained that he first stumbled upon today’s burgeoning commerce in human beings during a State Department briefing for new ambassadors. His previous job was chairman of the Republican Party, so he was already a bit of a policy wonk, but the trafficking issue was a revelation.

     According to U.S. government figures, at least 700,000 persons, especially women and children, are trafficked each year across international borders. (Nicholson told me that the International Labor Organization in Geneva pegs the actual number at around four million). Victims are forced to toil in sweatshops, construction sites, brothels, and fields. Many are subjected to threats, horrific living conditions, and dangerous workplaces. Some answer ads for good jobs in a new country, others are actually sold by a relative or friend.

     Human cargo is now the third most lucrative source of income for organized crime syndicates, after drugs and guns. 

     Having been sensitized to the issue, Nicholson arrived in Rome to discover that his embassy was already involved in two projects in Italy (one in Brindisi, the other in Pescara) that try to prevent women from falling prey to the trade, or to support their efforts to escape it.

     Here, he decided, was something upon which he could build, hence the impetus for the conference.

     Nicholson floated the idea with his ambassadorial peers, then with Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s top diplomat. Tauran endorsed the event, suggesting it be held at the Gregorian, his alma mater. Nicholson next secured a grant from the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, which has a track record of funding conservative causes such as vouchers (explaining, in part, why former RNC chief Nicholson has friends there).

     Nicholson said he hopes to prompt the Vatican to be more engaged on trafficking, using what he calls the pope’s “moral megaphone.”

     Nicholson acknowledged that efforts to end trafficking will raise difficult policy choices. To take one example: Many of the women being trafficked are funneled into prostitution, and hence talking about trafficking inevitably means taking up the debate on whether prostitution should be legalized and regulated. On a broader scale, traffickers thrive on desperation, so the ultimate solution is probably economic development — an aim given lip service at learned conferences, but for which resources are often lacking. 

     Nicholson added, however, that the push to abolish trafficking should not await solutions to these deeper problems. “This is slavery, and it is a scourge,” he said.

     The conference begins at 2:00 pm on Wednesday, May 15, in the Aula Magna of the Gregorian University.

     After we finished on the trafficking issue, I asked Nicholson what he’s been hearing from the Vatican on the Middle East, and above all the siege at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

     “We’ve had a fair amount of engagement on that,” Nicholson said, choosing his words carefully. “There’s been great focus, concern, effort and discussion because of the importance of that site.”

     I asked if his exchanges had been informational, or if the Vatican has been urging the United States to take specific policy steps.

     “It’s been both,” he said, declining to go further.

     Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, dispatched by John Paul to try to mediate the standoff, returned to Rome May 6 with mixed results. Etchegaray had hoped to celebrate Sunday Mass on May 5 in the basilica, but that didn’t happen. Etchegaray also failed to see Ariel Sharon, though he did meet Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat. The rebuff from Sharon was unsurprising, given the pro-Palestinian tone of much Vatican reaction to the crisis, especially the daily drumbeat in L’Osservatore Romano. Many Israelis and their sympathizers are frustrated with the way the Vatican has treated the situation as a siege by the Israeli army, rather than an occupation by Palestinian gunmen.

     Nicholson said that he did not brief Etchegaray before he left for the Middle East, but he did speak with Tauran about Etchegaray’s trip. 

* * *

     The same morning I saw Nicholson, I also popped in at the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, where I interviewed Archbishop Javier Lozano Barragán, the Mexican prelate who functions as the Vatican’s “minister of health.”

     (One bit of advice. If you ever have occasion to meet Barragán, a generally affable man, avoid using the adjective “American” to refer to the United States. I made that mistake twice, each time eliciting a stern reminder that “America” stretches from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, encompassing dozens of nations — there are 35 members in the Organization of American States — and that the U.S. tendency towards linguistic imperialism is offensive to all those other Americans. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa).

     Barragán’s council had just concluded its May 2-4 plenary assembly, and I was curious to know how its deliberations might affect Catholic health care in the United States. My wife and I had lunched the day before with a very sharp U.S. sister whose community is a health care provider, and she gave us a briefing on the issues.

     Barragán said the assembly, focusing on the “suffering yet joyous face of Christ,” identified three broad goals: evangelization, sanctification and communion. Under each, the assembly outlined a set of programs, some 55 in total. For example, the council hopes to promote professional organizations for Catholic doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. 

     Barragán was wary of being drawn into speculation as to how any of these ideas might play out in the United States. “This council doesn’t do the work directly,” he said. “That’s the responsibility of the bishops and the bishops conferences of every country.”

     Coming at it another way, I asked what special challenges he saw in the States.

     “But it’s your bishops who have to answer that question!” he insisted.

     (Barragán was less reluctant, by the way, to grouse about a U.S. bishop recently appointed a member of the council who didn’t show up for the plenary assembly. “He didn’t have time,” Barragán sniffed. “The bishop from Australia found the time, all the cardinals came, but this guy didn’t have the time. Poor him.”)

     I asked Barragán about some controversial choices facing Catholic health care in the U.S., such as what kind of procedures are permissible when a Catholic and a public hospital merge. An especially vexed issue has been tubal ligations, which, unlike abortions or male sterilizations, are typically performed in a hospital rather than a clinic or a doctor’s office. In some rural areas, a hospital produced by a merger may be the only facility for hundreds of miles, and if it bars tubal ligations the procedure is in effect denied to everyone, Catholic or not.

     At one stage, the U.S. bishops tolerated “creative solutions.” For example, some consolidated hospitals established separately incorporated women’s health centers where tubal ligations could be performed. Under Vatican pressure, however, this line has been hardened. At their June 2001 meeting in Atlanta, the bishops voted 209-7 to declare sterilization “intrinsically immoral” and to ban the procedure at all Catholic-affiliated hospitals.

     Barragán insisted that this is not a matter of the Vatican imposing a solution upon the United States.

     “This is the doctrine of the Catholic church, not of the Holy See,” he said. “The bishops know the doctrine very well,” Barragán said.

     “To understand that life is a gift from God, that it does not belong to us, that we cannot manipulate it, is quite easy. The doctrine is as clear as two plus two equals four. What’s difficult is to apply it,” Barragán said.

     “In the pansexual culture in which we find ourselves, pleasure is the only value. For this reason, marriage is attacked and life is attacked. A Malthusian mentality is also at work.”

     On the whole, Barragán gave the impression that Rome is not entertaining any relaxation on the sterilization issue.

     Finally, Barragán said that in November his council will host an international conference at the Vatican on the pastoral ministry of health care, which will have as its theme “The Catholic Hospital.” No doubt these questions will, in one form or another, recur.

* * * 

     Several colleagues have written to ask that I comment on the departure of Fr. Bernardo Cervellera as director of Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (still popularly known as “Propaganda Fidei”). News broke in late April that Cervellera was out.

     Under Cervellera’s direction during the last five years, Fides went from a sleepy agency to an aggressive, widely respected voice for the missionary operations of the Catholic Church. Cervellera, 50, was known for outspoken comments on situations where missionaries faced oppression or government harassment, such as China.

     Unfortunately, I cannot address speculation that Cervellera was the victim of a putsch engineered by the Secretariat of State, or the Vatican press office, both of whom prefer a more diplomatic tone. I don’t know if office politics was a factor.

     What I do know is that Cervellera will be missed. He was a gift to the journalistic community, a font of global knowledge who did not pull punches. The fact that his views did not always line up with those of other Vatican offices represented healthy diversity, as I experienced it, rather than incoherence.

     The point reminds me of a story. On John Paul II’s trip to Kazakhstan, just 10 days after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, the chief of the Vatican press office, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, gave an exclusive interview to the Reuters news agency. Navarro said the Vatican would understand if the United States struck back militarily against terrorists. Coming on the heels of a plea from John Paul that “the world may stay in peace” just 24 hours before, Navarro’s comments angered some in the Vatican, who felt he was “spinning” the pope. 

     The next day, Jesuit Fr. Frederico Lombardi, who runs Vatican radio, went on the air to firmly restate the pope’s line. By implication, Lombardi was criticizing Navarro, and in fact he gave instructions to Vatican Radio personnel to ignore Navarro’s comments. Lombardi then took the unusual step of writing out his statement, photocopying it, and making it available to a reporter. 

     Some people saw this as confusion within the Vatican, since it was obvious that the two principal communication arms of the pope were not on the same page. Personally, I was heartened. The proper response to terrorism is a vexing, complicated issue, and I would be wary of any answer that seemed to emerge, like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully formed at birth. I was consoled to know that Vatican officials were wrestling with the question, and to see them expose these divisions to public view, which is always a way of inviting others into the conversation.

     Hence, a fond farewell to Cervellera, who says he is considering teaching in the United States. If so, it would be a great blessing to the American church (and I mean that in the continental sense!) I hope we will not have to bid goodbye to his spirit of candor at Fides as well. 

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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