By Ulrich Schwarz
A month after the German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in the Sistine Chapel, on April 19, 2005, the US Embassy to the Vatican sent a cable to the State Department in Washington providing its first readings on what the United States and the world at large should expect from the new head of the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict XVI had been one of the closest associates of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. According to America's local Vatican watchers, it was "unthinkable" that he would at all deviate from the former's strict stances regarding ethical issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, contraception, cloning or homosexuality.
The profile drawn up by the embassy noted that the new pope had no political experience and that, owing to his age, he couldn't afford the luxury of acquiring it. But US diplomats in the Vatican could not complain about being underemployed. During the last 10 years, they've sent a total of 729 cables back to the State Department.
Sometimes, they merely tried to explain to the State Department how the Vatican functioned -- and in reports that depict a very curious world, indeed. According to a dispatch from 2009, although the church was "highly hierarchical," it was also chaotic. Likewise, it was usually the case that "only a handful of experts are aware of imminent decisions" and they normally just acquiesce to whatever their boss decides. If fact, the report continued, hardly anyone ever dared to criticize the pope or to deliver bad news to him. It was rare to find independent-minded advisers, they wrote.
Communication in 'Coded Language'
The Vatican's innermost circle is almost exclusively made up of Italian men in their 70s. The Americans wryly note that "most of the top ranks of the Vatican ... do not understand modern media and new information technologies," and that "many officials do not even have official email accounts." They also note how the Cardinal Secretary of State, the name given to the Holy See's equivalent of a prime minister, doesn't even speak English and was also considered a "yes man."
Those closest to the pope communicate among themselves "in 'coded' language that no-one outside their tight circles can decipher." The American diplomats joke, for example, about how the Israeli ambassador recently received a message from the Vatican that reportedly included something positive about his country. But since the message was written in such impenetrable language, the ambassador "missed it, even when told it was there."
Washington also seems to be particularly interested in the Roman Curia, the administrative apparatus of the Vatican, and its policies toward the Asia states it is currently at loggerheads with, including North Korea, Burma, Vietnam and, in particular, China. In a cable classified "secret" from Dec. 7, 2009, the embassy provides a detailed report on the activities of Caritas Internationalis, the confederation of Catholic aid organizations under Vatican control, in countries such as China, North Korea and Burma.
Working Quietly in China and North Korea
The regimes in these countries tolerate the work of Caritas within their borders, at least periodically, because they need the assistance. Even in North Korea, the organization quietly carries on with its charity work, which includes administering two Vatican-financed hospitals.
The US Embassy devoted a whole series of reports to the Vatican's relationship with China. Relations are reportedly very sensitive because there are two Catholic churches competing with each other in the People's Republic. On the one hand, there is the "patriotic" church supported by the communist regime. And, on the other, there is the underground church that is still loyal to Rome and is now tolerated by Beijing following years of persecution.
According to a senior Caritas official, the organization works with both churches. The Chinese government is aware of this, the official added, but the authorities still just "look the other way" whenever Caritas workers cooperate with members of the underground church.
Stonewalling the UN's Top Prosecutor
Thanks to its good ties to high-ranking Vatican officials, the US Embassy was able to provide an early and detailed warning to diplomatic headquarters back in Washington about a looming scandal involving Carla del Ponte, the Swiss woman who was then the chief UN war crimes prosecutor at The Hague.
In August 2005, del Ponte made a personal appearance at the Vatican to ask the Roman Curia to help in the apprehension of Ante Gotovina, a former Croatian general, who was being sought by The Hague for war crimes. Though he is still celebrated in Croatia as a hero, Gotovina is believed to have been responsible for atrocities against ethnic Serb civilians as part of an August 1995 offensive during the civil war that attended the breakup of Yugoslavia. Del Ponte told her hosts that Gotovina was hiding out in a Franciscan monastery in Croatia -- and accused the church of protecting him.
Del Ponte, however, was brushed off by Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican's foreign minister at the time. Outraged, del Ponte said that the Curia "refuses totally to cooperate with us." She claimed never to have received a response to a letter she sent to Pope Benedict XVI. Moreover, it would appear that the negative sentiments went both ways: Already on August 22, the head of the Vatican division responsible for overseeing Balkan affairs complained to the US Embassy about del Ponte's "very undiplomatic" behavior. In a cable the diplomats sent home soon thereafter, they reported on the "very ugly impression" del Ponte had made on the Vatican.
According to the high-ranking official, del Ponte was very aggressive when she demanded to have an audience with the pope. Even years later, the former prosecutor was still livid. In her memoirs, first published in 2008, del Ponte described how Archbishop Lajolo responded to her request: "Just come to Saint Peter's Square," Lajolo reportedly told her. He was referring, of course, to the general audience that the head of the Catholic Church holds there each Wednesday -- before tens of thousands of visitors.
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