Vatican’s global importance evident in leaked cables

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Leaked State Department cables are giving insight into the Vatican’s influential role on the world stage and the United States’ efforts to cooperate with the Holy See in advancing common interests.

Some Vatican-related cables are being released through WikiLeaks’ media partners, which include the New York Times and the British newspaper The Guardian. The cables are also slowly being released through the websites of WikiLeaks, although the main U.S. site has been shut down.

The cables offer State Department officials’ own analysis and recount conversations with Vatican officials and diplomats from other countries. Topics range from the Vatican’s internal affairs to its actions in international relations.

One April 22, 2009 cable reported on Vatican hopes that better U.S.-Cuba relations would weaken the role of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The Vatican’s motives included great concern regarding the “deterioration” of Church-state relations in Cuba.

Recounting a discussion with Msgr. Angelo Accattino, the Holy See official in charge of relations with Caribbean and Andean countries, the cable analyzed Chavez’s behavior at the Summit of the Americas. The Venezuelan president was “clearly rattled” by the possibility that the U.S. and Cuba could begin a dialogue that excluded him. This was reportedly a motive for his “bombastic approach” to President Barack Obama.

The cable stated that the Holy See “believes the U.S. and Cuba should pursue a dialogue both for its own sake” as well as to “reduce the influence of Chavez.”

A May 2006 cable analyzed the continuing Polish influence at the Vatican and discussed the Holy See’s hopes that Poland would capably defend life and family issues in the European Union. It also noted support for U.S. foreign policy among Polish clergy and seminarians at the Vatican. The cable further discussed the Vatican’s “wariness” towards the Radio Maryja outlet accused of xenophobia and anti-Semitism and the “dangers that right-wing nationalists posed to Poland’s future.”

One cable from August 2004 discussed U.S.-Vatican agreement on U.N. General Assembly initiatives, including a ban on human cloning and responses to human trafficking and anti-Semitism.

The cable reported some confusion over the Vatican’s support for a cloning ban and noted some misperceptions caused by communication problems may have proved “decisive” in a close U.N. vote on the issue.

A Feb. 20, 2009 memo further discussed communications problems which reduced the volume of the Vatican’s “moral megaphone.” Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi is anomalous in his use of a Blackberry and many officials do not have official e-mail accounts. Fr. Lombardi is also “terribly overworked,” simultaneously managing the Vatican Press Office, Vatican Radio and the Vatican Television Center, it stated.

The memo also critically described Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg speech as “disastrous.” The 2006 speech caused global controversy and violence when media reports focused on its quotation of a Byzantine emperor who said Islam was violent.

News coverage of the Vatican-related cables has brought many old stories back to the headlines.

The Guardian’s publication of a June 2009 cable highlighted the Vatican’s role in helping to secure the release of British sailors detained by Iran in April 2007. However, this was already reported in 2007 by Time Magazine, among others, who noted that the release of the sailors came just a day after Pope Benedict XVI had sent a private letter asking for their release.

"There was respect for the request of the Pope," Iran’s vice-ambassador to the Holy See Ahmad Fahima told Time in 2007. “The policy of the Holy See is important throughout the whole world.”

The New York Times said the Vatican-related cables “do not appear to contain any bombshells.” Presently unreleased cables discuss Opus Dei’s reaction to the guilty plea of Robert P. Hanssen, an FBI agent who spied for Russia. Other documents discuss U.S.-Vatican relations regarding the clergy sex abuse scandal which broke during 2002.

A U.S. Vatican embassy cable from that year reported that Cardinal Angelo Sodano, then-secretary of state, spent most of his initial meeting with U.S. Ambassador James Nicholson to “register his displeasure with the several lawsuits filed in U.S. courts that have been served at the Vatican.”

The cardinal reportedly complained about “aggressive attorneys,” saying it was one thing to sue bishops but “another thing entirely to sue the Holy See.” According to the New York Times, the cardinal urged the ambassador to help defend the sovereignty of the Holy See.

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Again in the headlines is Pope Benedict’s previous opposition to Turkey’s bid to enter the European Union. One 2004 cable recounted the Holy See’s acting foreign minister Msgr. Pietro Parolin’s clarification that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s criticisms of Turkish EU membership did not reflect the view of the Holy See at the time.

The cable discussed the integration of Muslims into European society and the problems of religious freedom in Turkey.  D. Brent Hardt, the U.S. Embassy official who authored the cable, noted that Cardinal Ratzinger was a “leading voice” behind the Vatican’s unsuccessful effort to secure a reference to Europe’s Christian roots in the EU constitution.

“He clearly understands that allowing a Muslim country into the EU would further weaken his case for Europe's Christian foundations,” Hardt explained, noting that the Vatican’s official position towards Turkish integration is one of “cautious, skeptical openness.”

A December 2006 cable revisited the question under the papacy of Benedict XVI. It reported that neither the Pope nor the Holy See have endorsed Turkey’s EU membership but the Holy See has been “consistently open” to the idea.

Msgr. Parolin said the Holy See would see no obstacle to Turkey joining the EU provided religious freedom advances in the country. In his estimate, the situation couldn’t get much worse for Turkey’s Christian community short of open persecution.

The same cable also referred to Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech. In the view of U.S. embassy official Christopher Sandrolini, this speech made clear that the Pope was “not naïve about the challenges presented by Islam” but also gave “added heft to his favorable words on Turkey.” Sandrolini suggested the United States' focus on Turkey’s EU entry as an opportunity to improve the lives of Christians would also resonate with the Vatican.

A February 2010 cable examined Vatican-Irish relations concerning the commissions investigating sex abuse. While saying Vatican and Irish officials’ first concern was for the victims, this reality was sometimes “obscured” by subsequent events triggered by the Vatican’s belief that the Irish government failed to respect and protect the sovereignty of the Holy See during the investigations.

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The Vatican’s “relatively swift response” indicated that it learned from the U.S. sex abuse scandals, but the papal nuncio’s lack of action caused resentment among the Irish people.

The cables also offer insight into the U.S. government’s understanding of the relationship between the Vatican and the U.S. Catholic bishops.

A June 26, 2009 “scene setter” for President Obama’s July 10 visit to the Holy See noted the Vatican’s appreciation of many of the president’s positions, but also its “profound concerns” about his approach to abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

The document advised the president that the Vatican has made a “tactical decision” to allow the U.S. bishops to take the lead in voicing these concerns, and this difference in emphasis “should not be interpreted as a divergence of views.”

One pervasive theme of the State Department cables is the global importance of the Vatican.

The Vatican observer mission at the U.N. was “always active and influential behind the scenes,” a December 2009 memo reported. “As the spiritual leader of 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide and enjoying respect as well from non-Catholics, the Pope wields an unparalleled moral megaphone,” the June 2009 scene setter for President Obama said.

One lengthy July 2001 memo described the Vatican as “the supranational power” which has presence and reach in “virtually every country in the world.” However, the same cable was aware that American and Vatican interests do not always align, as in the case of the U.S. effort to isolate Saddam Hussein.

“We should recognize that the Vatican will not support our efforts in Iraq, and investigate ways to limit Vatican interference with our objectives,” it said.

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