US cables expose clumsy Vatican diplomacy

  • St Peter's basilica in Rome: 'Most of the top ranks of the Vatican - all men, generally in their seventies - do not understand modern media' the US said (Photo: flip.and.serena)

Freshly-published cables from the US mission to the Vatican have shed light on the inner workings of Europe's most secretive diplomatic corps, including the Pope's opposition to Turkey's EU membership, hopes for Polish influence inside the EU and church ideas on how to undermine the Castro administration in Cuba.

The 15 cables published by WikiLeaks on Friday (10 December), covering the period from 2001 to 2010, highlight US belief in the Vatican's global clout.

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"The Vatican is second only to the United States in the number of countries with which it enjoys diplomatic relations (188 and 177 respectively), and there are Catholic priests, nuns and lay people in every country on the planet. 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," a 2009 US note ahead of President Barack Obama's meeting with the pontiff says. "Private comments from Vatican officials to European diplomats also carry some weight - particularly in the traditionally Catholic countries," a 2006 cable says.

The cables praise Pope Benedict XVI's broad support for the Middle East Peace Process and his handling of a tricky encounter with the Socialist Zapatero government in Spain in 2006. "The pope's tack in Spain [on same-sex marriages] was milder than some expected," a 2006 US cable says. "Benedict has used tact and persuasion rather than fire and brimstone in his battle against relativism and secularism."

The rest of the material indicates that the Vatican has fumbled almost every diplomatic crisis in recent years, however.

The cables note that in 2004 the church stood back while media depicted private remarks by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, that Turkey should not join the EU as being sofficial Vatican policy.

In 2009, the church angered the international Jewish community by failing to denounce the holocaust-denying views of a renegade bishop and proposing to canonize Nazi-collaborator Pope Pius XII. "The Pope welcomed him [Bishop Williamson] back into the Church, but they waited days to do so [speak out on the holocaust], and then did it weakly," a 2009 US cable says. "Church officials did not expect the criticism and were annoyed by it," the cable adds on Pius XII.

The same year, Pope Benedict XVI's announcement that disgruntled Anglican bishops should join the Roman Catholic church raised concerns in Washington. "There is still latent anti-Catholicism in some parts of England and it may not take much to set it off. The outcome could be discrimination or in isolated cases, even violence, against this [Catholic] minority," a US diplomat remarked.

The church in 2009 also caused a "public furore" in Ireland by complaining that a major sex-abuse inquiry violated "Vatican sovereignty." "The Nuncio in Ireland made things worse by simply ignoring the requests [to appear before national commissions]," the related cable says.

The US links the failures to Pope Benedict XVI's inner circle of septuagenerian advisors, who are out of touch with the modern world, do not speak English and act as "Yes-men" to the pontiff. "Most of the top ranks of the Vatican - all men, generally in their seventies - do not understand modern media and new information technologies. The blackberry-using Father Lombardi remains an anomaly in a culture in which many officials do not even have official email accounts," another 2009 cable says.

Turkey: in or out?

The cables indicate that the Vatican is ambiguous about the prospect of Turkish EU entry.

On one hand, Cardinal Ratzinger said in 2004 that "Turkey had always been 'in permanent contrast to Europe' and that linking it to Europe would be a mistake." "Ratzinger has been a leading voice behind the Holy See's unsuccessful drive to secure a reference to Europe's 'Christian roots' in the EU constitution, and he clearly understands that allowing a Muslim country into the EU would further weaken his case for Europe's Christian foundations," the 2004 cable adds.

On the other hand, senior Vatican officials believe: "Turkey could help to ease tensions between the Western and Muslim worlds, illustrating how a secular state with a Muslim population could co-operate with countries with a Judeo-Christian heritage." But a 2009 US cable says: "The Vatican might prefer to see Turkey develop a special relationship short of membership with the EU."

Meanwhile, the Vatican hopes that Poland will help it to steer EU policy-making on social issues.

"The Holy See's attention to Poland is not simply customer service or 'taking care of the troops.' As was clear under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican has high hopes that Poland will serve as a counter-weight to Western European secularism," a 2006 US note says. "Certainly the Holy See hopes that Poland will hold the line at the EU on 'life and family' issues that arise."

Handling the Castro brothers

Not all of Pope Benedict XVI's lieutenants are as ignorant of communications issues as the 2009 cable on his inner circle suggests, however.

In a 2010 cable, one Monsignor Nicolas Thevenin told Washington that the Vatican supports Spain's failed push to lift EU sanctions on Cuba. "He ... implied a preference for the soft approach of Spain over that of Poland or the Czech Republic as being more conducive to a positive response from the Cubans," the US note says. Monsignor Thevenin also advised the US to "lean on telecommunications companies to make sure that rates for Cubans to call the US would be very low. This, he thought, could have a positive impact in promoting political change."

The Vatican in a statement released at the weekend tried to undermine the value of the WikiLeaks material.

"These reports reflect the perceptions and opinions of the people who wrote them and cannot be considered as expressions of the Holy See itself, nor as exact quotations of the words of its officials," it said. "I am very proud to be described as a 'Yes-man'," one of the Pope's top advisors, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, told Italian media.

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