National Catholic Reporter ®

February 8, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 24

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Diplomacy: failing in the Middle East, needed
in Taiwan, and used by a Lefebvrite bishop in Thailand

Is Vatican diplomacy in the Middle East making any difference?

The answer from both sides: Not really.


Given the deep divisions in the Middle East, one can despair of getting Israelis and Palestinians to agree on anything. I recently found a consensus, however, on this question: Is Vatican diplomacy in the Middle East making any difference?

     The answer from both sides: Not really.

     The question arose at a Feb. 4 session entitled “Meeting the Other,” a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians sponsored by Rome’s Centro Dionysia. Writer David Grossman represented Israeli civil society, while Manuel Hassassian offered a Palestinian voice. Hassassian, a Palestinian member of the tiny Armenian Catholic church, was the man tapped by Yasser Arafat in 1999 to draft a fundamental agreement between the Holy See and the Palestinian National Authority.

     I asked both men about the Vatican’s Middle East policy.

     “The Vatican has sought international guarantees for its property in Jerusalem, especially the Christian holy places,” Hassassian said. “They have been active on this level.”

     In a supplemental accord to the Palestinian agreement, Hassassian said, the Holy See requested provisions governing what kind of curriculum would be used in schools should Jerusalem come under Palestinian sovereignty. In that sense, Hassassian said, the Vatican has done a good job of protecting Christian interests. The Vatican has also, he said, facilitated tri-partite interfaith discussions.

     Yet John Paul clearly aspires to more. Rarely does a week go by in which the pope does not appeal for peace, urging the international community to greater levels of commitment, hinting at the need for observers to monitor conflicts and calling for an international status for Jerusalem. I asked Hassassian if these statements have had any discernable impact. 

     His blunt response? “No.” 

     “This is a secular political challenge, to which the Vatican does not have much to contribute,” he said.

     Grossman added that from the Israeli side, there is also an element of mistrust.

     “The intervention of the Vatican is not highly regarded among Israeli politicians,” he said. “We are all affected by certain experiences. When the pope visited Syria, for example, he accepted silently President Bashar Al-Assad’s anti-Semitic remarks without protest.”

     Such lapses, Grossman said, “have not encouraged the Israelis to see the Vatican as a fair broker.” 

     This impression was supported by Israeli sociologist and pollster Ephraim Yuchtman-Yaar of Tel Aviv, who told me over coffee the next morning that the popular Israeli attitude towards the pope is captured by a Hebrew expression that translates roughly as “respect him, but suspect him.”

     Of course to be fair, one must add that the pope has said and done many positive things towards the Israelis and the Jewish people, as he has for the Palestinians. Yet if these comments from Israeli and Palestinian observers are any indication, the pope’s diplomats have lots of work yet to do.

     A footnote: I was with the pope in Syria May 5 when Al-Assad made the remarks to which Grossman referred. After complaining about Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians, Al-Assad said: “They try to kill all the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality of betraying Jesus Christ and torturing him, and in the same way that they tried to commit treachery against Prophet Muhammad.”

     Frankly, the nature of the situation did not lend itself to a response. John Paul had already spoken, and it would have been a violation of protocol to demand a right of reply. And, to be fair, papal spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls later told reporters that Al-Assad had been speaking only for himself, a subtle way of distancing John Paul from the screed.

     That said, Grossman’s reaction suggests, given the justified Israeli and Jewish sensitivity to anti-Semitic language, that subtlety is not enough.

* * *

     Last week the bishops of Taiwan finished their ad limina visit to Rome, meaning “to the thresholds” of the apostles Peter and Paul. Every five years, Catholic bishops are required to present themselves to the pope, and his collaborators in the Roman curia, to give an account of their dioceses.

     On Friday, Feb. 1, I had the chance to sit down with Bishop Joseph Wang Yu-Jung of Taichung, Taiwan, at the Domus Romana, a kind of hotel for visiting clergy, to get a sense of how this round of ad limina meetings had gone.

     The key agenda item for the Taiwanese bishops was to get a sense of where Vatican diplomacy on China is heading. The Holy See today is one of only 28 nations that still has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and the lone state in Europe that has not switched its embassy to mainland China.

     The Vatican’s interest is obvious. There are at least 4,000,000 Catholics in mainland China, and possibly many more, spread between the officially recognized Patriotic Catholic Association, which does not have official ties to the pope, and the illegal “underground” church. Taiwan, meanwhile, has 300,000 Catholics.

     Wang said both the pope and Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran told the Taiwanese bishops that there’s nothing new on the diplomatic front. 

     “The pope said, ‘We have done everything we can,’” Wang said. “Now we must wait for a sign of reconciliation from the Chinese side.”

     Wang said that he does not expect any new steps from China before the March congress of the Communist Party, at which time a new generation of leaders is expected to take the reigns. Afterwards, Wang said, they will need some time to consolidate their power. Hence he expects the status quo to endure for a while.

     Yet Wang spoke like a man resigned to an eventual change in Vatican policy.

     “We know that the pope wants to have diplomatic relations only for the pastoral good of the people in mainland China,” Wang said. “It would also be good for the unification of the Patriotic Church and the underground church, which can probably only be solved in this way. We know that the pope will not leave the Catholic people in Taiwan alone.”

     Wang said that he hopes the pope will be able to visit mainland China.

     “I said to him, maybe very soon you can say Mass at the Altar of Heaven in Beijing! He was very happy to hear that,” he said.

     Footnote: The new charges d’affaires at the Vatican embassy in Taipei (the Holy See does not have a full ambassador, so the charges d’affaires is the highest-ranking diplomat) is an American, Msgr. James Patrick Green of Philadelphia. In January, Archbishop John Foley, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and also a Philadelphian, visited Taiwan and met with President Chen Shui-bian. Foley, who enjoys wide fame as a punster, observed that Chen’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party uses green in its campaign materials. “Since you like green, Rome has sent you Msgr. Green,” he quipped. 

     Wang reported that the joke went over well. Beware: the Taiwanese are notoriously polite.

* * *

     Speaking of Asian bishops, it is well known that in recent years the Asians have challenged the Vatican on how to adapt to cultural situations in which Christians are a minority. The Asians emphasize dialogue and service, whereas the Vatican prefers a more aggressive missionary stance.

     Yet not every Asian bishop shares the “Asian” approach.

     A case in point is offered by Bishop John Bosco Chuabsamai Manat of Ratchaburi, Thailand, who recently declared himself a “convert” to the traditionalist, pro-Latin Mass cause of the Society of St. Pius X, founded by schismatic French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

     On Feb. 15, Manat spoke to priests of the Society of St. Pius X in Winona, Minnesota. He was the first licitly ordained Catholic bishop to speak at a Lefebvrite seminary.

     Manat said that for most of his career, he had been “flowing in the mainstream of Vatican II, smoothly and happily,” In May 1993, however, he visited an apparition of the Madonna in Manila, where Mary was allegedly weeping tears of blood. There he made the acquaintance of a traditionalist bishop, who encouraged him to meet with priests from the Society of St. Pius X. He began reading: Pope John’s Council by Michael Davies, The Rhine Flows into the Tiber by Ralph Wiltgen, and Against the Heresies by Lefebvre. The result was a “conversion” to Tradition.

     Manat said he does not intend to bring his diocese into the Lefebvrite movement in one fell swoop.

     “The bishop of the diocese is to be a center of unity among priests, religious, and the faithful. I have to be careful not to cause disunity. I have to play two roles: as a bishop and as a person rooted in traditional Catholic doctrines and practices,” he said.

     Instead, Manat said, he plans to continue inviting priests from the society into the diocese, to circulate traditionalist literature, and to foster devotional practices such as kneeling at a communion rail to receive the Eucharist, all of which he hopes will lead to a gradual reorientation.

* * *

     A final postscript to the Jan. 24 inter-religious summit in Assisi.

     Many progressive Catholics blame John Paul for “turning back the clock” on the Second Vatican Council, and there are areas of church life where it may be a fair critique. But as with any sweeping judgment, it has its limits.

     There are issues on which the pope is far out in front of his conservative back-benchers, and nothing symbolizes this better than Assisi.

     Italy’s leading daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, carried an essay Feb. 4 from Vittorio Messori, the journalist who collaborated with John Paul on the mega-best seller book Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Messori argued that despite the pope’s good intentions, a gathering of religious leaders in an atmosphere of fraternity and equality could not help but promote the idea that “one religion is as good as another.” Hence, Messori said, events such as Assisi have led some conservatives to conclude that John Paul has been “strong on morals, weak on faith.”

     This is, naturally, what Messori was willing to say in print. Privately, critics of Assisi can be far more fierce. I spoke last week to a mid-level official in the Roman curia who complained that the pope had “promoted pagan worship” in Assisi, and that on this score “he will brook no opposition.” 

     Again, the point here is not to settle debate as to whether Assisi was doctrinally sound. It is merely to note that the pope, in some ways and at some times, is bolder than many of us realize.

     Last week I offered two hopes for the next pan-religious summit: for more women, and that someone other than the pope will be the central figure. Recently I had the chance to hear Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and a key organizer of Assisi, offer his reflections. (Fitzgerald spoke at Rome’s Lay Center, a terrific program run by a lay woman theologian who teaches at the Gregorian University, an American named Donna Orsuto). Fitzgerald said he hopes that next time there will be more silence, with less speech and less cheering.

     Amen to that as well.

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

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