|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
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
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,”
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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