Reese
Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, an international visiting fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University

There were no shocking revelations in the latest batch of WikiLeaks cables for most people who follow news pertaining to the Vatican. 

U.S. diplomats expected the Vatican to raise objections over the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in 2005, the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See told the State Department not to expect any liberalization of “Catholic policy” on abortion, contraception, priestly celibacy and women priests. 

“For a journalist it’s boring, but I think the real story here is nobody was bad behind closed doors,” said Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, an international visiting fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. 

He told Our Sunday Visitor the leaked cables — posted Aug. 30 on WikiLeaks — revealed no indications that American diplomats were trying to interfere with the internal affairs of the Catholic Church, and that the Holy See was not interested in influencing American politics. 

“There is no evidence the United States government is trying to influence the appointment of bishops, which would be terrible,” Father Reese said. “There’s no indication of any church-state issues or violations of the First Amendment or anything like that. It’s a very professional type of operation.” 

Interesting tidbits

That is not to say that there were no interesting observations or discussions mentioned in the more than 300 recently leaked cables from the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. 

Two weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. diplomats warned the State Department that any military retaliation that included Iraq would “lessen the Vatican’s positive neutrality,” noting that the Holy See was “convinced that any regime which replaces the current one will not be as supportive of the large Iraqi Catholic population.” 

American diplomats advised that a phone call from then-Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Vatican’s foreign ministry before any military action would “help in firming up Vatican support” and prevent “harmful statements” on the part of the Holy See. 

A February 2003 cable discussed a meeting between Vatican diplomats and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.  

The U.S. Embassy said the papal mission was meant to establish a “sense of trust” with the late dictator, and to relay the necessity for him to comply with United Nations mandates that he forgo his weapons program. 

“[Vatican diplomats] believe that full disarmament can be accomplished with continued but firm subtle diplomacy that would offer Saddam both a face-saving escape from his predicament and personal survival,” wrote Francis Rooney, then the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. 

According to the Rooney’s account, Saddam’s reaction was “both defiant and fatalistic,” offering the “standard line” that Iraq was complying, that the United States was pursuing “a war of aggression” and that Iraqis “would fight to the end.” 

Meanwhile, other cables said the Vatican was taking a cautious approach toward establishing relations with China, which are currently strained in the wake of that government’s unilateral ordinations of bishops without Vatican approval. A November 2007 dispatch indicated the Holy See did not expect the state-approved Catholic Church in China to unify anytime soon with the “Underground Church.” 

A February 2009 cable says Vatican officials struggled with arranging Democratic U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, then-Speaker of the House, an audience with Pope Benedict XVI because of her pro-choice views. The pope chose to grant the unusual meeting — usually reserved for heads of state — to lecture Pelosi on bioethics. 

“As the speaker’s visit demonstrates, administration or pro-choice Congressional visitors to Rome — especially Catholics — should therefore anticipate stern messages from the Vatican behind closed doors on this topic,” according to the cable. 

Also behind closed doors, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams challenged the Catholic Church’s position on the ordination of women, and made it clear to Pope Benedict XVI that the Vatican should have consulted him before reaching out to disaffected Anglicans with a new apostolic constitution welcoming them to the Catholic fold, according to a November 2009 cable. 

Relaying the meeting to U.S. diplomats, Francis Campbell, then British ambassador to the Holy See, said Anglican-Vatican relations were facing their worst crisis in 150 years as a result of the decision. 

Blunt words

American diplomats could also be blunt when describing the Holy See’s approach to international diplomacy and public relations. 

“A formidable partner in need of P.R. lessons” was the subject of a January 2009 cable analyzing the fallout from the pope’s outreach to the schismatic Society of St. Pius X, which included a Holocaust-denying bishop. 

“Instead of scoring a religious hat-trick — reuniting the Church, demonstrating the Church’s commitment to second chances for those who have erred, and reaffirming the horrors of the Holocaust — the Holy See is playing catch-up,” wrote the American diplomats. 

“It’s not that the content of the cable is anything surprising, it’s the bluntness with which they talk to each other,” Father Reese said. “In a way, I’m kind of happy to know they communicate clearly and bluntly to each other behind closed doors.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts