home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted April 5, 2011

On Libya

by John L Allen Jr
National Catholic Reporter

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: There’s a pariah state someplace known for brutalizing its people and destabilizing its region. As cracks start to appear, the West turns up the heat in favor of regime change. Fairly quickly, talk of negotiations, sanctions, and international pressure gives way to armed force.

Western leaders try to sell the conflict as a moral cause, so people naturally wonder what the Vatican makes of it. Signals at first seem ambivalent, but before long the Vatican becomes steadily more skeptical. While they never quite directly condemn the action, the take-away is that they’re not on board.

That, of course, was the trajectory in 1999, when NATO bombed Serbia; in 2001, when the war in Afghanistan began; and to some extent in 2003, when a U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq, although Vatican opposition in that case was more clear from the outset. The pattern may now be repeating itself with regard to Libya.

Once again, the Vatican seems to be attempting a balancing act: Not wanting to compromise its relationships with the major Western powers, but also not wanting to lend moral cover to an open-ended war.

Cynics might be tempted to ask, “So what?” For a variety of reasons, the Vatican’s moral authority these days, and thus its political punch, are not at an all-time high. Anyway, the White House -- under Republican and Democratic presidents alike -- and its allies already have proven that they don’t need the pope’s blessing to bomb whatever, and whomever, they like.

Yet, of course, it does matter. The Vatican remains the world’s most important “soft power,” the only religion with its own diplomatic corps. Its verdict carries weight, especially given that Obama and other Western leaders crave moral legitimacy. Further, the Vatican’s line is also important for the Islamic “street,” which sometimes struggles to distinguish Christianity from the foreign policy of Western governments.

With that in mind, here’s some background to make sense of the Vatican’s approach.

Benedict’s words

So far, Benedict XVI has addressed the situation in Libya twice. Both statements came in his Sunday “Angelus” address, which is the usual occasion for popes to offer their thoughts on current events.

On March 20, Benedict appealed to military and political leaders to consider the safety of civilians, and in particular to guarantee access to humanitarian relief. Notably, there was no call for a cease-fire, and nothing else that clearly opened itself to interpretation as criticism of the allied operation.

On March 27, Benedict became more pointed, in a fashion that many analysts took as a signal of increasing opposition.

“My trepidation is growing for the safety and security of the civilian population,” he said. “I address a heartfelt appeal to the international agencies and those who have political and military responsibility for an immediate start of dialogue that suspends the use of arms.”

The spin in much media coverage was that Benedict was breaking with Western policy: While Obama and NATO press the fight, the pope calls for peace. Yet on background, Vatican diplomats this week dropped hints that analysts had missed a subtle point about the pope’s language.

In Italian, they insist, Benedict did not call for dialogue “and” a suspension of combat, even though some reports in English created that impression. Instead, he referred to a dialogue “that” suspends the use of arms. The distinction is crucial, according to these Vatican diplomats.

Had Benedict said “and,” it would have suggested an unconditional cease-fire, followed by efforts at negotiations; by saying “that,” Benedict implied that agreement to talks comes first, which among other things means that the ball is not just in NATO’s court to stop shooting. All parties, including Gadhafi, must agree to a negotiated settlement.

In other words, “and” would be the pacifist conjunction, while “that” leans more toward the carrot-and-stick approach. Whatever one makes of the exegesis, the fact that senior Vatican personnel are pitching it, in itself, says something about their eagerness to seem balanced.

It’s reasonable to assume that Benedict XVI will continue to speak out on the situation in Libya, including special concern for persons displaced by the fighting, and the international community’s obligation to care for the refugees. If not before, Sunday’s Angelus address may offer another snapshot of evolving Vatican thinking.

The case for support

There are at least four compelling reasons why the Vatican might not want to be seen as directly opposing the Western campaign, at least for now.

First is a matter of method. As Benedict XVI has said on multiple occasions, the church is not a political party, and it recognizes the legitimate autonomy of the civil sphere. Thus while the Vatican can offer broad moral principles, at least theoretically it’s also supposed to accept that civil leaders, not the church, must decide how those principles are applied in concrete situations.

Second, perhaps John Paul II’s signal contribution to Catholic just war theory is the notion of “humanitarian intervention,” meaning that armed force can be justified if it takes place under an international warrant, if it’s limited in scope and protects non-combatants, and if it’s a last resort to prevent crimes against humanity. If that framework is to cut ice in international affairs, the Vatican cannot automatically express knee-jerk opposition whenever someone tries to apply it.

Third, the Vatican doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of history -- inadvertently propping up a dictator destined to fall. It also doesn’t want to somehow discourage or delay a democratic revolution in the Arab world, which could provide the region’s Christian minority some breathing room.

(As a footnote, many observers say any parallel between the uprising in Libya and the protest movements in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere is inexact. It’s more akin to a civil war between two historic regions, Cyrenacia and Tripolitania, divided by tribal loyalties.)

Fourth, the Vatican has strong political reasons for not wanting to break with the Western governments leading the charge. Sarkozy is the most pro-religion French leader of his generation, while Cameron in the U.K. wants a “big society” which makes space for religion in public life. While Obama may remain a more ambivalent figure in Vatican eyes, the Vatican still regards the United States as its most important diplomatic interlocutor, and doesn’t want lines of communication to shut down.

The case for opposition

On the other hand, there are equally compelling considerations which might entice the Vatican to put some distance between itself and the NATO effort.

First, there’s the question of what exactly an “international warrant” means. NATO forces say they’re acting in Libya under the terms of United Nations resolutions 1970 and 1973, adopted by the Security Council. Yet from the Vatican’s point of view, we’ve been down this road before -- the Bush administration claimed to be enforcing U.N. resolutions when it invaded Iraq.

In the past, the Vatican has expressed a preference for a “humanitarian intervention” not merely to invoke a U.N. vote, but to unfold in some sense under U.N. supervision, so that it comes off as a common undertaking of the international community and not just an expression of Western foreign policy.

Notably, L’Osservatore Romano gave front-page play yesterday to comments by Chinese Premier Hu Jintao that the NATO campaign in Libya could “violate the original intent” of the UN resolutions by putting civilians in greater danger.

Second, the Vatican doesn’t want to fan the flames of a “clash of civilizations,” appearing to support a protracted conflict that could come to be perceived as yet another Western assault on a Muslim nation.

Third, Vatican personnel and their advisors have the same doubts about the end-game in Libya that everyone else feels.

Recently Magdi Allam, a Muslim convert to Catholicism and a high-profile Italian politician and commentator who’s taken very seriously in the Holy See, summed up the worst case scenario:

“The only real certainty is that the Islamists will win and that consequently, the populations of the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean will be increasingly submitted to shariah … an outcome exactly the opposite of the official proclamations of Sarkozy and Obama and their excessive use of catchphrases such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy.’”

To be sure, it’s not as if Gadhafi has a profile as a great friend of Christianity. Things got off on a bad foot in 1969, when he seized power and swiftly expelled Italians from Libya, closed all the Catholic churches, and sold off their property. Over the years, he’s been more than willing to play the Islamist card when it serves his interests.

Yet in other ways Gadhafi has been a firebreak against fundamentalism, and he can be surprisingly open to the church. It’s well known that he wrote to John Paul II in 1986 to request Italian nuns to work in Libyan hospitals -- a tribute to the care Gadhafi’s own father received from two Italian Franciscan sisters. Gadhafi also appreciated the Vatican’s opposition to international sanctions in 1993, and its willingness to open diplomatic relations in 1997.

The Catholic community in Libya is tiny, composed almost entirely of foreign ex-pats. Even so, the Vatican has to consider what it’s hearing from those folks -- including a warning from the Apostolic Vicar of Tripoli, Bishop Giovanni Martinelli, that the NATO bombing is endangering civilians. For instance, he reported on Wednesday that two hospitals have been damaged and their patients sent into shock.

Fourth and finally, the Vatican is influenced by the simple fact of being in Italy. Libya, of course, was an Italian colony from 1912 to 1947, and conservative Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi prides himself on having cultivated a friendship with Gadhafi. Perhaps because of that history, Italy has taken a less bellicose line. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has called for a cease-fire, and even offered Italy’s services to negotiate an exile for Gadhafi.

Naturally, Italy also has a strong practical motive for seeking to contain the violence in Libya, since it’s by far the most sought-after port of call for Libyan refugees.

The position of the Italian government has traction inside the Vatican, especially with Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of State. Despite all the personal scandals swirling around Berlusconi, and despite various ways in which his government and the church have clashed (immigration policy comes to mind), he’s still fundamentally seen by Bertone and his aides as an ally.

The logic runs this way: The EU proved itself an unreliable partner for the Catholic church, and no one in the Vatican knows quite what to make of Obama. Berlusconi and the Vatican, on the other hand, need each other. Berlusconi picks up badly needed domestic support, and the Vatican gains a carrier for its international agenda.

Since Italian policy seems in flux, that’s perhaps another point nudging the Vatican in the same direction.

How these competing forces may play out is anyone’s guess, but observers in Rome say one thing is clear. At a time when Vatican diplomacy otherwise seems to be going through a period of retrenchment, officials in the Holy See are in a full, upright and locked position on the Libya crisis.