Public prosecutor says she would not ask for Cardinal Philippe Barbarin’s conviction
By Elisabeth Auvillain
Paris — One of France’s most prominent bishops, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, is likely to be acquitted of charges of not denouncing a priest who sexually abused children between 1971 and 1991.
French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon arrives at the courthouse Jan. 7 in Lyon. Barbarin and others were on trial for failing to discipline a local priest who allegedly abused children while running a Scout group in the 1980s. (CNS/Reuters/Emmanuel Foudrot)
At the end of his four-day trial, Jan. 7-10, in Lyon, public prosecutor Charlotte Trabaut announced she would not ask for his conviction. Even though the president of the tribunal is not bound by the prosecutor’s stand, it seems likely that the cardinal will be acquitted.
French judicial authorities opened a case against Barbarin in 2016, in the name of the French state. The court closed it, invoking statute of limitation.
Then the group named La Parole Libérée (“the word made free”), brought the charges in a private prosecution, in their own name, as partiesciviles — private victims — after discovering, in 2015, that Fr. Bernard Preynat was still working with young boys. They thought this personal action could convince a court of the prejudice they suffered, knowing most facts fell under the statute of limitation.
Stern and slightly stooped, Barbarin, 68, said he was not guilty of anything: “I never tried to hide and certainly not cover anything.” He then kept quiet, letting his lawyers speak for him during the whole procedure and explain he only made mistakes in managing the case and would act differently today.
He did not ask for forgiveness from the victims of Preynat, whom Barbarin was responsible for, since the priest served in his diocese.
For La parole Libérée, the purpose of this legal action was to tell publicly what had happened. For two days, the court heard moving testimonies from nine of Preynat’s victims, who described, painfully and with graphic details, how they were sexually assaulted.
The long history of this case begins in 1971, when Preynat was appointed as a parish priest to Saint Luc, a new church in a rapidly growing neighborhood of Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon, where he became chaplain of a troop of scouts, boys and girls.
A charismatic man, Preynat was very popular with a lot of parents, who thought he did a great job organizing activities for the scouts and taking them to camp. His authoritarian ways were reassuring at a time when the church was in the wake of Second Vatican Council. Liturgy was changing, a lot of priests left to get married, and parishioners were disoriented.
Preynat often became a friend of the family. Some thought he was a little too close to little boys, but nobody imagined for a moment what was happening in his office, on the first floor of the rectory, when he would ask one of the boys to come and see him.
From 1979 to 1991, he regularly abused boys, even raped some of them. Sixty-five cases have been documented by La parole Libérée, and there are estimates of about 100 victims altogether.
As is often the case, the boys never talked about the abuse, either to their parents or their peers. But in early 1991, when the mother of 11-year-old François Devaux overheard her son talking with his brother, bragging about being a favorite of the priest and telling him, “He even kisses me on the mouth,” Devaux’s parents were shocked. They asked him questions and started talking to other parents. Some of them echoed their worries, others defended Preynat.
Devaux’s parents asked for the priest to be sent to another mission, away from children. When nothing happened, Devaux’s mother sent a letter by registered mail to the archbishop of Lyon, Cardinal Albert Decourtray, writing she was going to the press if Preynat was not removed.
A few weeks later, the priest was appointed as chaplain to the congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious community caring for old people.
Decourtray thought the matter was closed. Preynat told the cardinal he would never do anything wrong again. The cardinal urged the parents not to file a civil complaint, for the sake of the unity of the church.
Six months later, though, contrary to his promise to Devaux’s parents, Decourtray appointed Preynat to a country parish, away from the city of Lyon.
Decourtray died suddenly in 1995 and was replaced by Cardinal Jean Marie Balland, who died three years later. Cardinal Louis-Marie Billé served as archbishop from 1998 until he died in 2002.
When Barbarin became archbishop of Lyon in 2002, he met Preynat and asked him about his past. “He told me he was ashamed and had never done anything since 1991. I believed him. I trusted him,” the cardinal is quoted as saying to journalist Isabelle de Gaulmyn senior editor of the French Catholic daily La Croix, and the author of Histoire d’un silence, the most comprehensive and well documented investigation on the scandal.
Archbishop Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is pictured May 17, 2018. (CNS/Paul Haring)
Apparently, there was no trace of the scandal in the priest’s file, except for the letter sent by Devaux’s parents. “This is something which happened before my time,” Barbarin would repeat at his trial. “My predecessors dealt with it, I had no reason to reopen the case.”
In 2002, the Annual Assembly of French Bishops voted on an important declaration stating that “Priests guilty of pedophile acts … have to face justice,” adding that bishops should not stay passive and cover such acts.
Barbarin admitted he knew Preynat was suspected of inappropriate behavior with children. But nobody had sued us, he said, repeating this was for him “a thing of the past.” “It wasn’t until I met with AlexandreHezez in 2014 that I understood the problem,” Barbarin is quoted as saying by De Gaulmyn in the same interview. “Until then I heard only rumors.”
Hezez, one of the founders of La Parole Libérée, was among those who told the court how he was sexually abused between the age of 8 and 11 by Preynat. In 2014, when he recognized Preynat at a parish feast and heard that he was in contact with children, he asked Barbarin for an explanation.
Before taking action, Barbarin asked the Vatican for advice. Rome took several months to tell him to send Preynat, then 74, into early retirement, “avoiding any scandal.” Barbarin waited another 10 months to forbid Preynat to celebrate Mass and perform sacraments.
In the meantime, he met with Hezez and proimised him he would take action against Preynat. But it took so long for Preynat to be removed from ministry that Hezez decided to write to Lyon’s prosecutor’s office, telling him about Preynat’s actions. Legal action was then taken.
At the same time, Hezez got in touch with François Devaux and another former boy scout and victim of Preynat, Bertrand Virieux. Together the three founded La Parole Libérée to collect information and testimonies.
De Gaulmyn knew Preynat as a child and wanted to find out why nobody, the victims, their parents, or church authorities, denounced him, since they all told her they knew more or less what had been happening.
“At the time of Preynat, nobody questioned priest’s authority. This scandal will enable us to evolve and see priests as they are, normal men, and not put them on a pedestal as we have done for so long,” she said in an interview in La Croix, on the eve of the trial.
Video of Affaire Preynat-Barbarin, histoire d&#039;un silence
Isabelle de Gaulmyn, senior editor of the French Catholic daily “La Croix” and author of “Historie d’un Silence,” speaks about the Preynat-Barbarin case (in French).
For France, a mainly Catholic country, this trial is a turning point. Most Catholics, religious as well as lay people, are relieved to see such devious behaviors are not a secret anymore. The last day of the trial, Msgr. Emmanuel Gobilliard, auxiliary bishop of Lyon, thanked Devaux for the work his association had done: “Thank you for shaking the church. It needed it.” he told him, in front of the cameras, outside the court.
The top Vatican official in charge of sex abuse cases, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who is among the accused with four close aides to Barbarin, refused to appear in court, because the Vatican invoked his diplomatic immunity.
Barbarin’s personality has only added to the hostility. A conservative archbishop who never smiles, he is known to decide everything himself and give his own opinion, ignoring the church’s official position.
“A very brilliant mind, but always excessive. People loved him or hated him,” said Henri Tincq, a journalist and parishioner in the Val de Marne, a Paris suburb, where Barbarin was chaplain of the LycéeMarcelin Berthelot.
“He was more appreciated by the parents and youngsters who liked his authority and charisma,” said OdileLerolle, who took over part of Barbarin’s responsibilities as chaplain of the lycée after he had left for Lyon.
Barbarin’s verdict will be rendered on March 7. He risks a three-year jail sentence and a fine of 45,000 euros.
[Elisabeth Auvillain is a freelance journalist in Paris.]
By Andrea Gagliarducci
Vatican City, Jan 15, 2019 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- The finalization of a Curial reform process, a reshuffle in some Vatican positions, and an eventual consistory to “refill” the College of Cardinals might be among Pope Francis’ key moves in 2019.
As all eyes are set on the Vatican anti-abuse meeting, to be held Feb. 21-24, Pope Francis is in fact engaged in ongoing to reshape the Roman Curia and the College of Cardinals.
The first of the pope’s likely key moves has to do with the College of Cardinals.
After the death of Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, there is no cardinal camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church. The camerlengo is chosen by the pope only, and holds is a very delicate position, especially during a sedevacante in the papacy.
When the pope dies, or renounces his seat, “the Camerlengo of Holy Roman Church has the duty of safeguarding and administering the goods and temporal rights of the Holy See, with the help of the three cardinal assistants, having sought the views of the College of Cardinals, once only for less important matters, and on each occasion when more serious matters arise,” according to the apostolic constitution Pastor bonus.
In general, the camerlengo oversees an office of the papal household that administers the property and revenues of the Holy See.
If the pope doesl not appoint a camerlengo, the cardinals will elect one at the beginning of the sedevacante.
However, Pope Francis might refrain from appointing a new camerlengo before he promulgates a long-awaited apostolic constitution on Vatican governance, Predicate evangelium, which is expected to reshape the offices of the Roman Curia.
There are rumors, in fact, that Pope Francis is going to abolish the pontifical household, including its office within the first section of the Secretariat of State.
According to a CNA source familiar with the subject, the idea has been suggested, though the shutdown of the pontifical household does not appear to be imminent.
The abolition of the pontifical household will bring some issues to be solved, since all the competencies of the pontifical household might be divided into other offices: the Sistine Chapel choir would go under the administration of the office for liturgical celebrations, the management of state visits would be placed under the protocol of the Secretariat of State, and so on. It is yet to clarified.
However, the decision would mark a major break with the past. The pontifical household is the direct legacy of the pontifical court, and its presence recalls the religious meaning behind any papal activity.
The rumors about the pontifical household also involve Archbishop Georg Ganswein, the prefect. Ganswein was appointed to the position in 2012 by Benedict XVI. He is now in his second 5-year term at the helm of the prefecture, while maintaining his position as particular secretary to the Pope Emeritus Benedict.
However, discontinuing the prefecture would prompt Pope Francis to find Ganswein a new position. One of the more widespread rumors is that Ganswein will be appointed secretary of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, to replace Archbishop Marcello Bartolucci. Bartolucci will turn the retirement age, 75, in April.
Ganswein could also be eligible to take a position within the Congregation for Divine Worship. It is noteworthy that Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect, will end his five-year mandate in November, and it is possible the composition of the congregation’s top ranks will be reshuffled at that time.
Another key move in the Roman Curia might be the shutdown of the pontifical commission Ecclesia Dei. Established in 1988 by St. John Paul II in order to carry on a dialogue with traditionalist parties, the commission was reformed by Benedict XVI with a 2009 instruction Universae Ecclesiae, linking the commission to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Pope Francis may shut down the commission, making it an office within the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
If the shutdown takes place, the pope will have to find a new post for Archbishop Guido Pozzo, the commission’s president.
The shutdown of both the pontifical household and Ecclesia Dei would be part of the wider project for Curia reform.
At the moment, Praedicateevangelium, that is, the new constitution that will regulate tasks and competencies of Curia offices, is being finalized. Pope Francis will likely want to make an overall revision of the text.
However, most of the structural reforms are already in place: Pope Francis has established the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, merging there the Pontifical Councils for Laity and Family and a part of the competency of the Pontifical Academy for Life; he established the dicatery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, that absorbed the Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace, Migrants, Cor Unum, and for Health Care Workers.
Under Pope Francis, the Secretariat for the Economy and the Council for the Economy have been set up, while the reform of the communication department led to the establishment of the Secretariat for Communication, now a dicastery.
It seems that, at the moment, the other curial offices will not be touched. Cardinal Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, is 76 now, so he has surpassed the usual retirement age. Pope Francis, however, confirmed him at the helm of the dicastery until his 80th birthday. No changes are to be expected there, then.
The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue is without a leader since Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, the president, died in July 2018. It is still uncertain whether the pope will appoint a new president or will merge the pontifical council with another Curia office.
While undergoing these major structural changes, it likely Pope Francis will hold another consistory for the creation of new cardinals during this year.
Cardinals are eligible to vote in a conclave when they are under 80. At the moment, there are 124 cardinals who are eligible to vote in a conclave. Out of these, 59 have been created by Pope Francis in five consistories, an average of one consistory per year.
During this year, there will be 10 cardinals that will turn 80, and will not be eligible to vote in a papal conclave anymore. Out of these 10, three were made cardinals by Pope Francis.
The cardinals aging-out are: Alberto Suarez Inda, Orlando Beltran Quevedo, Edwin O’Brien, Stanislaw Dzwisiz, John Tong Hon, Sean Baptist Brady, Laurent MosengwoPasinya, ZenonGrocholewski, EdoardoMenichelli, and TelesphorePlacidusToppo.
By October there will be only 114 cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave, six less than the maximum permitted number of voting cardinals, which was set at 120 by St. Pope Paul VI – Pope Francis made an exception to this number at the last consistory.
All odds say that Pope Francis will hold another consistory, naming new cardinals during 2019. Who will receive new red hats is not foreseen.
It is noteworthy that Archbishop FilippoIannone, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and Archbishop RinoFisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, are the only heads of dicasteries without red birettas.
And it is noteworthy that Ireland’s only living representative in the College of Cardinals will age out of voting eligibility. So, the pope might consider another Irish cardinal.
However, it is also possible the pope will reward some of the periphery Churches, sticking to the point that all the Church must be represented in the College of Cardinals.
So by the end of 2019, the Roman Curia and College of Cardinals might be completely made in Pope Francis image. And it would be the first time since the beginning of his pontificate.
Photo: A demonstrator displays a banner during a rally against Chilean Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati over allegations he covered up sexual abuse of minors outside his residence in Santiago. The banner reads: “Cardinal Ezzati: Coward covering up! They will not steal our hope. Another church is possible” and “Survivors Network of Ecclesiastical Abuse.” (Credit: CNS photo/Ivan Alvarado, Reuters.)
ROSARIO, Argentina – Almost a year to the day since Pope Francis’s troubled January 2018 visit to Chile, a group of Chilean bishops is returning the favor, visiting Rome on Monday to try to “strengthen communion” with the pontiff after a series of clashes that included Francis accusing Chilean prelates of covering up clerical sexual abuse and of destroying evidence.
One of the bishops who worked to make Monday’s meeting happen told Crux the encounter was requested by the Chileans, to “bring him up to date on what we’ve done since his visit,” and to try to “rebuild the relationship between the Chilean bishops’ conference and the Holy See, making it more formal and structured.”
Requesting to remain unnamed, he said Saturday that the objective is to once again have “formal ties” between the government of the global Church and that of Chile, because the structural bond “is broken.”
“Each bishop, when they go to Rome, meets with the pope, some of them with the various Vatican dicasteries, but there’s no formal conversation, the ordinary relationship with the Apostolic See is broken” the bishop said. “This needs to be addressed to strengthen communion.”
Things between Chile and the papacy have been tense since Francis summoned every Chilean bishop to Rome last May to address an ongoing institutional crisis due to various cases of clerical sexual abuse, some which go back many decades but which continued to be mishandled.
At the end of that meeting, every bishop presented their resignation to Francis in a two-page document defined to Crux as “pastoral in tone” and with no real canonical value. Experts say this means that despite a codicil of canon law stipulating the pope has three months to accept a bishop’s resignation before it becomes void, in the case of Chile the resignations were set up in a way that allows the pope to take as long as he needs.
As a result, several bishops who took a deep breath after the three-month deadline expired are not yet out of the woods. Among them is Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, Archbishop of Santiago, who at 77 has presented his resignation to Francis twice, once in May and again when he turned 75.
Ezzati is one of eight Chilean bishops who’ve been subpoenaed by the civil prosecutor’s office on charges of cover-up. He’s also one of five who will meet Francis on Monday. The list, all members of the permanent commission of the Chilean conference, also includes Bishop Santiago Silva president of the commission; vice president Archbishop Rene Rebolledo Salinas; Bishop Fernando Ramos Perez; and Bishop Juan Ignacio Gonzalez.
Silva too has been subpoenaed, and for this reason he decided to skip a Feb. 21-24 meeting of every president of a bishops’ conference called by Francis. Instead, Ramos will attend.
Since his trip to Chile on Jan. 15-18 last year, Francis went from publicly defending disgraced Bishop Juan Barros, the first of seven bishops whose resignations he accepted since May, to acknowledging that he made “serious errors of assessment and perception” in the case of Barros, who has long been accused of covering up for his mentor, former priest Fernando Karadima.
“I recognize … that I have made serious errors of judgement and perception of the situation, especially due to a lack of truthful and balanced information,” Francis wrote in a letter to the Chilean bishops released April 18.
In it, he also announced that he would be meeting a group of Chilean survivors of clerical sexual abuse. The letter was the result of an investigation conducted in the pope’s name by Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spaniard Father JordiBertomeu, an official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which among other things deals with cases of abuse by priests.
After meeting with the pope in late April and early May, three survivors told reporters that he had “formally asked us for forgiveness, in his own name and on behalf of the universal Church.”
One of the survivors said he believed the pope hadn’t lied but had been badly informed. The survivor said Francis had told him, “I was part of the problem, I caused this, and I apologize to you.”
Francis then got tough with Chile’s bishops. In a document leaked to the media, the pope told the bishops that removing people, though necessary, is not enough.
The problems facing the Chilean Church today are not solved by “addressing the concrete cases and reducing them to the removal of people; this – and I say this clearly – must be done, but it’s not enough, we must go further.”
According to Francis, it would be “a serious omission” not to look into the roots and structures that allowed for the abuse – not only sexual abuses, but also abuses of power and conscience – to happen and to continue over time.
Sources with knowledge of the situation told Crux last November that during their general assembly some of the prelates expressed anger with the way Francis has treated them, wanting to go to Rome to address it.
However, the Chilean bishop who spoke on background this Saturday said the reason for the visit is not to voice resentment but to try to re-build the bond, although, he said, this isn’t to say that some of the prelates aren’t hurt.
“If some of us weren’t upset, we’d all be Martians,” he said.
Photo: Pope Francis baptizes an infant in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. (Credit: CNS.)
ROME – Pope Francis celebrated Mass in the Sistine Chapel Sunday, marking the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, as he does every year, by baptizing the babies of Vatican personnel and telling their parents that to pass on the faith, they must start at home both by giving a good example and teaching their children the basics.
In his homily for the Jan. 13 Mass, during which he baptized 27 babies, including 12 girls and 15 boys, Francis noted how at the beginning liturgy the parents were asked what they wanted for their children, to which they collectively responded saying they were asking for “the faith.”
“You ask for faith from the Church for your children and today. They will receive from the Holy Spirit the gift of faith in their hearts, in their souls,” he said, adding that “this faith must grow.”
Though children learn the faith by studying it in catechism courses as they get older, the pope said that before that, “faith is transmitted. And this is a task that affects you,” he said, speaking to the parents and godparents of the children.
Transmitting the faith, he said, “is done at home, because faith is always transmitted in dialogue, dialogue within the family, at home, in the climate of the home. This is your task: to transmit the faith with your example, with your words, teaching them how to make the Sign of the Cross.”
Francis noted how he has often seen children who have never been taught how to make the Sign of the Cross, so “they do something and you don’t know what it is.”
He told parents to teach their children these basic elements of the faith, to be good examples, and to provide an environment of love and peace in the home, “so they see Jesus is there.”
Francis also offered the parents a piece of advice, cautioning them to never fight in front of their children.
“It’s normal that spouses fight, it’s normal. It would be strange if not,” he said, “but do it so they don’t see it. You don’t know the anguish a child has when they see their parents fight.”
“Your task is to transmit the faith to them, transmit it at home, because it’s learned there. Then they will study it, but faith at home,” he said, adding that providing a peaceful environment where children can grow without the stress of hearing their parents fighting is part of providing a good example and allowing the faith to grow.
As he does every year, the pope closed his homily telling mothers not to be afraid to breastfeed their babies if they are crying, which he said would have “a polyphonic effect,” leading other infants to join in.
Francis’s Mass for the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of this busy holiday marathon of Masses, speeches and liturgies, officially closing the Christmas season.
As a liturgical footnote, given the design of the Sistine Chapel, the baptism Mass is generally the lone occasion each year when the pope celebrates ad orientem, “towards the east,” meaning with the priest facing the altar rather than the congregation. It’s the style associated with the older Latin Mass prior to the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s.
In his Angelus address after Mass, Francis reflected on the biblical scene of Jesus’ baptism, saying the passage points to the key dynamics of Jesus’ relationship with the people, and his relationship with God the Father.
The people, he said, are not only “a background of the scene,” but they are “an essential component of the event.” Before Jesus is immersed in the water of the Jordan River, he is immersed in the crowd of people waiting to be baptized by John the Baptist, meaning he has united himself to them, “fully assuming the human condition, sharing in everything but sin,” he said.
By joining the people who ask John the Baptist to baptize them, Jesus also shared their desire for internal renewal, and himself became a “new creation,” he said. Noting how in the Bible a dove descends over Jesus while a voice from heaven says, “this is my son, with whom I am well pleased,” Francis said these words are also directed to each Christian today.
In terms of his relationship with God the Father, after immersing himself with the people, Jesus then immerses himself in prayer and begins his public ministry, the pope said, noting how Jesus constantly refers to himself as being “sent by the Father to show his goodness and his love for all men.”
For Christians to be faithful, they must unite themselves to Jesus just as he united himself to the Father, Francis said, adding that this unity is built through prayer and action, giving a “clear Christian witness not built on our own human projects, but according to the plan and style of God.”
He closed his address urging Christians to commit themselves to remember their baptismal promises, and to remind themselves that Jesus saved mankind “not by our own merits, but to implement the immense goodness of the Father, which makes us merciful to all.”
Pope Francis arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. (Credit: Stefano Rellandini/Reuters via CNS.)
ROME – Baptism requires rejecting Satan and professing one’s full faith in God, Pope Francis said.
Only by being able to say “no” to the devil, his works and empty promises “am I able to say ‘yes’ to God, who calls me to conform myself to him in thoughts and deeds,” he said.
“It is not possible to follow Christ (while) imposing preconditions,” he said May 2 during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square.
Continuing his series of talks on the sacrament of baptism, the pope looked at the importance of the heart being ready to receive the gift of new life from God through the baptismal water and the Holy Spirit. When a child is presented for baptism, its parents and godparents renew the vows of their own baptism in rejecting sin and professing faith in Jesus.
“Either you are with God or with the devil,” the pope said, which is why the renunciation of sin and the profession of faith are “two acts tightly connected to each other.”
One must break with the past and its sinful attachments, “leaving them behind in order to embark on the new way, which is Christ” and to be able to “truly embrace others,” he said.
“The devil divides and God always unites the community, the people” in one body, he said.
During the baptismal rite, he said, the individual is asked to respond in the first person, to reject evil and profess his or her faith as a sign of choosing to be personally responsible in this daily commitment of trusting in God and walking with him.
The profession of faith reflects a commitment – aided by baptism – to be strong and persevere throughout all of life’s trials and temptations, he added.
“Rejecting sin, the temptations of evil, Satan – the source and cause of every sin – and faith in what the Church believes” are not temporary or provisional commitments asked only at baptism, Francis said.
They are required throughout life, he said, and “the presence of the Holy Spirit will give you the strength to fight well” against evil and temptation.
Whenever people bless themselves with holy water, he said, they should recall with joy and gratitude the gift they received on the day of their baptism and they ask for the grace to persevere and live “immersed” in God’s love
Photo: Pope Francis arrives for a visit to the United Nations World Food Program headquarters in Rome, Monday, June 13, 2016. (Credit: Tony Gentile/ Pool Photo vi AP.)
ROME – When Pope Francis delivered an impassioned plea for multilateralism in his annual speech to diplomats on Jan. 7, it was also a clear, if indirect, appeal for respect and participation in the United Nations, which is the planet’s leading forum for multilateral diplomacy.
The speech marked the latest chapter of the odd-couple relationship between the Vatican and the UN, alternating between strong basic support and occasionally titanic battles.
Francis himself captures that dynamic in miniature. The Argentine pontiff has often criticized what he calls an “ideological colonization” on the part of some UN bodies pushing the use of contraception or gender ideology. Yet his frequent engagement with the UN on key issues such as migration and climate change is also an example of Francis’s keen interest in building bridges, seeing the UN as both a partner and a platform for that effort.
On Jan. 7, Francis said “an indispensable condition for the success of multilateral diplomacy is the good will and good faith of the parties, their readiness to deal with one another fairly and honestly, and their openness to accepting the inevitable compromises arising from disputes.”
“Whenever even one of these elements is missing, the result is a search for unilateral solutions and, in the end, the domination of the powerful over the weak,” he said, and lamented that the international community and multilateralism as a whole “are experiencing a period of difficulty, with the resurgence of nationalistic tendencies at odds with the vocation of the international organizations to be a setting for dialogue and encounter for all countries.”
Francis also noted how 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the League of Nations, a precursor to the UN established after the carnage of the First World War, saying it stirred a different approach to international affairs.
The Vatican’s interest in the UN goes all the way back to the beginning, since the Holy See had representatives on the ground when the charter for the new planetary body was signed in San Francisco on Oct. 24, 1945.
Nations who ratified the charter included China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States, among others. At the time, then-Bishop Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, now Saint Pope John XXIII, was serving as the papal envoy to France. Having been appointed to the post in December 1944, he would have likely had a role in discussions during the charter’s drafting process.
Currently one of two permanent non-member observer states to the UN, the other being Palestine, the Holy See since the beginning has consistently sought involvement in UN affairs in the push for reconciliation after the Second World War, and in the current global climate characterized by conflicts Francis has often referred to as a third world war being fought “piecemeal.”
Among the biggest areas of divergence between the UN and the Holy See are matters related to international family rights, such as access to birth control as a matter of women’s health and the push for contraception as a means of population control.
In his 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato Si, Francis criticized nations who “instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate.”
He denounced the fact that population control is often proposed as a solution to problems stemming from poverty and maintaining a sustainable consumption of the earth’s resources, and condemned the fact that developing nations often receive pressure from international organizations who make economic assistance “contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health.’”
These issues were points of debate long before Francis, forming the most heated debate topics during a 1994 UN conference on world population in Cairo, for instance, and a 1995 UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, both of which saw a strong push from Western nations for abortion and forms of artificial birth control.
In Cairo, then-Bishop Renato Martino, who at the time was the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations and was head of the Vatican delegation to the population conference, said in an interview with Vatican Radio that certain parts of the final declaration posed a “serious threat to the future of mankind,” as the wording all but endorsed abortion as a means of population control. He accused the UN of bowing to wealthy Western nations and called the draft of the document “neo- colonialist.”
Similarly, in Beijing the Vatican and several other nations took issue with wording in the final document surrounding sexual and reproductive rights, and in their final presentation reiterated their position against abortion and artificial contraception.
In both conferences the Vatican found natural allies in the Islamic world, with many Muslim nations boycotting the Cairo conference and backing the Vatican in their push for axing controversial wording on abortion and birth control from the agenda at both.
Even now the Vatican continues to take issue with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), whose mission is self-defined as being “to deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.”
Among other things, the UNFPA supports “reliable access to modern contraceptives sufficient to benefit 20 million women a year,” above all in developing nations, which the Vatican and Francis have consistently condemned.
However, regardless of the disagreements, the Vatican’s relationship with the UN has been overwhelmingly collaborative, and they have sought to engage with nations on key areas of human interest.
In the current papacy, these areas have largely revolved around climate change and migration, with the Holy See giving firm and vocal support to several initiatives in line with the UN’s own agenda.
On the climate issue in particular the Vatican has played a larger-than-usual role. Retired Pope Benedict XVI was a major advocate for environmental protection, and despite the condemnation of population control in Francis’s Laudato Si, the document was largely published to influence global discussion on the issue, as it was published just before the Paris COP21 climate summit.
Francis has also been outspoken on the issue of migration, speaking out on the issue in major speeches at both the EU headquarters in Strasbourg and the UN headquarters in New York. For the past 18 months the Holy See has also been a vocal advocate of the global UN compact on migration, which was adopted in Marrakech, Morocco in December.
In the lead-up to the summit, the Vatican drafted 20 pastoral action points for safe, orderly and dignified migration, and urged nations to sign the non-binding compact.
In a sense, the Vatican’s fundamentally pro-UN stance probably shouldn’t be any surprise.
The Catholic Church was global long before anyone thought to coin the term “globalization,” and has always seen national differences relative and subordinate to the common good and a shared humanity.
Given the global platform offered by the UN, it’s understandable why popes have consistently engaged with it as a tool to get their message across to a worldwide audience and to put their agenda on the international radar.
And if Francis’s tenure is any indication, the match, however troubled at times, isn’t likely to end anytime soon.