Hoping Against All Hope

From the diplomacy of contacts to the diplomac of prayer, the Holy See’s efforts to avoid a conflict. Archbishop Martino, the newly named President of Justice and Peace and for sixteen years the Papal Ambassador to the UN, talks about this


Many people seek him out these days. The growing risk of a conflict has put him, unwillingly, in the forefront, because he was Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations for sixteen years and now is President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In short, he has all the right credentials to be a protagonist of the efforts being made by the Holy See to avoid the war in Iraq. Archbishop Renato Raffaele Martino is not used to mincing words, and in a moment of great crisis like this, in which everything seems shaky and the debate is bogged down in countless slight distinctions, he reiterates clearly what the Pope has been repeating to everyone, Catholics and non-Catholics, government officials and ordinary people.

The Holy Father’s letter to President Bush, Cardinal Etchegaray’s trip to Baghdad, meetings with Aziz, Annan, Fischer, Blair, Aznar: the Holy See is taking every possible path of diplomacy to ward off this war. What might be the next steps?
First and foremost, we shall continue to reiterate the importance of an institution like the United Nations. Let’s imagine a world without the UN. Everything that has been put together in the fifty years since World War II, all the progress made on nuclear disarmament, would fall apart. Let’s remember that nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction that, as Msgr Tauran has said, Saddam Hussein probably does not possess–but others do. Thanks also to the UN, progress has been made in the suspension of nuclear tests and disarmament, and this is important. If the United Nations should fail, these results could disintegrate in a minute.

However, a violent clash is going on concerning this subject. Why does the UN seem unable to take a leading role in the sphere of international politics?
On the role of the UN, I recall what Paul VI said in 1965: “It represents the only way for modern civilization and world peace.” The world today needs the UN, which is not an institution all to itself outside the community of nations–it is the community of nations. I compare the UN to a mirror: if the world is “ugly,” we’ll see an ugly and disfigured image in the mirror, because it reflects the reality of the world as it is. The UN must perforce be based on mutual trust–pacta sunt servanda–and for this reason we cannot imagine there being a police force to compel you to observe all its resolutions.

Is this what the UN is lacking above all: a common will and mutual trust?
The family of nations–as the Pope wants–is like a civil society that has to be founded on the good will of all concerned. Otherwise, it is like saying that in Italy there are 58 million Italians and the same number of policemen are needed to keep them under control. Very often, the UN places a limit on the sovereignty of individual countries; individual liberty ends where the liberty of one’s neighbor begins, which means that both sides have to be temperate and mutually respectful. Just as it is in daily living in society, so it must be in international coexistence. I am deeply worried these days, because if we go to war without a UN resolution, the UN could collapse, fall apart, dissolve, and we would have to create a new international institution. Just imagine what a tragedy that would be. I hope and pray this does not happen.

But is there still room for action to ward off the conflict?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that in exceptional cases, the death penalty can be applied. The Pope in Evangelium vitae takes a step forward by saying that modern society by now has all the means for avoiding the death penalty and giving a criminal the opportunity to change his life and make it productive. I say that modern society has all the means for avoiding war: negotiations, dialogue, inspectors–all provisions that can avoid conflict.

The Pope has said that “only an intervention from on high can give hope for a less obscure future…” And yet, while many acclaim him to sustain their pacifism, few accept his invitation to conversion and prayer and his affirmation that only in God can the possibility for peace be founded.
With his appeals, the Pope moves from the traditional diplomacy of contacts with the people who are a part of the conflict or have an interest in a solution to the conflict to the diplomacy of prayer. We see very well that the Holy Father unites the two things. This aspect of the Pope’s diplomacy, i.e., prayer, penance, and fasting, can seem foreign and maybe incomprehensible to “pacifists,” but we know well that the whole matter of striving for peace is an integral part of our being Christians, Catholics. Who did we welcome in Bethlehem? The Prince of Peace. Let’s call peace by another name: love. And God is love. Thus peace is God Himself, and we Christians are called to follow love, to be love. The matter of peace lies right here.

Might someone say that peace is not a dogma of the Catholic Church?
It is much more. It is the very essence of our life as Catholics because peace is love, it is God Himself to whom all of us must look. And the Pope also gives us the instrument for doing this: he indicates recitation of the Rosary in the year dedicated to it; he urges us to turn to Mary. This is an aid the Pope gives us.

Like the day of fasting. Is this an aid too?
Certainly. And it is not a simple symbolic gesture. It is no coincidence that it comes at the beginning of Lent, which for all us Catholics is, above all, a journey to personal conversion. The Pope, by proposing to dedicate our fasting to peace, also helps us to immerse ourselves in the suffering that so many of our brothers are enduring, even if only psychologically. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the Iraqi people, who through the mass media and newspapers hear the threat of war increasing, a war which has them as the target, and they see they could end up under the bombs. Fasting also has another aspect: it helps make our being for peace not a generic sentiment, but a real sign of human sharing.

This generic sentiment in favor of peace has room not only for the counter positions of the Pope and Bush but also for statements like, “We want to uproot war from history.” Doesn’t it seem to you that the Pope’s commitment to peace is used too often for ulterior purposes?
The Pope is not a pacifist in the sense this word has today. And we have already given the reasons why he cannot be defined in this way. All you have to do is look at what he has been saying from the very beginning. In his speech to the diplomatic corps on January 13th, he said that military action could be the last resort only when all attempts to avoid conflict have been exhausted, and that the conflict must in any case be proportionate to the harm done, it must take into account the unarmed population, and it must be in response to a wrong and not the possibility of a wrong.

Especially on the international level, even those who do not agree with the Pope’s judgments cannot avoid coming to terms with what he says. How do you explain this fact?
Here I could give rein to all my memories of my long service in the Holy See. In 1972, I went to a UN conference in Bucharest, as an observer for the Holy See. I saw that, soon after the conference began, the number of delegates in the room was dwindling: each one said what he had to say and then left. When my turn came–at the end, because the observers speak after the members–the room filled up with all the delegates. I gave my talk and afterwards–it was the period of the two blocs, the Cold War, and all the rest–some delegates from behind the Iron Curtain came to me and said, “Thank you for what you said. Only the Holy See can speak on a higher plane. We are committed to defending our own interests, but these ethical principles that you recalled are indispensable.”

Is, then, the task of the Holy See also that of saying what others, for various reasons, are unable or unwilling to say?
The power and the weakness of the Holy See are concentrated in this fact, because the Pope reminds us Catholics and the whole world of moral principles. He has no other lever of power. The Pope cannot say, “Do this, or else…,” because the Pope does not have the famous troops Stalin asked about. As early as 1965, Paul VI, speaking at the UN, offered the services of Christians as “experts in humanity.”

Experts in humanity who have a well-defined identity… Doesn’t it seem to you that many would prefer to hear talk about principles without a clear reference to Christ?
But we cannot do otherwise. John Paul II, in 1995 at the end of his visit to the United Nations–I was there and remember this episode–got in the car and said, “I told them!” I did not understand to what he was referring and asked, “What, Holy Father?” He replied, “That the reason for what we do is Jesus Christ.” And in fact, in his wonderful speech, he had called attention to moral principles, and then at the end had said, “My hope and trust are founded on Jesus Christ.” This consoled me because it is what we are seeking to do with our presence in the UN and in all the circumstances where we are present: to bring the message of Jesus Christ to bear on all questions of international interest.