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New American ambassador says U.S. has Vatican support


As the United States enters a second week of bombing in Afghanistan,the American ambassador to the Holy See has expressed gratitude for Vatican support of the campaign against terrorism.

In an exclusive Oct. 15 interview with NCR, Ambassador James Nicholson said that in discussions with Vatican officials, including Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano and top Vatican diplomat Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, “There is concurrence that something needs to be done.

“I’m grateful for the support their position represents,” Nicholson said.

The Vatican attitude on military strikes designed to root out terrorists has been a subject of debate since John Paul II’s mid-September trip to Kazakhstan and Armenia. The pope issued a strong plea for peace, but spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls later said the Vatican would “understand” the use of force to protect society from further threats.

In subsequent days, church leaders have struck different notes, with some critical of the current bombing in Afghanistan and others supportive of the U.S. and British campaign as a form of self-defense.

Nicholson, however, said he is not confused as to the Vatican position, referring to an Oct. 12 interview given by Tauran to the French newspaper La Croix. In that interview, Tauran was overtly supportive of the U.S. action.

“We must recognize that Operation Enduring Freedom is a response to the terrorist acts of aggression against innocent civilians on Sept. 11 -- acts that violated all international law and humanitarian norms,” Tauran said.

“Today we all recognize that the American government, like any other government, has the right to legitimate defense, because it has a duty to guarantee the security of its citizens.”

Nicholson said he believes Tauran’s remarks should be taken as the definitive Vatican stance.

“The Vatican has to speak for itself, but I think it’s done that,” he said. “The interview that Archbishop Tauran gave to La Croix really kind of settled the issue, I think, as far as the Holy See is concerned. … There have been several emanations in L’Osservatore Romano, references made to the need for peace, and I think that’s a very consistent position of the Holy Father and the Holy See. But I think what you’ve seen culminate in Archbishop Tauran’s interview, which was an overt act on his part, set the matter straight.”

Nicholson said the Vatican is following the world situation closely.

“Since Sept. 11, the bulk of my time has been taken up in meetings and conversations with people at the Holy See, including the pope, on the subject of terrorism and our response to terrorism. I think that’s gone pretty well. The pope, in my meeting with him on Sept. 13, said this is an attack on humanity, not just the United States,” Nicholson said.

According to Nicholson, the Vatican has expressed concern about the moral dimensions of the conflict.

“The one word descriptor [of the Vatican concern] is ‘justice,’ ” he said. “Starting with the pope and on down through the chain of command, through the hierarchy, they have emphasized justice. The pope to me said he hoped the American people have the resolve to withstand this and maintain their system of justice.”

Nicholson said the Vatican likes the way Bush has steered the American response.

“They’ve expressed their great admiration and appreciation for the patience the president has exhibited, trying to react to specific intelligence rather than doing something that would make a lot of people feel better viscerally but would be, could be, construed as being wanton. He didn’t do that, and they’re very respectful of it,” he said.

In previous conflicts such as the Gulf War and the NATO campaign in Serbia, the Vatican has stressed the need for military action to have the support of the international organs such as the United Nations. Nicholson said that so far Vatican officials appear satisfied on this score.

“I’ve had meetings with their nuncio to the United States and to the U.N. on the subject,” he said. “The responses of the U.N. and of NATO have been duly noted by the Vatican. I think they do pay a lot of credence to these international organizations.”

Nicholson said no one from the Vatican has pressed the United States to seek more thorough international engagement.

Some Italian newspapers have suggested the Vatican is applying pressure on Bush to resolve the situation in the Middle East as part of a long-term effort to address the terrorist threat. La Repubblica reported Oct. 17 that the pope and the Secretariat of State have asked for a Palestinian state that would include the Arab quarters of Jerusalem.

Nicholson said, however, he has heard nothing new on the subject.

“Some of those macro issues are of course being looked at in the totality of this problem, and need to be,” he said. “The president has so stated. But I’m not experiencing any new ground here in conversations with my bilateral partners.”

Nicholson, a former Army Ranger who served in Vietnam, was chairman of the Republican National Committee before Bush tapped him as the ambassador to the Holy See. He presented his credentials to the pope on Sept. 13, two days after the attacks.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001