Vatican brings ambivalence to Libya summit

A Vatican diplomat will take part in a high-level diplomatic summit on Libya scheduled for tomorrow in London, a news release today announced, marking a further indication that the Vatican is paying careful attention to events there -- though still without taking a concrete position on the legitimacy of the military operations now underway.

So far, signals from the Vatican on Libya have seemed decidedly mixed.

While Pope Benedict XVI has supported dialogue and on Sunday called for an immediate “suspension” of the use of arms, the Vatican has also pointedly called on Gadaffi to “put an end to violence against civilians,” the Vatican newspaper has blasted his regime as “merciless,” and the Italian bishops’ conference has offered fairly full-throated support for the current Western campaign to hem in Gadaffi’s forces.

In effect, Libya presents another test case for the Vatican in balancing two streams of thought in Catholicism on the use of armed force.

On the one hand, Pope John Paul II himself actually helped to coin the phrase “humanitarian intervention” in the early 1990s, supporting international efforts to defend civilian populations in Bosnia. In a recent editorial, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference defended the joint U.S., British and French airstrikes in Libya as just such a case, saying they were justified by “the noble motives of humanitarian intervention.”

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, president of the Italian conference, put the case in simple terms: “If someone attacks my mother who is in a wheelchair, I have a duty to intervene,” he said.

Yet on the other hand, one of the time-honored principles of Vatican diplomacy, famously expressed by Pope Paul VI, is that “war is always a defeat for humanity.” Vatican diplomats these days tend to be particularly anxious about any Western use of force directed at a primarily Muslim nation, worrying that it might fan a “clash of civilizations” which, among other things, could make life worse for the already embattled Christian community across the Middle East.

The church’s apostolic vicar in Tripoli, Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, has explicitly voiced his opposition to the military action.

“War does not solve anything,” he told the Fides missionary news agency March 21, adding that it “is reawakening sad memories about the Libyans’ recent history.”

“I keep repeating that we need to cease shooting immediately and begin mediation straight away to resolve the crisis peacefully,” Martinelli said, who reportedly knows Gadaffi well. He added: “Why have diplomatic means not been considered?”

Thus when Archbishop Antonio Mennini, the pope’s nuncio, or ambassador, in the United Kingdom, takes part in tomorrow’s Libya summit as an observer, he’s likely to offer a mixed message: Support for dialogue and peace, but no clear “red light” on the use of force.

The announcement that Mennini will participate in the summit came in a one-line declaration this morning from Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson.

Over the weekend, Benedict XVI addressed the Libyan crisis anew during his “Angelus” remarks.

“In front of the ever more dramatic news coming from Libya, my trepidation is growing for the safety and security of the civilian population as well as my apprehension for the development of the situation, currently marked by the use of arms,” the pope said.

“In moments of great tension, the exigency of using every means of diplomatic action is all the more great, trying to support even the weakest signal of openness and desire for reconciliation among all the parties involved, in search of peaceful and enduring solutions,” he said.

“While I raise my prayer to the Lord for a return to concord in Libya and in the entire North African region, 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.”

“My thoughts also go to the authorities and the citizens of the Middle East, where recent days have seen diverse episodes of violence, in the hope that the path of dialogue and reconciliation will be privileged, in the search for a just and fraternal co-existence.”

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