When is an invitation to the Vatican an endorsement? And when does a pontiff endorse domestic political positions? As the Vatican itself rushed to explain earlier today, the answer to both is rarely, if ever — but Pope Francis’ remarks at his meeting with an indigenous-peoples activist group certainly seemed to hint at opposition to the construction of a pipeline in the US, according to Reuters:
Pope Francis appeared on Wednesday to back Native Americans seeking to halt part of the Dakota Access Pipeline, saying indigenous cultures have a right to defend “their ancestral relationship to the earth”.
The Latin American pope, who has often strongly defended indigenous rights since his election in 2013, made his comments on protection of native lands to representative of tribes attending the Indigenous Peoples Forum in Rome.
While he did not name the pipeline, he used strong and clear language applicable to the conflict, saying development had to be reconciled with “the protection of the particular characteristics of indigenous peoples and their territories”. …
Speaking in Spanish, Francis said the need to protect native territories was “especially clear when planning economic activities which may interfere with indigenous cultures and their ancestral relationship to the earth”.
Coming just after the Standing Rock Sioux lost a bid to block construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, their supporters seized on Francis’ remarks to claim an endorsement. My friend John Thavis, who covered the Vatican for decades, notes that at the very least the remarks apply to the DAPL dispute:
— John Thavis (@JohnThavis) February 15, 2017
The Vatican wasted little time in denying that the Pope had taken a specific position on DAPL:
A Vatican spokesperson said after the session, however, that it’s wrong to infer a reference to any specific situation in the pope’s words.
“Pope Francis made no explicit reference to any concrete case,” Paloma Garcia Ovejero, the Vatican’s deputy spokesperson, told Crux.
“Evidently, he’s informed of the numerous problems that affect indigenous peoples, but there’s no element in his words that would give us a clue to know if he was talking about any specific cases,” Garcia Ovejero said.
Crux reporter Inés San Martín noted that there are several controversial projects around the world that could have been on Francis’ mind when he made those remarks. Ongoing difficulties in Brazil, Peru, and the pontiff’s native Argentina certainly fall within those parameters. She also notes that Francis has focused significant attention on the issues facing indigenous populations, no doubt due to his familiarity with the issues surrounding them in Argentina. Thavis has it right; the remarks may apply to DAPL in general, but they’re not an endorsement of the opposition to it, either. In fact, it’s not even clear that this specific issue had been raised at the event.
So why did the Vatican feel the need to emphasize that Francis had no position on DAPL? First, they care about precision, perhaps especially so in this pontificate. Second, they may want to head off a diplomatic problem with the Trump administration on an issue that they have not had sufficient time to master, perhaps wanting to wait on those where possible when the US confirms an ambassador to the Vatican. And third, it’s another chance to remind American media that not everything the Pope says has to do with our own domestic issues.
America Magazine’s Michael O’Loughlin warned that interpreting appearances at Vatican functions is a tricky business. In this case, as noted above, Francis has made indigenous-peoples issues a particular focus of his pontificate, so his event certainly indicates sympathy with their causes in general. But people make far too much of events, O’Loughlin says, because they see the Vatican far more monolithically than it is in reality. The visit from Bernie Sanders last year was a particularly good example:
Days before the Democratic presidential primary in Catholic-heavy New York last April, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders announced he would be taking a few days off the campaign trail in order to speak at the Vatican.
Fans of the self-described democratic socialist viewed the invitation as a nod from Pope Francis while foes decried Vatican interference in a particularly divisive U.S. presidential contest. …
An appearance at the Vatican is often used by supporters to signal—sometimes subtly but other times more ostentatiously—papal support for an individual or a cause, but the reality is far more complex.
“The Vatican is such a big institution, it’s like the White House,” Miguel Díaz, a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, told America. During his tenure, he co-sponsored conferences with Vatican offices. “People have to be very careful when claiming they spoke there, because the pope didn’t necessarily invite them. Usually invitations come from a particular institution or a particular office within the Vatican.”
That goes especially for some recent rumors about Stephen Bannon and Cardinal Raymond Burke, writes John Allen at Crux. Despite a ludicrously hyperbolic Washington Post report from a week ago that the two had formed a pact to leverage the Vatican in a right-wing takeover of the West, Allen says the truth is that there’s almost no connection between them, and their issues do not share much commonality anyway:
For one thing, Burke’s idée fixe at the moment is defending classic Catholic doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage, an issue brought to the fore by Amoris Laetitia and its cautious opening on Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. Given that Bannon has been divorced and remarried three times, as has his boss, Burke probably wouldn’t regard them as his most natural partners.
Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, whatever else you want to say about Bannon, he’s not a political idiot. If his goal truly were to influence the direction of the Francis papacy somehow, away from potential conflict zones with his boss, he surely would have to know that Burke is hardly positioned to be helpful.
Indeed, if one were to compile a list right now of figures on the Roman landscape least likely to influence whatever Pope Francis says or does, Burke would be a great candidate for the top spot.
O’Loughlin leaves Fr. Thomas Rosica, president of Salt and Light and the Vatican press office’s spokesman for English and French, the last word on “grand conspiracies”:
“Many times people credit Vatican officials with far too much long-range, strategic thinking,” he said.
True, and probably more so in this case.