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Interview: The Vatican has a ‘very positive relationship’ with the Biden administration

This is the final installment of a three-part interview series with Archbishop Paul Gallagher: Read Part I and Part II.

In the final part of his exclusive interview with America, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, speaks about the positive relationship between the Vatican and the Biden administration and the significance of the Holy See’s adherence to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. He also speaks about the pope’s visit to Canada and the possibility of papal trips to other countries. He concludes by expressing his hopes for how the situation in the world will develop in the coming two to three years.

U.S.-Vatican Relations

Obviously, there are other areas besides the Holy Land where you are working closely with the United States.

I would say that our exchanges with the Biden administration are frequent, particularly through the U.S. embassy to the Holy See. They come and tell us things that they are working on, and we obviously take note of those things, and we make our comments on them. Sometimes we don’t always respond in the way that they would wish. But it is a very positive relationship in the sense that I don’t think we have any hesitation to approach [them]—whether it’s the embassy or the State Department or the White House. And they don’t have any hesitation to do the same here, which I think is very positive because that’s not always the case in bilateral relations.

So compared with the previous administration, it’s easier now.

“It is a very positive relationship in the sense that I don’t think we have any hesitation to approach [them]—whether it’s the embassy or the State Department or the White House.”

Even with the previous administration there was a lot of exchange with the embassy here; but, frankly speaking, I think we found that we didn’t see quite as eye-to-eye with the previous administration as we do with this one. Obviously, we have difficulties with this administration as well, which are well known. But at the same time, there are other issues on which we can work very well. Most of the positions, I would say, are issues on which both sides recognize the importance and sometimes the sensitivity of the issues, and we have often quite differing views, but then there is a desire to exchange.

Could you list some of those issues?

Well, I think if you take something like migration. Migration is something that is a very important issue for the United States of America; it’s also an important issue for Central America, which of course I know very well. And we view it differently. We would like to see a more positive approach. The United States will defend its position by saying, “The United States is extremely generous in its migration policy.” Like many parts of the world today, they have understandably great difficulty with irregular migration, people pouring across borders. How do you deal with that?

At times, we express concern at how people are treated, at how sometimes people who have been in the United States for many, many years are eventually deported. We’ve had great difficulty in understanding that. We also reflect very much many of the positions of the American bishops and of the American Catholic people in their criticism of these issues.

“Frankly speaking, I think we found that we didn’t see quite as eye-to-eye with the previous administration as we do with this one.”

Convention on Climate Change

The Holy See recently acceded to the U.N. climate convention and the Paris agreement. Could you explain the significance of that?

We’re talking about the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is a fundamental juridical instrument inspiring what the international community has been doing to tackle climate change, and its Paris agreement, adopted in 2015. The Holy See, in order to be able to adhere to this convention and to the agreement, has had to make an enormous effort. It’s been achieved only by the good will of the various departments of the Holy See and the Vatican City working together to make this possible. That really needs recognition. So for the Vatican City State, in particular, this is a very important moment.

What it means on the wider scene is that the Holy See was the last state to agree to the convention on climate, and therefore this convention now is a universal convention; really everybody is on board. Obviously, the challenges are immense, but it does mean that there is the prospect—when in September our adherence to the Paris agreement becomes effective—that we can participate in the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 2022, as a state party to both the convention and the agreement. That will enable us to be able to make a bigger contribution, and it means that the position of the Holy See, which is expressed above all in “Laudato Si’,” will be much more coherent. With the adherence to the convention we’re putting our money where our mouth is.

“With the adherence to the climate convention we’re putting our money where our mouth is.”

It is not going to be an easy road. Sometimes things are more difficult for the smallest states; they have some major changes because of the concentration of the territory. But there is a lot of goodwill. And I think that we’ll be able to proceed in the decarbonization that the Holy See is committed to by 2050 and to making other improvements in the environment. I think that this will be a source of encouragement for many others who are struggling with these issues.

Looking Ahead

What things would you like to see happening in the world in the next two to three years?

We want to see an end to the war in Ukraine. I think this is the thing that has caused greatest suffering, greatest pain and greatest anxiety in recent decades. This is producing various crises: the supply chain crisis, the food crisis, [threatening] security in general, the future of Europe. I’m involved with all these issues.

Undoubtedly, one of the big questions is going to be the grain coming out of Ukraine and Russia now—or not coming out of Ukraine and Russia. What is going to be the impact of that on various parts of the world, particularly North Africa, Egypt? These things are really great concerns.

I’d like to see us coming to terms with the migration, and particularly the trafficking of people in the migration crisis.

I’d like to see what we’ve just been talking about Israel and Palestine, where we’d like to see direct negotiations.

“We want to see an end to the war in Ukraine. I think this is the thing that has caused greatest suffering, greatest pain and greatest anxiety in recent decades.”

I know the Holy Father is very keen to see greater political stability in Latin America. I would like to see greater political stability in Nicaragua, where the nuncio was expelled; that is for us a real source of great regret.

In Myanmar, we absolutely would like to see reestablishment of the democratic regime, and we’d like to see the end of the conflict there, which is probably taking more lives than we know about.

Those are some of the things that come to mind. But if we had a map here, I could probably say much more.

What would you like to see happen at the United Nations? Since the establishment of the United Nations, the Vatican has always believed that it can be a real place for dialogue and has always supported it. But now we see Russia, one of the five members of the U.N. Security Council, throwing the U.N. charter in the dustbin.

For many years, people have wanted to see a reform of the Security Council, but that is considered to be impossible because of the hold that the five permanent members have over that process. But I think a reform growing out of the General Assembly is something which one would like to see.

At the same time, I think we have to be a little bit careful about how critical we are of the United Nations. It’s true that maybe the organization has difficulty finding solutions to situations, but the U.N. is also the organization that brings peacekeeping missions to the world, which helps people survive in conflicts and helps the problems of food distribution through the various agencies. It’s not all doom and gloom. There are many things that do work. But there is also, I think understandably, great frustration at the way that the organization is perceived to work, particularly out of New York and Geneva.

How would you like to see the relationship develop between the Holy See and China?

We would like to see the Catholic community find itself in a position to make a bigger contribution to the future and the well-being of the Chinese people. I think that we are a little bit inhibited by the situation at the moment, and I think that Catholicism, as it’s lived out by its people, has a lot to offer. The Chinese people, in recent decades, have made enormous steps forward in material prosperity and in the creation of their institutions and the solidity of their society. At the same time, I would like to think that the Catholics could share with their fellow Chinese the spiritual riches that form part of our tradition.

“I would like to think that the Catholics could share with their fellow Chinese the spiritual riches that form part of our tradition.”

You’ve been to Japan. What do you say as you reflect on the assassination of former Prime Minister Abe in what is basically a very peaceful country?

The assassination is very shocking. I met Mr. Abe when I went to Japan five or six years ago. He was most gracious in receiving our delegation. His assassination has shaken Japanese society to its roots. But the institutions in Japan are very strong, as is the people’s commitment to their shared values and to their institutions. And obviously the monarchy holds a revered and a special place within that society. I’m very optimistic that they will face up to this.

The Pope’s Visit to Canada

We’re on the eve of the pope’s visit to Canada. What is your hope for this visit? It’s a delicate visit.

Well, it’s part of a process, isn’t it? As you know, Indigenous representatives came to visit Pope Benedict and had a meeting with him in 2009. Last March and April, delegations of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis visited Pope Francis, and the series of audiences that he granted them were good exchanges on both sides. The pope is returning to face this reality on Canadian turf.

“We’re certainly hoping and praying that it will be yet another step on the path of reconciliation that the Catholic Church in Canada has been undertaking for a long time now.”

As you say, it’s a delicate visit; it will draw attention to the suffering and to some of the terrible things that unfolded in the past, particularly, toward Indigenous peoples and with regard to the residential school system. You can’t foresee exactly what will come out of this. But we’re certainly hoping and praying that it will be yet another step on the path of reconciliation that the Catholic Church in Canada has been undertaking for a long time now. The Holy Father is coming there to offer encouragement, to express deep regret and sorrow and to request pardon for what has happened in the past.

The visit to Canada is happening, but two earlier visits were canceled: to Lebanon and to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Are these African trips likely to go ahead, presuming the Canada visit goes well?

If the visit to Canada goes well, particularly from the Holy Father’s physical point of view, then I think that he will go to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. This was reasserted by Cardinal Parolin’s visit to both countries on behalf of the pope.

As for Lebanon, the pope has already given an understanding that he will visit the country. We identify very strongly with the Lebanese people at this time.

Will he visit India in 2023 if his health is good?

As you know, Prime Minister Modi made the invitation very loudly and very publicly when he visited the Holy Father in October 2021. I think the pope would like to go to India; that has been one of his priorities in recent years. We’ll have to see what 2023 brings.

Pope Francis has said he intends to go to Kazakhstan in September and could perhaps meet the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. Is that visit likely to go ahead, and will Francis meet Kirill notwithstanding the patriarch’s support for the war against Ukraine?

The pope has accepted the invitation from the president of Kazakhstan to go to the Congress of World Religions, and if the patriarch goes, one supposes they will meet. But how they will meet and in what context they will meet remains to be seen.

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