SAN FRANCISCO — For the first time ever, the apostolic nuncio to the United States joined the lineup of Catholic and pro-life leaders at the annual Walk for Life West Coast, which this year marked the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in San Francisco.
At the rally preceding the Jan. 26 walk, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, named the Pope’s personal representative to the U.S. in October 2011, read Pope Benedict XVI’s blessing to the crowd of 50,000 pro-lifers gathered at the city’s Civic Center Plaza. Then, the nuncio told his enthusiastic audience, "I feel with you that you are the best of the United States of America."
Archbishop Viganò was warmly welcomed by San Francisco’s newly installed Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who said he was grateful for the nuncio's support. But Archbishop Viganò told the Register that he has sought out opportunities to familiarize himself with the Church in the United States.
"One of the duties of the mission of the apostolic nuncio and his staff is to provide and offer [information] to the Pope about the situation of the Church in the United States and to present to him suitable candidates to be bishops," Archbishop Viganò said.
"This is a very important responsibility, and, since the country is so large, I try to be present at any occasion or for an important meeting."
Archbishop Viganò recalled a private audience with Pope Benedict on Nov. 7, 2011, just before the nuncio left to take up his duties in Washington. During the meeting, the Pope "told me, ‘You will find some problems in the United States.’ He said that to make me more realistic in some way," the nuncio told the Register.
He arrived in the U.S. days later, in time for the annual November meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the conference’s president, rolled out plans for tackling emerging threats to religious freedom.
During Archbishop Viganò’s long career in the Vatican as a diplomat in hot spots like Iraq and Nigeria, the Italian-born archbishop has witnessed an array of political situations that sometimes spark Church-state conflicts.
"Every one of us brings to these gatherings the experience of their years of life and mission. I was affected by my first diplomatic assignment in 1973 in Iraq … before the first Gulf War … [under] the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein," he said during the Jan. 26 interview.
But the ideological struggles that swept through Europe during the 20th century have also informed his present view of Church-state tensions in Western democracies.
"A democracy is not something that is won forever," he said. "As Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict have said, ‘A democracy that is deprived from values very soon will become a dictatorship and a situation of persecution.’"
Notre Dame Address
He expressed similar concerns during a Nov. 4 address at the University of Notre Dame, where he raised the alarm about new political currents in "the great democracies of the world."
"Evidence is emerging which demonstrates that the threat to religious freedom is not solely a concern for non-democratic and totalitarian regimes," he said at Notre Dame. "Unfortunately, it is surfacing with greater regularity in what many consider the great democracies of the world."
Religious persecution is often accompanied by a "reluctance to accept the public role of religion," he said in his address, especially when religious institutions uphold "beliefs that the powerful of the political society do not share."
The Walk for Life, which drew about 100 counterprotesters waving signs that attacked pro-life activists as "fascists," hinted at the polarized politics that increasingly dominate U.S. public life and may result, one day, in measures that dramatically constrain religious freedom.
"During the 20th century, there was democracy in Italy — and at a certain moment, there was a fascist regime," noted Archbishop Viganò, standing close to the stage where Walk for Life speakers addressed the crowd.
Today, he said, "the human values proclaimed in the [International Declaration of Human Rights] after World War II are now being violated in order to create new values."
Joan Frawley Desmond, the Register's senior editor,
filed this interview from the rally before the West Coast Walk for Life.