Contrary to its popular mainstream media image as a den of intrigue, closed off to the world and obsessed with its own affairs, the Vatican is consistently engaged in trying to understand and resolve many of the world’s most pressing problems.
Two powerful examples were a witness to this recently: a conference co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales on combating human trafficking and a prestigious gathering of global thinkers who debated world peace in light of John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth).
Of the speakers at the former, most were women religious involved in caring for trafficked persons, including Sister Eugenia Bonetti, an untiring Italian sister who has devoted her life to assisting victims. But also present were other key figures on the “front line”: a member of the London Metropolitan Police’s crime directorate, the deputy director of the U.K.’s Human Trafficking Centre, and a representative from Europol — all of whom offered yet further perspectives on preventing the problem, based on their experiences.
More significantly, the May 8 conference heard firsthand harrowing reports from a British victim of what it’s like to be caught up in human trafficking. Other delegates included the head of the Polish Police Force and a senior member of the FBI, as well as participants from Lithuania, Nigeria, Thailand, South Africa, the U.S. and Europe.
By focusing on prevention, pastoral support and rehabilitation, the conference hoped to find ways of using the Church’s vast global network to fight human trafficking, what Cardinal Peter Turkson described as modern-day slavery that today affects more people than during the days of British abolitionist William Wilberforce.
The second conference, which took place April 27-May 1, was the second of three plenary meetings of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences marking the 50th anniversary of John XXIII’s 1963 “peace encyclical.”
As always, these meetings attract some unlikely yet well-known names, and this year was no exception.
The president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, Nobel Laureate in economics Joseph Stiglitz, and the former president of Germany’s Central Bank, Hans Tietmeyer, all gave papers.
Speaking on the contribution of free knowledge to world peace was Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia phenomenon.
Like some of the other speakers, Wales is not a Catholic, and he confessed to not having heard of Pacem in Terris before. But on reading it, he said he “discovered a lot of good stuff — on sharing knowledge, on the open society.”
“It pleased me that [this document] was addressed to all people of good will,” he said. “I was impressed with the voice of the Catholic Church on these themes and impressed by the fact that these points of view are brought forward in a modern way.”
Pope Benedict XVI noted in a message to the meeting’s participants that while the global political landscape has “changed significantly” over the past 50 years, the vision offered by Pope John “still has much to teach us as we struggle to face the new challenges for peace and justice in the post-Cold War era, amid the continuing proliferation of armaments.”
The encyclical “was and still is a powerful summons to engage in that creative dialogue between the Church and the world, between believers and nonbelievers,” he said, adding that it offers “a message of hope to a world that is hungry for it, a message that can resonate with people of all beliefs and none, because its truth is accessible to all.”
The Holy Father recalled its teachings were repeated after 9/11 by Blessed Pope John Paul II, who insisted there can be “no peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness.”
That teaching remains crucial today, Benedict said, and must find its way into international discourse on conflict resolution, thereby transforming “the sterile language of mutual recrimination, which leads nowhere.”
“If the human creature is made in the image of God, a God of justice who is ‘rich in mercy,’ then these qualities need to be reflected in the conduct of human affairs,” the Pope said. “Forgiveness is not a denial of wrongdoing, but a participation in the healing and transforming love of God, which reconciles and restores.”
The Pope stressed that historic wrongs and injustices can be overcome only if men and women “are inspired by a message of healing and hope,” a message that offers a way out of a vicious circle of violence. He noted that since 1963 some of the conflicts that seemed insoluble at the time have passed into history, and he encouraged the participants to “take heart” from this fact.
Lord David Alton of Liverpool, a British veteran pro-life campaigner, warned against a globalization that fosters indifference to authentic truth, justice, charity or liberty — one that “tramples on these concepts in the name of a false liberalism or shallow Western modernity.”
The world, he said, can take one of two paths: one that emulates Pontius Pilate, which pretends no truth exists and says responsibility for everything, from abject poverty to industrial-scale abortion, belongs to someone else.
Or people can follow the great saints and the heroic examples of unknown figures in countries such as China, Nigeria, Sudan or North Korea.
Such courageous individuals, he said, have brought peace by performing “acts of self-giving charity with love for the truth, regardless of whatever worldly consequences that might bring.”
Pacem in Terris was one of Blessed John XXIII’s last acts, completed when he was terminally ill. He died two months after its publication. But its timelessness has always been one of its hallmarks.
Clearly taken aback by how the encyclical reveals how the Church’s message is always new in every age, Wales observed that, generally, it is thought that the Catholic Church is something “very closed” to the world. “I can say with surprise that it is not so,” he said.
Perhaps with more of these valuable conferences, and ones that offer greater access for the media, that common false perception of an aloof, out-of-touch Vatican will be replaced by the reality.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.