Tennis with Tyrants

The Case for the Vatican Diplomatic Corps

Monica Mignone, a twenty-four-year-old educational psychologist and an active Catholic, was abducted from her family’s apartment in Buenos Aires on May 14, 1976. I had known her father, Emilio Fermín Mignone, in the mid-1960s, when he worked in Washington at the Organization of American States. In August 1976, I visited with Emilio and his wife, Angélica, in that Buenos Aires apartment, a few months after Monica was “disappeared.” We were about to have lunch when a call came saying that a grave containing thirty bodies had been discovered in Pilar. Apologizing profusely for having to delay lunch, my friends rushed out to see if Monica’s remains might be identified. It was a false hope. Monica has never been found.

During the guerra sucia, the “dirty war” that the Argentine military junta waged against guerrillas and leftist groups from 1976 to ’83, more than ten thousand Argentineans were disappeared. The Catholic Church has been accused of complicity with the military, and the late Cardinal Pio Laghi, who served as apostolic nuncio to Argentina from 1974 to ’80, was criticized harshly. One of those critics was Emilio Mignone. And many, including Mignone, have broadened their criticism to the Vatican diplomatic corps in general. Some have argued that the Vatican should dissolve the nunciature system and discontinue its political outreach. Cardinal Laghi’s story suggests reasons to think otherwise.

Mignone (who died in 1998) was a lifelong devout Catholic, and no other layman in Argentina was more familiar with the main actors of both church and state. The disappearance of Monica became an obsession for him, subsuming his forceful opposition to the military coup that overthrew the corrupt rule of Juan Peron’s widow Isabelita in March 1976 and his subsequent leadership in the important human-rights organization Center of Legal and Social Studies. His 1986 book Iglesia y Dictadura (published two years later in English as Witness to the Truth: The Complicity of Church and Dictatorship in Argentina) became the authoritative text for the involvement of the Catholic Church in the guerra sucia.

The book accused Laghi of complicity with the Argentinean military. Yet that criticism may have been misplaced. Mignone later told me he wasn’t sure that all the reports he had heard about Laghi were true, but he decided to put everything in his book, just in case. The story Mignone told of a former political prisoner, Juan Martín, who claimed to have spoken to Laghi at a heliport while being transferred to a secret detention place did not hold up to further investigation. Meanwhile, the tales of Laghi’s interventions to save lives and get prisoners released are too numerous to recount. Argentina’s Jewish community, which was particularly hard hit by the repression, was effusive in Laghi’s praise. Jacobo Timerman, whose account of his imprisonment, Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number, became a bestseller, spoke highly of the nuncio’s effort on his behalf and maintained that Laghi “will occupy a brilliant page when the history of those terrible years is written.”

Mignone could never accept that Laghi was a regular tennis partner of Admiral Emilio Massera, a junta leader—how could a bishop socialize with murderers? But like it or not, that’s what diplomats are routinely expected to do. Tennis courts and diplomatic receptions are among the principal venues for getting to know and attempting to influence, or at least gain information from, policymakers. At the time, Laghi also regularly played tennis with U.S. embassy political officer F. Allen (“Tex”) Harris, widely praised for trying to hold the Junta’s feet to the fire on human-rights issues. Later, during his tenure as nuncio to the United States, Laghi was a regular tennis partner of his Washington neighbor Vice President George H. W. Bush.

After his retirement, Laghi was hounded, even in Rome, by certain hard-line intransigentes, including a faction of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the activist group of relatives of disappeared Argentineans. But it is hard to consider their wrath as other than misdirected anger at those leaders of the Argentine hierarchy who did too little to protest the killings and disappearances.

In fact, it was to the nunciature (as well as to Tex Harris’s embassy) that families of the disappeared routinely turned for help, not to the chancery of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires or the headquarters of the bishops conference. And with good reason. Laghi, with his Irish secretary Msgr. Kevin Mullen, maintained the most up-to-date listing of the disappeared, which they regularly presented to the military for a response. In some cases, they were able to secure releases; in others, they could at least inform the families that their loved ones had died.

For some Catholics, anger at Laghi has morphed into hostility to the whole notion of a Vatican diplomatic corps. Mignone saw Vatican nunciatures as nothing more than the imperial trappings of a Renaissance papacy and thought they should be abolished. According to his book, a retired Swiss bishop did make such a suggestion at the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps more surprisingly, the retired archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, has suggested that the diplomatic corps could be “greatly reduced, if not actually dismantled.” The eighty-four-year-old Jesuit was quoted in an interview with La Repubblica saying that the whole diplomatic structure “is all too redundant and requires far too much of the church’s energy.”

One should certainly think twice before deciding to close down the oldest diplomatic service in the world. There may well be redundancies—where are there not?—and today’s world of universal and instant communication might suggest that Vatican “listening posts” are of another age. But a glance at the world scene could also suggest the growing, not diminishing, importance of the church’s far-flung service of representation, intelligence, and influence. As to the nuncio system requiring “too much of the church’s energy,” surely a total corps of some three hundred priests and bishops worldwide accredited to 178 countries is a reasonable sacrifice considering the potential dividends. If Laghi, for example, had not been the pope’s representative, accredited to the Argentine government, it is probable that many of the people whose lives he saved or whose freedom he secured would have had a very different fate. The human-rights activist Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 (which some believe should have gone to Mignone), is one who owed his release to Laghi.

More broadly, the nunciature system has enabled popes to play a mediating role and diffuse tensions between states, as happened when the Vatican intervened to forestall a likely war between Argentina and Chile over the Beagle Channel dispute in 1978–79. Nuncios, in other words, do more than name bishops, and they contribute to the Vatican’s being among the best-informed capitals in the world.

Today’s nuncios are a far cry from the haughty products of the Pontifical Academy of Ecclesiastical Nobles, the training camp for diplomats founded over three centuries ago. They include outstanding world figures such as Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Dublin, and his successor as the Holy See’s man in Geneva, Silvano Tomasi. Less well known perhaps are bishops like Michael Courtney, who was murdered in late 2003 as he was about to leave Burundi for Brussels with incriminating evidence of the former Burundi president’s embezzlement of European Union funds.

Another outstanding diplomat, Luigi Bonazzi, then in Haiti, took what would have been Courtney’s next assignment in Havana. Bonazzi and his immediate predecessor in Port-au-Prince, Christophe Pierre, were instrumental in helping a divided Haitian hierarchy find its proper role in the post-Duvalier, post-Aristide era. Haiti’s present nuncio, Bernardito Auza, has likewise been an essential player in the postearthquake reconstruction efforts.

Cardinal Martini’s criticisms notwithstanding, many of today’s nuncios are well positioned to press the church’s essential concerns for justice and peace. Joining those mentioned above are bishops like Pietro Sambi in Washington, Pietro Parolin in Caracas, and Christophe Pierre, now in Mexico. Not a redundancy in the bunch.

Pio Laghi was of an earlier era than some of these and may have been more conservative. But late in his life he made strenuous if futile efforts to dissuade George W. Bush from invading Iraq. He died in 2009 at age eighty-six. He should be remembered for his sincere and partly successful efforts to engage today’s church in the evangelical cause of justice and peace. May those who serve in nunciatures today be inspired by his example to carry on that work.

Published in the 2011-05-20 issue: 

Tom Quigley is a former policy advisor on Latin American, Asian, and Caribbean issues to the U.S. Catholic bishops.

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