Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
The ConversationThe Conversation

The Conversation

Canada's former ambassador to the Vatican, Anne Leahy, on Benedict's abrupt goodbye and looming threats to religions freedom

Anne Leahy
17 minute read

Convivium: Are you back from Rome for good now? You were there as our ambassador, then you returned, then you went back....

Anne Leahy: Well, I came back in December 2012. I retired from foreign affairs at the end of January 2013. Then Benedict XVI renounced his ministry on February 11. I was asked to go back to Rome for the Canadian government, on contract, for the period of the conclave and the inauguration of the new pope because my position hadn't been filled. There was still a vacancy there. I did that and came back [to Canada] essentially at Easter. I've really retired now.

C: It must have felt like stepping back into a river that you thought you'd never cross again. I would think it was a little bit discombobulating to go back to Benedict's Rome when Benedict wasn't there?

AL:Oh, it was absolutely fascinating to go back. Even...well, I did return at the end of January. In fact, I had occasion to, as you say, cross that river in terms of the comments I made when I was interviewed on that fateful day in February, because I was no longer working for the Canadian government. When I went back to Rome on contract, I was again working for the Canadian government. Although not representing Canada to the Holy See, still I was back, dealing with the same people.

It was great to go back. Because I went back in the latter part of February, I'd been away not even two months. All the same people were there. My diplomatic colleagues, people I knew in Rome, in the various parts of the Curia and others. There's a whole galaxy of people who make up the Holy See ambit. Not just the Curia people but also the pontifical universities, the professors who are there, and all sorts of institutions attached to following what goes on in the Holy See. They were still there, so some said, "Oh, Anne Leahy, it's just as if you'd gone on holidays for a few weeks and you're back."

It was fascinating because I was there for the last 10 days. Benedict announced his resignation on February 11 but was functioning as Pope until February 28. Then there was all this intense speculation as to when the conclave would be called, how long would it be—because it was all new. It's very rare that something new happens at the Vatican.

In fact, when I was named [Ambassador], the then nuncio in Ottawa very kindly invited me to dinner to chat about things. He gave me a very, very wise piece of advice. He said, "Anne, remember when you go to the Holy See, there's never a first time. Never say it's never happened. There's never a first time. It's never the last time."

He's right. You have to check yourself. Even in the case of Benedict, you have to go back 800 years, but it's true. A pope had resigned before. Nevertheless, what is new is that there are two popes [the current pope and the pope emeritus] living in the 44 hectares of Vatican City. That's new.

All that to say that there's a great industry of people in your profession, the giornalistas, the vaticanistas, who speculate no end as to how things will turn out. There was just a paroxysm of this when I went back. I'm glad to have been there just for the atmosphere because of the intangibles: the body language, people meeting on the street, people loitering around the press office and reading signs. That's really something special.

C:Was there a sense of foreboding or a sense of apprehension because nobody had charted these waters, or at least not for a very long time?

AL: I don't think so. Not that I sensed, because just as the very wise Luigi Ventura, the nuncio, had said, there's never a first time. In fact, canon law provides for the resignation of a pope, and John Paul II had actually updated the document.

All you needed to do with Benedict, and he did it in the period between February 11 and 28, was to make it a little more flexible as to how soon you could call a conclave. In the code it says you need a minimum of two weeks, I think, because that was in the days when there was a funeral. With Benedict, there wasn't a funeral, so he just said there's flexibility. It's the only thing that needed to be adjusted.

A sense of foreboding? No, because you weren't stepping into the unknown. Everything is laid out as to how to proceed.

C: I remember standing in the Piazza Farnese two years ago and I had just read something about construction on it being stopped in the 16th century by the sacking of Rome. What a summary for a city: "Oh, well. The city was sacked. We had to stop construction. Then the sack was over. We went back to work."

AL: For the third time.

C:Never a first time, right? When Pope Francis was elected, what was your immediate feeling? Did you think it was wonderful that a pope had been chosen from the Americas? Or were you feeling that this was stepping into the unknown? It was a first time.

AL:Well, from the Americas, yes. Not from outside Europe. You've got to go back to the atmosphere in early March there, leading up to the conclave and during the conclave. A lot of cardinals were being interviewed, which was a big change from previous conclaves. There was a lot of information out there as to what the expectations were. I think that the opinion, not just of the specialists, the vaticanistas, but the informed, those who cared about these things, informed public opinion was quite ready for a pope outside of Europe. I think part of the dimension of our own Cardinal Ouellet was the fact that he was so familiar with Latin America. That was not truly a surprise. I mean, two European popes in a row, and then everyone knows the importance of Latin America in terms of the numbers. In terms of Hispanic Americans, it's a very large church.

C:In Latin America and South America, and also within the U.S., it's a very large...

AL: Yes. That's what I mean. I don't think that was much of a surprise, actually. In the last days, I was lucky to be in touch with some very astute vaticanistas, some fellows who really know their stuff. They had spotted two things: There was much more of a consensus among the electorate than was thought or said generally around the type of pope they wanted. And the name Bergoglio was starting to come out.

C:We certainly didn't hear that here.

AL:No. Those were really... I mean, the conclave started on a Tuesday morning with the Mass. On the Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, that's when... just before the conclave, I started hearing the name Cardinal Bergoglio, on the strength of what he said in his intervention during the congregation.

The Cuban cardinal asked Bergoglio if he could put on his website the talking points Bergoglio used, and he did. It got removed afterwards because it got printed more officially. His intervention was very short, as the style we now know, short and to the point, essentially saying what he has said since. That, apparently, I heard while in Rome, really made an impression on the electors.

C:Before you went back to Rome, I remember you telling me the thing you were most concerned about was this seemingly intractable division between the socalled left and right Church, the conservative and the liberal Church, the divisions that produced. You said whoever came in had to be someone who could breach that divide. Do you have confidence Pope Francis can do it? Everybody knows the shorthand: very conservative on the life issues, a socialist when it comes to economic issues. Do you have confidence that he'll be able to heal the rifts?

AL: I think bit by bit, just by being the way he is, he is going to heal what is a rift. What I was seeing was a Church being politicized. That's the word. Politicized. Someone who is pro-life is being labelled immediately as extreme right or republican. Someone who is concerned with social justice is immediately identified as being on the liberal left. As if one could not be both. To be Catholic, in fact, is to be both.

What I was regretting, and you could feel it all the way to Rome, was this unhealthy labelling, this politicization. I think that Bergoglio has the practical experience of having been the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. From what I've read, he is one who said, during the dictatorship, "Do not get involved in politics" to his own priests.

What I really like about Bergoglio is that he's credible because he's been there. People listen to him because he is sincere and credible. Benedict was also, but Benedict did not have the practical experience. He'd been a professor all his life, whereas Bergoglio has been in the trenches. He has addressed a dictator, telling the dictator, "You don't care for your people. You're not feeding them. That's horrible. Mend your ways." And, at the same time, [he was] telling priests who wanted to get involved politically: "No. Do your job, but do not get involved politically." That's a very difficult thing. I mean, that's the whole thing of the liberation theology that went off the rails at some point.

This is very much in the language of John Paul II. My experience then was in Eastern Europe, so I very well understand why John Paul II was telling his priests in Latin America, "Stay away from politics," because he came from a background where the communists were trying to use the priests. View it under communism instead of liberation theology and you understand why. He knew the dangers.

C: After Pope Francis' election, I was searching websites to see the response to him. There was this divide between traditionalists and those who want more flexible liturgical form. There was this huge argument, accusations and counter-accusations erupting, and he hadn't yet been pope for 24 hours.

AL:Yes, you're absolutely right. He was elected on March 19. I stayed just a few days after the inauguration. Already in Rome, some people were saying, "Oh, we're not sure about him." They were dubious. But there's already been a change in opinion, I think.

I was reading the blog of a traditionalist who was going on about how at the beginning he was really suspicious of this new pope who didn't care if he put on all the vestments and was disrespecting the office of the papacy. Then, in the end, this person was writing to say, "Well, in the end, I saw." In fact, Pope Francis respects the importance of liturgy, but the most important thing is what liturgy leads you to. It's not an end in itself.

C: Tell me a bit about the experience of being an ambassador at the Vatican for four years after your wealth of experience in the diplomatic world. The Vatican, after all, is run by men.

AL: Oh, it is. That's for sure.

C:Both as a Catholic and as a woman, was it a difficult post?

AL:I think on the professional level, you represent a country, an important country, Canada. Certainly with the Secretariat of State, it was very professional. I did not encounter this personally, but I think that if someone really had had difficulty as a man dealing with a woman, it would have been subsumed because they are really professionals. What's important is what the person represents. There have been women ambassadors to the Holy See for at least 40 years. I think the first one goes back to the early '70s. I mean, of the resident ambassadors, there were about 10 per cent who were women. In the Curia itself, including the Secretariat of State under Benedict, during the years I was there, an effort was made to hire women professionals. Lay women, married, with kids—I guess to beef up in certain areas. Just like in every foreign ministry, you need some people who are increasingly specialized in given areas.

Now, the mentality is a different thing. In the Curia, you have people who come from, let's say, the Anglo-Saxon world. I would say North America, Australia, New Zealand. I'd even include Northern Europe in there. Then you have people who come from very different cultures: Filipino, Latino, African. Culturally, there are differences, obviously, and the mentality is different. But I think, on the professional level, that's part of the design.

C: As a Catholic, one who has been very deeply involved in the Church, in World Youth Day and other events, was it difficult to engage at an ambassadorial level when Catholicism is such an intrinsic part of who you are? As an ambassador, there has to be professional distance between you and the organization that you're dealing with. Yet it's your Church, too.

AL:You have to be careful. Canada is a multi-confessional country. Any ambassador of Canada represents 10 provinces and three territories where a lot of people say their religion is no religion at all. So you do have to be very careful and professional. I think it's a lot harder for ambassadors who are also professional theologians. It's more difficult for them to separate their interests. It's too tempting to bring all your knowledge, your personal inclinations to a subject, particularly if a decision of your country is not exactly that of Catholic doctrine. The challenge also comes from the people back home, the constituency back home, the Catholic theology professors or universities who think they have a special in with the ambassador because the ambassador is also a Catholic.

C: Before you served at the Holy See, you served in Eastern Europe and in Africa. Did that background prepare you well for the Vatican, or was it too different to be of use?

AL:I [served] twice in Russia and in Poland. In Africa, certainly, to get to know the vibrancy of religion in Africa, whether it's the various forms of Christianity or Islam, or the animism, the local spirituality, it's very vibrant. Then, as an ambassador for the Great Lakes Region of Africa, which meant dealing with at least nine countries, religion wasn't a subject of the conference, but the people I was in contact with, the other leaders of delegations, made no bones about talking about God or talking about religion as a normal thing. It wasn't taboo or risqué. It was just part of life.

You had some leaders who were Muslim, some who were Christian. They had in common that they actually believed in God and that it was a good thing. Contrary to those who would say that religion causes war, they would play on that commonality to bring people together. I saw that practically on the ground. It's always good to know, to counteract the cynics.

C:Yet isn't it true that some of the most appalling religiously motivated violence has occurred and is occurring in Africa?

AL: I think religiously motivated violence is too generalized a term to be useful. I think we see religion being instrumentalized in some cases. It's sort of an add-on that's used to radicalize. For example, there are disputes. They relate to land: pastures versus the needs of nomads. There are people who want a piece of land, and because of the cultural makeup of a given region, it may break down according to religious lines. But religion had not been, until rather recently, a reason for conflict.

A few years ago, I was visiting Nigeria and I went to Jos, where there were some incidents about two years ago. I remember talking to Christian missionaries there who told me how they worked very well and closely with local Muslim leaders. I remember walking around seeing posters about the fight against AIDS. They were co-signed by Christian leaders and Muslim leaders. On the ground, the picture is a little different. Then something happens, and it pays for some politically motivated people to bring in the religious element.

I think of the Great Lakes Region, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Congo in particular...millions of civilians who have died there. It's called the War of Africa. Religion didn't come up as a topic, an issue of conflict. There were lots of other reasons. In the name of religion, yes, a lot of bad things have happened, but I want to be very careful about ascribing every conflict to religion. I think we have to be careful not to be manoeuvred.

C: That's a point you made on the panel at the Bridging the Secular Divide conference here in Montreal, where you said Canadian foreign policy has to take into account the role religion plays.

AL: You have to take it into consideration. I think we used to. We have to do it more today. We have to be better informed, to put it starkly. The Americans and French have done so in their own foreign services. Even 30 years ago, we were all better formed and trained on questions of religion than [we are] today. We were living in a society where it was normal to go to church or to synagogue. The ambient environment wasn't so secular, and we were better informed without even knowing it, perhaps.

Today in Canada, which still has a majority of Christians overall, many of those people don't know what Christianity is, what it means, what the symbols are...so there's a loss there in terms of overall culture. That's why in the United States and in France, they came to the conclusion that all diplomats have to have a minimum of education about the importance of religion: What are the major religions and why is it important for society in Costa Rica or in Philippines?

C: At the conference, you provoked quite a response by quoting from a speech Louis St. Laurent gave in 1947 that talked about our conceptions of good and evil in the Western world being transmitted by Christian tradition.

AL: I wrote on the ethics of intervention and on human security policy a few years ago and I came across that quotation. It's not generally known, but you have to remember that 1947 is right after the end of the Second World War: massacres; the evil of fascism.

It is interesting because it goes through the Hebrew civilization, the Greeks, then the Christian tradition. When the Europeans wrote their constitution, the Lisbon Treaty, there was a big fight because they refused to acknowledge the Christian roots of civilization, which is ridiculous.

C: But isn't it just a form of nostalgia to talk about Christian origins in a post-Christian world?

AL: It's not nostalgia, no. Our foreign policy is a reflection of what we are, and we have to know what we are, not deny what we are. Today, if Louis St. Laurent were writing that speech, he'd have to find a way to integrate living in a multi-confessional society. He'd have to recognize what First Nations people have brought us. He'd have to recognize what the Muslims among us bring. The Chinese people among us. They're a big part of who we are now. We're already transformed and transforming. We'd have to include that. But to say who we are does not mean denying who we were. The rule of law, for example, derived from Christianity. It didn't come out of a void. It came out of our Christian heritage. We may not like that, fine, but you shouldn't go around denying it, saying it was never there.

C: During your talk at the conference, I thought I heard you say that we must treat faith as an individual matter, not by looking at the institutions through which it is given expression.

AL: I was referring to something specific there. I was placing the importance on the individual, not on the label of the religion itself. It's particularly in relation to Islam that it comes up. One of the major differences between Islam and Christianity, certainly in the discussions at the UN, is on the blasphemy law, on the intolerance. Every year, there are ritual resolutions that come up.

The major difference between Canada, the Holy See and Islam is that the organizations in the Islamic countries say you are defaming Islam. Islam must not be defamed. We're saying, "No, no. It's the individuals who have rights." There's no such thing as defaming a religion. There's freedom of expression of the individual, which is in accord with freedom to believe or not to believe or to change or to convert. That's what's important. It's not the reputation of a religion. That's what I was referring to. Pakistan and other Islamic countries at the UN, for example, argue that the reputation of Islam is more important than freedom of expression, freedom of belief or non-belief. That's what I was referring to.

C: In your role as an ambassador, were you able to develop your thinking with your counterparts from Islamic countries on issues like this, or was it something that, as a professional diplomat, you would simply avoid discussing?

AL: Well, at the Holy See, you had all the reasons in the world to discuss this. Benedict XVI, in his annual address to the diplomatic corps in January 2011, mentioned "Christianophobia." He also made three major speeches abroad in which he talked about the marginalization of Christians in Europe, about the attempts to muzzle—he didn't use the word muzzle but that's what he meant—Christians in the public domain. In Westminster, he even talked about the right of conscientious objection of Christians that could be invoked. It's definitely a topic on the table.

C:Speaking of being on the table, what is on the table now that you're back? Are you running for the Liberals in the next Quebec election?

AL: [Laughs] I'm not doing politics.

C:No interest at all?

AL: I'm not doing politics.

C: That's pretty definitive.

AL: I'm not doing politics. I do know that coming back to Quebec, this intolerance towards people who have views that are informed by their religious values irritates me. I'm a Catholic. I think there are a few good things about what Catholic teachings have to say about respect for a human being that are worth keeping in mind. I have no interest in having people in a government, some anonymous people who happen to be in power, telling me how long I can live, whether I can live.

I think Benedict XVI should be read and reread many, many times. Here's a man whose early years were under Nazism and who then lived through a totalitarian regime in East Germany. The absoluteness, the power that people can hold over other people, to take over their freedom, to dictate how they should live...in an insidious way, we're at risk of the same thing today.

C: Both John Paul II and Benedict confronted the three great lies of the 20th century: the lie of communism, the lie of fascism and Nazism, and the lie of the corrupted form of liberalism that we live now.

AL: I don't know about the corrupted form of liberalism, but I don't think anyone can make [himself] up to be the all-powerful person prevailing over the lives of others. I don't. That's what you're starting to see. A topical example is Quebec's bill legalizing euthanasia. Just the way it came about, the person who wrote it found a clever way of labelling what he's proposing so that it's not caught under the [Criminal Code of Canada]. Then, to base the legislation on the Belgian model—I'm not an expert, I'm not a doctor, but from what I've read of assessments done on the Belgian system, it's everything to be afraid of. It's the slippery slope. Today, in Belgium, the debate is to extend the purview to minors because there are so many exceptions already to the law that they might as well legalize it. It's the lessening of the value of human life. That's what it boils down to. I've been reading other reports about something called "post-birth feticide," which means getting rid of a baby that's been delivered because it doesn't look the way you thought it would. In our very civilized society, there's such disrespect for human life. Who are we to complain about the horrors of the civil wars of the Congo-Rwanda border?

C: Will you formally get involved in these kinds of causes?

AL: As you mentioned, I've really just come back and I'm now an affiliate member of the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University. They asked me, and I was glad to accept. The broader questions of religion and foreign policy, that's of interest to me. I think I'm going to find ways to contribute to that. People are just discovering globalization, are still making discoveries about globalization, talking about it. The Church has been global for 2,000 years. It's run itself as an institution for 1,500 years. It's had a diplomatic activity since, well, the 12th century.

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