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If Not for Muammar Gaddafi, This Guy Might Have Been Pope

Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli in Italy.

Cross-posted from Martin Kramer's blog Sandbox.

The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope took seasoned Vatican observers by surprise. The media had profiled other candidates, leaving the impression that a long-shot took the title. In a post-election rumination, correspondent David Leonhardt at the New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight cited the so-called “Pignedoli Principle,” named (by George Weigel, Vatican analyst) for Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli, a media favorite who was passed over after the death of Pope Paul VI in 1978. The principle? “A man’s chances of becoming pope decrease in proportion to the number of times he’s described as papabile [a possible pope] in the press.”

The affable Pignedoli (pronounced Peen-yeh-doly) had been very much in the race in August 1978. He was said to be Paul VI’s preferred successor, and the Italian news magazines sang his praises. The London bookmaking firm Ladbroke’s pegged him as a 5-2 favorite. As the media predictions piled up, Pignedoli reportedly prepared for victory by going on a crash diet so that he could fit into the white cassock of a new pope. (In another version, he had a cassock specially tailored.) Weigel described what happened next: “When the cardinals assembled in the Sistine Chapel to choose a successor to Pope Paul in August 1978, Cardinal Pignedoli -- according to reliable accounts -- was left so far behind that you’d have needed a telescope to find him at the end of the second ballot. He died a few years later, forgotten by those who had once confidently declared him papabile.”

So Pignedoli, if he’s remembered at all, is remembered as an also-ran. But the story is more interesting than that. When he died in June 1980, he was still important enough to warrant an obituary in the New York Times (June 16). The item mentioned his failed run for the papacy in August 1978, and added that he was again regarded as papabile when John Paul I, Paul VI’s successor, died in September 1978 after only 34 days in office. (In the resulting conclave, the cardinals passed him over again and surprised the world by electing a Polish pope.) The obituary then added this: “The Cardinal was also remembered, to his regret, for having signed a statement at an Islamic-Christian conference in Tripoli in 1976 condemning Zionism. He said afterward that he was a victim of an incomplete if not mistaken translation.”

Therein lies a story, and it puts Pignedoli in an additional category: not just of papal also-rans, but also of Westerners used by Libya’s late dictator Mu’ammar Gaddafi to enhance his rule. According to some experts, the episode may even have cost Pignedoli his shot at the papacy. I discussed the Tripoli conference years ago in a published paper on Israel in the Muslim-Christian dialogue (not on the web). Regime change in Tripoli and personnel change in Rome seem (to me) like a reasonable pretext for revisiting the subject. In fact, it may be the last time that the story is worth telling to anyone without an expert interest these matters. But since it’s one more cautionary tale about the risks of appeasement, especially in the Middle East, the lesson may well be timeless.

“The Pope’s Kissinger”

The Italian-born Pignedoli started off as a naval chaplain in World War II (a direct hit on his cruiser once set sent him flying into the sea), and he later built a reputation over many years as a roving Vatican emissary. He served in various capacities in South America, Africa, and Canada, reputedly spoke a dozen languages, visited well over a hundred countries, and had a rolodex of 10,000 contacts around the globe. (A New York Times report called him “one of the world’s great letter writers,” and it was once written of him that “he has a preposterous number of friends.”) In 1967, as apostolic delegate to Canada, he drove 7,300 miles across the country and back in 33 days, visiting mission outposts. Paul VI created him cardinal in 1973, and immediately named him president of what was then called the Secretariat for Non-Christians. (“Non-Christians” for that purpose excluded the Jews, a sensitive issue handled by a separate commission.) For someone reputed to be “the Pope’s Kissinger,” treating with the wider world seemed like the perfect assignment.

The energetic Pignedoli quickly concluded that he should launch a campaign to improve Vatican relations with the world of Islam. The Catholic Church had its ear to the ground in Muslim lands, and had picked up the rumbling of the coming Islamic resurgence. The new cardinal thought that the Vatican could diminish Muslim-Christian tensions (and protect its interests in Muslim lands) by engaging a reputable Muslim partner in a conciliatory religious dialogue.

Ah, but who? Where was the equivalent of the Catholic Church? Who was the Muslim pope? The impossibility of answering these questions immediately highlights one of the key distinctions between Christianity and Islam. Bernard Lewis has put it succinctly:

There is no church in Islam. There is no priesthood in the sense of an ordination and a sacred office. There is no Vatican, no pope, no cardinals, no bishops, no church councils; there is no hierarchy such as exists in Christendom.

For non-Muslims, it is often tempting to see Saudi Arabia, seat of Islam’s holiest places, as some sort of “center” of the Islamic faith. So did Pignedoli, setting out in April 1974 to visit the kingdom, armed with a letter from the Pope. King Faisal gave him an audience -- and an earful. The Saudi king had only one thing on his mind: the Jews. They had no holy places in Jerusalem, he insisted; only Muslims and Christians had incontestable rights to holy places in the city. At one point, King Faisal raised his voice to declare (erroneously) that under Islam, “Jews had never been allowed in Palestine and particularly in Jerusalem.” The Saudi king’s purpose was plain: to line up the Catholic Church behind the demand for Muslim sovereignty over the holy city.

This wasn’t the sort of exchange Pignedoli had in mind, so he looked elsewhere. He next visited Egypt, in September 1974, hoping to open a channel to Al-Azhar, the famed university and another “center” of Islam. But the Sheikh al-Azhar didn’t express any interest in a religious dialogue. Instead, he loaded his guest with books on Palestine and the historic role of Al-Azhar in resisting foreign aggression. Pignedoli began to see a pattern. Muslims didn’t make a distinction between the spiritual and the temporal. As he (later) concluded, “one of the greatest hindrances to dialogue is political intervention in religion. Some people do not make the Gospel’s distinction between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s, and people’s minds are, moreover, troubled by local tensions or fear of losing their freedom.”

At this moment of impasse, the Vatican received an unexpected overture. In May 1975, a confidant of Muammar Gaddafi, ruler of Libya, arrived in Rome bearing a message. Libya was eager to host an official religious dialogue with the Vatican, for which it would assemble a delegation of influential Muslims from around the world. The dialogue, the Libyan promised, would be limited to theology and religion. A breakthrough! Negotiations commenced, a date was set in February 1976, and the Libyans accommodated every request from the Vatican side.

What explained the Libyan initiative? Libya isn’t a “center” of Islam on par with Saudi Arabia or Egypt -- far from it. As important as it is to the world oil market, it’s been marginal to the evolution of the faith. Yet Gaddafi thought otherwise -- if not about Libya, then certainly about himself. Early in his rule (he seized power in 1969), Gaddafi styled himself as a final authority on Islam, which he depicted as the embodiment of true socialism. True, few Muslims outside Libya took him seriously. But what better way to boost his claim than to demonstrate that Christians took him seriously -- and not just any Christians, but the Catholic Church?

“Caught napping”

The appointed day finally arrived. Pignedoli’s fourteen-man contingent landed in Tripoli, expecting a discreet gathering with an equal number of Muslim delegates, and an audience of no more than twenty experts and journalists. But the Libyan organizers had a completely different plan. They had invited over five hundred activists, journalists, and hangers-on (including an American, Kwame Ture, formerly the Black Panther Stokely Carmichael). “Every conceivable revolutionary and conspiratorial movement sent representatives to Tripoli,” wrote the journalist Peter Scholl-Latour (who devoted a searing chapter to the episode in his book Adventures in the East).

The crowd filled the seaside congress hall where the seminar met, and the proceedings quickly took on a circus atmosphere. The Libyans had failed to honor a promise to name their delegates and provide the texts of their speeches in advance. The reason soon became clear: the Muslim delegates were political operatives, not men of religion. Their speeches would later be described (by the secretary of the Vatican delegation) as “aggressive and recriminatory.” They attacked the Church for falsifying scripture, launching the Crusades, and proselytizing among Muslims. This was punctuated by repeated and vehement attacks against Israel, Zionism and the Jews. In the face of this assault, “the delegates from the Vatican cut a poor figure,” wrote Scholl-Latour. “Cardinal Pignedoli, naturally short of stature, seemed to shrink even more; he had adopted a strategy of permanent apology.”

The highlight came with the arrival of Gaddafi himself. Scholl-Latour:

He did not bother to go as far as the stage; with exaggerated modesty he sat down among the spectators. And immediately the Cardinal, his stance expressing servility, sped toward the Libyan head of state, took his hand -- he came close to kissing it -- and led the Libyan, who was going through the motions of protesting, to the dais. Tumultuous applause broke out; the Moslems in the audience had caught sight of God’s elect. In fact Gaddafi appeared like a beaming movie star. He radiated an attractive youthfulness.... His clothes were chosen with the utmost simplicity: black trousers and a black turtleneck sweater. He moved with the grace of a cat. Alongside this desert warrior the overzealous Roman prelate with his red skullcap, the red sash across his cassock, the red socks in pumps, seemed a comedian.

Another journalist thought he detected an awkward moment in the encounter between the colonel and the cardinal:

A path was made for Cardinal Pignedoli who came down from his place on the rostrum to greet the Libyan leader. It was an interesting moment, with one revealing result which probably no one in the entire building was aware of except those, like myself, who happened to be a few feet away. The Cardinal made a gesture to indicate that he would like to sit down next to “Brother Colonel.” Gaddafi was taken aback and clearly did not want to share the inverted limelight. Visibly thinking quickly, he made a flourishing gesture indicating that the Cardinal’s rightful place was one of honor on the platform. It was nevertheless a snub, as I could clearly see from the Cardinal’s disappointed expression, though it cast a shadow over his face for only a split second.

Gaddafi mounted the stage, producing what appeared to one journalist “like a mediaeval tableau of the Sultan and the wise men.” In fact, it was more like a mediaeval disputation. In a later address to the conference, Gaddafi said that there was no great gap between Christianity and Islam. All that was needed to close it was for Christians to correct the falsifications in their Gospels and recognize the Prophet Muhammad as the bearer of the divine revelation. Pignedoli’s delegation (according to Scholl-Latour) was “overcome by obvious confusion and consternation.”

So how was that gap to be bridged? Away from the congress hall, Libyan and Vatican secretaries worked behind the scenes to formulate a joint communiqué -- for how could such a meeting end without one?

What happened next astonished everyone. At the close of the conference, as Pignedoli and Gaddafi left the congress hall together, the Libyans announced the text (in Arabic) of a joint communiqué. It included two paragraphs devoted to Palestine. Paragraph 20 denounced Zionism as “an aggressive racialist movement, extraneous to Palestine and the whole region of the East.” Paragraph 21 affirmed “the Arab character of Jerusalem” and rejected “plans to Judaize, partition or internationalize” the city. Both “parties” affirmed “the national rights of the Palestinian people and their right to return to their lands” and demanded “the liberation of all the occupied territories.” A bombshell! The assembled media rushed out the doors to report a dramatic shift in Vatican policy toward Israel and the Palestinians.

Except that there was no shift. According to Pignedoli, the final communiqué was shown to him only “at the very last minute,” and he signed off on it unaware that it included the offending paragraphs. It may have been a literal case of tradurre è tradire: according to one source, “the Vatican’s representatives in the drafting committee were Arab Christians who did not fully explain the text” to Pignedoli. The cardinal made a desperate attempt to convene a press conference and issue a “clarification,” but his Libyan hosts blocked the move, citing “technical reasons.” By then, it was too late anyway: he had been “caught napping” (the words of a journalist), the Libyans had taken advantage, and the media had a story. A wire service report set the tone: “Whoever suggested the Vatican send delegates to Libya for a great religious meeting with Moslem leaders may be in deep trouble. The widely publicized Islamic-Christian symposium in Tripoli this week is one of the biggest fiascoes of recent Vatican diplomacy.”

The Roman Curia -- the Vatican’s government -- went into damage control mode, formally disavowing the two offending paragraphs, as “their content does not correspond, in its essential points, to the well-known position of the Holy See.” Vatican sources informed a Jewish press agency that the Vatican delegation “was not empowered to reach political decisions,” and should not have done so. A “highly informed” Vatican source reported that the Holy See was “mortified” by the episode, but “understandably wants to avoid charging bad faith on the part of the Muslim participants or admitting incompetence or naivete on its own part.” Of course, those were precisely the ingredients that produced the debacle.

The “Pignedoli Principle”

Had Pignedoli’s ambitions been limited, the Tripoli fiasco would not have mattered much. But he aspired to be pope, and this was no secret when the vacancy opened in 1978. One journalist noted that while the Holy See hadn’t reprimanded the cardinal, “memories in the Curia are long, and Vatican watchers believe that Pignedoli’s prospects of becoming pope have declined seriously.” Another assessment, after describing Pignedoli as “the current papal frontrunner,” regretted that the Tripoli conference “has once again become an item for controversy, resuscitated by factional opposition to Pignedoli’s candidacy to succeed Paul as Pope. It has been claimed by such diverse publications as the London Times, Corriere della Sera, Le Monde, and others that Pignedoli’s management of the Vatican-Islamic conference will weigh heavily against his election as Paul VI’s successor.”

When Pignedoli lost out, another Vatican expert estimated that his chances had been “badly damaged” by the episode, which “was widely regarded as a gaffe and as an indication of his unsuitability for the Papacy.” According to Vaticanologist Peter Hebblethwaite, the Tripoli debacle gave Pignedoli’s opponents a lever to use against him: “I was present on that occasion [in Tripoli], and thought the mistake forgivable. But this incident was exploited by Pignedoli’s enemies who resented his approachableness and popularity.”

Of course, it’s easy to come up with other reasons for Pignedoli’s falling short in the Sistine Chapel. (A breezy account of the proceedings appears in Gordon Thomas’s Pontiff.) Perhaps it really was the “Pignedoli Principle” -- an excess of media attention. But David Leonhardt, in his posting last week, claims it’s not a principle at all, since there are plenty of examples of frontrunners taking the papal title. If he’s right, then the “Pignedoli Principle” may be up for redefinition, lest the man be forgotten completely. A good alternative might be this: the closer you dance with a dictator, the more likely your toes are to be crushed.