Prominent Vatican diplomat dies after long illness

There were, it is sometimes claimed, only two men on the world stage in 1980 who truly believed that the Soviet bloc could be swept away within the decade — the newly elected President Ronald Reagan in the United States and the Polish Pope John Paul II in Rome. Cardinal Pio Laghi, who died on January 11 at the age of 86, was the vital link between the White House and the Vatican as the two leaders watched their dream become a reality.

As the representative of the Holy See in Washington from 1980 to 1990, Laghi forged enduring ties, in particular with the Bush family — so close, indeed, that in 2003 John Paul called his former senior diplomat out of retirement and sent him as a personal envoy to beg George Bush to stand back from conflict in Iraq. Despite hailing him as “an old family friend”, Bush refused to change course. The president’s world view, Laghi said later, was “dualistic” — he saw the coming conflict through the perspective of “good against evil”.

Soon after Laghi, a career diplomat at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State (Foreign Ministry), was appointed to the US, he received an unexpected telegram from Reagan. “I believe we both have new jobs in Washington. Welcome,” it read. The gesture was unusual. Traditionally, Catholicism had not been regarded as being at the centre of US policymaking. Within months though, as Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi recorded in their 1996 book, His Holiness, key White House officials were “dropping by” Laghi’s official residence “for breakfast, coffee and consultation”.

Reagan believed the Pope had the potential to spark a revolution in his native Poland, which would then sweep through eastern Europe. John Paul wanted US support for the practical assistance he was providing for the Solidarity trade union. Their cooperation spread wider than Europe, however. Laghi lobbied hard and successfully to obtain Reagan’s support to cut US funding to development programmes that included provision of abortion. He also effectively tore up an outspoken anti-nuclear letter, drafted by the US’s Catholic bishops in 1983.

Most controversially, he conveyed to Washington that the Vatican shared Reagan’s dislike of the democratically elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua. John Paul objected in particular to the presence in that country of three radical Catholic priests. Laghi was therefore privy to US efforts to undermine the Sandinistas.

The clerical diplomat also had, Reagan is reported to have said, a gift for making complex theology easy to understand, for example when he explained the “theology of liberation”, the church’s “option for the poor” that was part of the inspiration for the Sandinistas. Theology, Laghi had said, “is like spaghetti”. Liberation theology, he went on, “is spaghetti ruined by too much seasoning”.

In 1984, the importance of his support in Washington was recognised when Vatican representation was upgraded to full diplomatic status. This provoked some controversy at the time, as part of a larger debate about the extent of the influence of organised religious groups on a conservative US presidency. So prominent had Laghi become as the face of the papacy in Washington that, for much of the 1990s, as John Paul’s health declined, his name was regularly quoted as papabile.

Laghi was born in Castiglione di Forlì, in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. He was ordained a priest in 1946 but chose diplomacy over parish work, and joined the Secretariat of State on completion of his studies. His first posting was Nicaragua, from 1952 to 1955, followed by spells in India, the US and Jerusalem, where he struck up a particular friendship with the Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir.

In 1974, he was sent to Argentina. His six years there coincided with the worst excesses of the military dictatorship in what was known as the “dirty war”. Many in Argentina believe that the church hierarchy supported the generals in their misrule, and that Laghi — who played tennis regularly with one of the leaders of the junta, Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera — turned a blind eye to the murder and “disappearances” of thousands. “Perhaps I wasn’t a hero,” Laghi said later of his time in Buenos Aires, “but I was no accomplice.” The debate that his conduct generated was enough, however, to ruin any chance he ever had of becoming pope.

His tenure in Washington ended in 1990 when he was named the head of the Vatican’s congregation for education. He was a noted conservative voice in Rome as the ailing John Paul’s grasp on the activities of the Curia — or Vatican civil service — weakened. Laghi retired in 1999, and worked as a priest in the Roman church of St Peter in Chains. He undertook other occasional missions for his former boss, apart from his 2003 trip to Washington. In 2001, for example, he travelled to Israel, during a period of heightened tensions there, to press the case for peace and compromise with prime minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Fluent in three languages, urbane, witty, but always conscious of his dignity, he remained an active observer of international affairs to the end. One of his last public pronouncements — on Vatican radio — was to welcome the election of Barack Obama. He described it as “a liberation from that horrendous original sin which for so many years stained the image and nature of the United States, and that is slavery”. —

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