The Vatican has a long memory, and that helps explain its less-than-enthusiastic response to Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize.
The day Gore was announced as a winner, the Vatican newspaper covered the story in a single sentence, buried on an inside page.
Then at a Catholic meeting in Pisa last Friday, Cardinal Renato Martino let slip a rather caustic remark. “Allow me to express well-founded puzzlement over how and to whom the Nobel Peace Prizes are assigned — even if they have gone to very worthy people in previous years.” Ouch. He never mentioned Gore by name, but the message was clear.
Why the antipathy? After all, Gore’s concern about global warming seems to be echoed in recent remarks by Pope Benedict and other Vatican officials, and Cardinal Martino’s own Justice and Peace council hosted a Vatican conference on climate change earlier this year.
The answer goes back to a Vatican-U.S. ice age under the Clinton administration. The year was 1994, the place was Cairo, and I was there covering the Vatican’s participation in the International Conference on Population and Development. The Vatican delegation was chiefly concerned over proposed language that would accept abortion as a method of family planning, and saw the U.S. administration as pushing that agenda at the Cairo conference.
At a key point in the debate, Gore, then-vice president and the head of the U.S. delegation to Cairo, sat down for a private meeting with Cardinal Martino, the head of the Vatican delegation. Few details were made public, but there was not a meeting of the minds.
The Vatican thought Gore was being duplicitous. He had insisted that the United States was not trying to have abortion recognized as an international right, and said assertions to the contrary were “outrageous allegations.” But the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, suggested this was just a pose. “The draft document, which finds in this American administration one of its strongest sponsors, contradicts the words of Vice President Gore,” Navarro-Valls told reporters.
The clash was unusually public and left a bitter aftertaste … one that still lingers.