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Once again, Vatican ignores democracy.

Something the Vatican spokesman said after the U.S. elections has nagged me since I read it. Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the pope hadn't sent congratulations to Bill Clinton because the Vatican practice was to wait until the inauguration. I can think of a good reason and a bad one for the practice. I hope, without much conviction, that in this case the good outweighs the bad.

In this world, it may not be a bad idea to wait until the new head of state is installed. There are cases where he has been interrupted on the way to office by a military coup. It might be embarrassing if the pope's message to an elected politician were received by a colonel.

An unworthy reason for delaying congratulations is the symbolism. Most of us think of the new president as elected when the people have spoken. By waiting for the swearing-in, the Vatican is waiting until the new president is anointed, so to speak. Thus its congratulations go not to the people's choice but to anointed authority.

It's a subtle way for a monarchy to ignore democracy. The Holy See, which does not consult the governed itself, thereby deals only with other holders of the metaphorical orb and scepter.

Those of us who have grown up with democracy and its counterparts -- enumerated rights, due process, checks and balances -- find that old-fashioned, not to say worse. Even the House of Windsor has come to terms with democracy. The See of Peter risks quaintness to the point of crankiness.

Until very recently -- until Centesimus Annus in 1991, to be exact -- popes found it hard to say a good word for democracy beyond its being "not excluded" as a form of government. Popes carefully never chose sides, which has something to be said for it when so many of their followers live under regimes that might take a good word for democracy personally and be offended.

We who grew up with election results that stand would like to assume there is a Vatican tilt toward our system, as opposed to, say, Haiti's. When the Holy See was the first government to recognize the regime that shot its way to power in Haiti, we had to rethink the assumption.

Earlier, Pope John Paul had chosen to be the first head of state to visit Kurt Waldheim in Austria. Waldheim had been democratically elected. His election was seen -- and proclaimed by supporters -- as establishing moral parity between those who had gained from the Nazi era and those who suffered under it. It was hard to greet Waldheim without recognizing such equity. Most governments didn't. The Vatican did.

Those two incidents probably are why I subjected Navarro-Walls' comment to further thought.

We are not dealing here with an otherworldly pope who communes with angels and may not be aware of the implications of politics. John Paul is a political pro who could have survived in Old Chicago.

He went beyond "not excluded" in his 1991 encyclical when he said the church "values the democratic system." But he didn't stop there. The sentence contains an "inasmuch," and the next paragraph begins with an "authentic democracy," as if there is inauthentic democracy which, of course, would not be valued.

Granted, it's hard for a monarch to say an unhedged good word for democracy without inviting questions he may not wish to discuss. Rhetorical ambivalence and nuanced approval keep the pope off one horn of a dilemma.

But the other horn can impale him. There is a dilemma because the Vatican is a state as well as a spiritual center. Its political acts are viewed through its spiritual claims. They are either a teaching moment or a point of confusion for the faithful.

To put it concretely, if the pope is wrong about Haiti, why can't be be wrong about the ordination of women? Fat theological tomes have been written to show the error in the question, but theological distinctions don't save people from beatings, arrests and torture.

What holds true in the intellectual realm does not necessarily obtain in the contingent world of politics. Heads of state whose foreign policies go wrong get into wars and lose elections or suffer dethroning. Political errors have consequences, even for holy sees.

What I am looking for is not a declaration that God created democracies. Pat Robertson may think so, but I don't. Democracies screw up like any other form of government. They just correct errors cleaner and, usually, faster.

What I am looking for, and what Vatican practice isn't providing, is acknowledgment that authority achieved at the point of a gun is presumptively bad.

If the Vatican could go that far, it might be able to recognize that authority is achieved in democracies through the vote of the people -- even if the voice of the people isn't the voice of God -- and not through an oath administered by a Supreme Court justice.

It has been that way for 200 years. How much farther behind the House of Windsor must the Vatican be?
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Title Annotation:waits until inauguration to congratulate Bill Clinton
Author:Blackburn, Thomas E.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 8, 1993
Previous Article:The Distinguished Gentleman.
Next Article:Just another act of executive lawlessness.

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