In the past decade, a lot of ink has been spilled trying to discern the papal stance on GMOs. While in 2000, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences gave its preliminary approval, and more recently, some of its vocal members have openly endorsed GMOs, the Holy See, in its public communiqués, always went the way of Switzerland. But there were always rumors and those who suspected otherwise. The truth has seeped out, however, in recently leaked confidential WikiLeaks cables, and as a result, Vatican’s precarious neutrality has been shattered.
“Recent conversations between the Holy See officials and USAID … confirmed the cautious acceptance of biotech food by the Holy See,” wrote Christopher Sandrolini, a U.S. diplomat to the Holy See, in a cable dated August 26, 2005. The cable revealed that Vatican was not concerned about the safety, science and the legitimacy of biotechnology and that, in fact, the mainstream opinion in the Vatican was that the GMO science was “solid.” The Vatican did have an issue with the economic impact of GMOs on farmers. The Church was concerned that “these technologies are going to make developing world farmers more dependent on others, and simply serve to enrich multi-national corporations.” The U.S. diplomats actively lobbying the Holy See, however, apparently tried to assuage the Vatican’s concerns by referring to competition among companies and the regulatory process in individual countries as safeguards against these concerns.
The U.S. lobbying efforts, however, hit a temporary snag when one of its closest Vatican allies, Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Council for Justice and Peace at that time, withdrew his otherwise vocal endorsement of GMOs. A cable from August 26, 2005 flatly states: “A Martino deputy told us recently that the cardinal had cooperated with Embassy Vatican on biotech over the past two years in part to compensate for his vocal disapproval of the Iraq war and its aftermath — to keep relations with the USG smooth. According to our source, Martino no longer feels the need to take this approach.”
Fast forward to 2009 and we find that the Vatican is moving closer to openly embracing GMOs. In a November 19, 2009 cable another U.S. diplomat to the Vatican confirmed that the “Vatican officials remain largely supportive of genetically modified crops as a vehicle for protecting the environment while feeding the hungry …” The U.S. diplomat’s cable discussed the remarks made by Pope Benedict during the World Food Security Summit on November 16, 2009 in Rome, during which the Pope emphasized the connection between food security and environmental degradation. According to this cable, the Pope urged the international community to promote development while safeguarding the planet. Apparently, Pope Benedict sees the use of biotechnology is part and parcel of the “development” that he urged. Monsignor James Reinert, point person on food security and biotechnology at the Vatican Council for Justice and Peace, expressed a similar position to another U.S. diplomat during a meeting.
“Benedict’s mention of agricultural technologies” in his speech at the World Food Security Summit made the U.S. officials giddy as, according to the author of the Nov. 19, 2009 cable, it represents “a small but significant step towards more vocal Vatican support of biotechnologies.” It also represented to the U.S. officials that the years spent lobbying the Holy See were not for naught.
Taxpayers’ dollars advocating corporate interests — not a new concept but never pleasant when the public is reminded about it.
The U.S. diplomats to the Holy See were interested in not only influencing wide segments of the population in Europe and the developing world, but they were also hoping to convince the Vatican to stifle opposition and dissent among “elements of the Catholic population” in general, and clergy in the developing world more specifically. Although expressing a rather a snobbish attitude towards bishops in the developing world (calling anti-biotech clergy “uninformed” about the science), the current word from the Vatican is that it cannot force all bishops to accept biotechnology. Whether this position will change in the future remains to be seen.
Fundamentally, the WikiLeaks cables did not shock many observers of this topic. The cables, rather, reaffirmed what many already believed, namely that the Vatican supported GMOs and that a more hearty endorsement from the Holy See is likely in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, WikiLeaks cemented for many the understanding that US diplomats around the world are pushing GM crops as a strategic government and commercial imperative.
The greatest contribution of the WikiLeaks cable, however, lies in its dismantling of the Vatican’s position of neutrality. Prior to the revelations, the Holy See has tried to appear neutral by remaining silent on the issue or distancing itself when scientists from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences endorsed GMOs. All contrary PR campaigns by the Vatican aside, we now know where the Vatican stands on GMOs.