Pope John Paul II has been known to become uncharacteristically furious when accused of trying to influence the politics of the countries he visits.
But like any preacher who focuses on the moral dimensions of contemporary social problems, the pontiff often steps across the unclear line that separates morality and internal politics, sometimes to the distress of national authorities who are sensitive to possible papal meddling.
Although he has done it only once during his current American pilgrimage--in San Antonio when he appeared to encourage members of the sanctuary movement who have clashed with authorities by providing haven to illegal Central American refugees--some of the themes of his speeches in the remaining days of the papal visit suggest that he may become "political" again, perhaps when he speaks on social justice in Detroit.
But as longtime Pope-watchers often note with admiration, he probably will do it with the skill of a master politician, leaving himself a safe "out" if domestic authorities question his remarks, as they did in San Antonio.
There, in a homily at Mass that was devoted almost entirely to religious topics such as the sacrament of penance (confession of sins), John Paul launched briefly into a characterization of his host city as a crossroads between Latino and other cultures, "a kind of laboratory testing America's commitment to her founding moral principles and human values."
Among those values, he cited America's historic welcome to immigrants, most recently "the movement of people northwards," about which he had been briefed by Archbishop Patrick F. Flores. A Vatican source said the briefing included a full explanation of the sanctuary movement.
"Among you there are people of great courage and generosity who have been doing much on behalf of suffering brothers and sisters arriving from the south," the Pope said, stepping into the no-man's-land between morality and politics. "They have sought to show compassion in the face of complex human, social and political realities."
Members of the sanctuary movement, some of whom have been tried and convicted for aiding illegal aliens, immediately interpreted the pontiff's remarks as encouragement for their cause. So did most of the journalists who heard John Paul make the remarks. And so did the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which demanded to know if the Pope was encouraging illegal activity in the United States.
A classic example of a Vatican clarification that gave comfort to both sides of the highly charged political issue came the next day from the Pope's spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro Valls.
"In his homily in San Antonio on Sunday, the Holy Father addressed the phenomenon of undocumented immigration on the moral, not the legal, level," Navarro said in a written statement. "While expressing compassion for undocumented aliens and admiration for those who seek to aid them, he did not endorse any specific movement or group nor did he encourage violation of the civil laws as a solution to this problem."
When asked if the statement meant that the Vatican was denying that the Pope encouraged members of the sanctuary movement, Navarro said forcefully: "I did not say that. I said that he did not endorse any specific movement or group."
The result was that the INS was satisfied, the sanctuary people still felt encouraged and the pontiff deftly made his point without being branded a meddling politician, an accusation that touches off papal anger like none other.
It was such a charge, in fact, that triggered the only public display of papal fury that any member of his traveling entourage can remember. It happened on the long flight back to Rome from Bangkok during an around-the-world trip in May, 1984. As the pontiff walked through the press section of his chartered plane, an Italian reporter asked why he had ventured into Southeast Asian politics in an anti-Marxist radio speech that he had broadcast that day to Marxist Vietnam.
John Paul's normally pale features flushed lividly as he waved an admonitory finger in the journalist's face and shouted: "This is not politics, this is morals! This is a moral question, not a political one!"
On another occasion, after characterizing the military regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet as dictatorial while en route to a papal pilgrimage in Chile, John Paul disclaimed any political intent. "Politics? This is not politics," he said of his moral objection to dictatorships. Then he scoffed at what he called the over-sensitivity of politicians who, he said, "want to keep us (priests) in the sacristy."
"His political experience was in his homeland, where the authorities say that the church is permitted to exist, but don't come out of the church," said a Vatican official, explaining John Paul's resentment of those who think the moral concerns of the church should be confined to the pulpit and not swept into the mainstream of national life.