Ten days in the Vatican: anti-human-trafficking work, a Golden Bear pin and a kiss

UC Berkeley anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes returned recently from 10 days in the Vatican, where she met the pope and contributed to his efforts to spur the United Nations to intensify its anti-human-trafficking work.

Scheper-Hughes, director of Berkeley’s medical anthropology program, is an internationally recognized leader in the fight against human organ trafficking. She helped found the Berkeley Organs Watch project in 1999, and has traveled the world exposing abuses in the organ transplant trade.


Nancy Scheper-Hughes greet Pope Francis in the Vatican.

At the Vatican, she joined some 20 other scholars, human rights activists, government and civic leaders and U.N. officials for a plenary meeting on human trafficking, called by Pope Francis as part of his ongoing initiative on the global problem, which the pope calls a “crime against humanity.”

The group hammered out a four-page list of draft recommendations that, among other things, would make forced labor a penal offense, and called for the creation of a world anti-trafficking organization. Scheper-Hughes gave two presentations and says her primary contributions came in proposals relating to organ trafficking. One would prohibit “the buying, selling, brokering and implanting of organs and tissues from trafficking persons in all countries.” Another would ask the world’s religions to encourage voluntary and altruistic organ sharing. The recommendations were intended to inform the pope as he plans an address to the U.N. General Assembly in September.

During her stay, Scheper-Hughes lived in rooms that were catty-corner to the pope’s own suite on the first floor of the Domus Santa Marta, his residence. Some mornings, he sat in the shared dining room, having breakfast with a visiting priest or scholar. “We kept our eyes on our plates so as not to stare,” Scheper-Hughes reports. One morning, she was the only woman in the dining room “except for a nun from Kirala who was helping to serve the guests, all of whom were male clerics.” Though Scheper-Hughes dressed in black sweater and pants, and the clerics wore white robes, “In the end, clothes did not make either the man or the woman,” she observes. “Gender still remained highly marked , and many clerics at Santa Marta were uncomfortable sharing a communal table with a woman, let alone talking to her.”

The pope himself greeted every guest with a radiant smile, she says, and, unlike the clerics in the dining room, “seemed open to everyone he met.” The highlight of the plenary was a special audience with Francis, where the group presented its recommendations. Scheper-Hughes considered wearing a mantilla, “but I looked so patently absurd that I pulled it out of my hand luggage.” Bareheaded she went, bearing gifts: a note and a little Golden Bear pin from Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, along with her own writings.

A Catholic who was critical of the pope when he was elected, Scheper-Hughes says that as she approached him she wanted to hide. Instead, she bent down to try to kiss his ring, only to discover that he had no papal ring to kiss. “So I awkwardly kissed his bare hand as a Victorian gentleman from Vienna might have done upon being introduced to a woman he did not know,” she wrote in a post-trip letter to friends.

The pope sent Scheper-Hughes home with white papal rosary beads for Dirks.

A mysterious security crackdown inside Santa Marta during her stay — stepped up guard activity and an Internet shutdown  — was explained when Scheper-Hughes landed back in the United States. Headlines told of the arrests of nine people on Sardinia whom police had linked to an al Qaeda cell planning a strike on the Vatican as part of a jihad on Italy.