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The Church’s secret mission: Vatican diplomacy

God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon

Victor Gaetan | Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

John Burger - published on 07/15/21

New book by Victor Gaetan provides overview of Holy See's interest in international relations, current challenges and prospects.

“At the heart of Christian diplomacy is reconciliation between people, especially those with different traditions or history,” says Victor Gaetan, author of a new book about Vatican diplomacy.

God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon, published by Rowman & Littlefield, is an overview of Pope Francis’s unexpected emphasis on international relations. Providing a primer on the Church’s long history of diplomacy, Gaetan shows how and why it works, and offers a contrast to recent U.S. international decisions. 

Gaetan, a native of Romania, is a longtime correspondent for periodicals and journals such as the National Catholic Register, Foreign Affairs and America magazine. He has a PhD from Tufts University in ideology in literature. 

He shared some insights with Aleteia about the importance the Church places on diplomacy and some recent successes and future prospects for the mission under Pope Francis. 

Most people, I imagine, when they hear you talk about the Catholic Church, think about popes, bishops, priests, rituals, etc. I don’t think diplomacy is the first thing that comes to most people’s minds. When did the Church get into this “business”?

Remember what happened on Pentecost? People gathered in Jerusalem from foreign lands could suddenly understand the disciples, despite language barriers. At the heart of Christian diplomacy is reconciliation between people, especially those with different traditions or history. It’s baked into the Gospel: Christ sent the apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:18-20). 

In time, the Catholic Church institutionalized diplomacy out of necessity. In 325, Pope Sylvester sent three legates, including a bishop, to represent him at the Council of Nicaea, convened by Emperor Constantine. 

Fast forward to medieval Christendom, when papal mediation was called on to settle an infinite number of political disagreements and territorial questions across Europe. Rome deployed a variety of clerical problem solvers, all standing for the pope. That system of diplomatic representation became the basis for modern inter-state diplomacy — to this day.

In what ways is this diplomacy carried out?

Mainly through nuncios — Vaticanese for ambassadors. They are the pope’s personal representatives to a foreign government or a multilateral group such as the United Nations. Nuncios also play a key role in helping the Vatican select bishops. The Holy See has bilateral relations with 183 countries. Two new ones added under Francis are Mauritania and Myanmar. 

Nuncios gather information on what’s happening in each country — the politics and Church life — reporting up to the pope through the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. A nuncio (from the Latin word for “messenger”) can rely on lateral “intelligence” from bishops, priests, religious, and lay collaborators. In its diplomacy, the Catholic Church is less like a rigid hierarchy, more like an agile network. 

What advantages and disadvantages does papal diplomacy have, compared to that of secular states?

Secrecy is a tremendous advantage in diplomacy. The Holy See’s diplomats vow never to reveal what they know. And since Vatican City is not a democracy, there aren’t citizens clamoring to learn what’s happening behind the scenes. Secular diplomats tell me nuncios are among their most discreet colleagues, making them especially trustworthy. 

But the Vatican diplomatic corps is miniscule compared to other world powers. A large Vatican embassy (called a nunciature) may have up to five priests, as in Washington, DC, but most have just two: a nuncio and his secretary. Contrast that with a US or British embassy in a capital city such as Paris: You’ll find hundreds of staff and dozens of senior diplomats there.

What can papal diplomacy accomplish that the diplomatic efforts of nation-states are not so likely to pull off? Any examples spring to mind?

Since the Holy See has few material interests — just a tiny territory and no real economy — it is free to see the truth of temporal situations. When a pope is highly respected, as Pope Francis is, secular diplomats sometimes defer to his moral authority on, essentially, political matters. 

When Cuba and the United States reached an impasse in negotiating a new way of relating to each other, for example, it was Francis who got the two countries on the same page. Final negotiations were conducted at the Apostolic Palace in 2014. Deep distrust prevented the longtime antagonists from getting to yes, so the Vatican stepped in as a higher power with the authority to hold each side accountable.

Similarly, Pope John Paul II and his diplomatic team prevented war between Argentina and Chile over the Beagle Channel in 1978. It took seven years to hammer out a treaty, signed by both countries in Rome, but the arrangement has lasted to this day.   

Has the diplomacy of the Holy See taken on a new life under Pope Francis?

Between 1914 and 1978, every pope came out of Vatican diplomatic service, which profoundly shaped the modern Church. But Francis came in with no such experience, so there was no reason to expect he would excel. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio disliked traveling as an archbishop because he didn’t like being away from mi esposa (my wife), as he called his diocese. 

But Francis proves to have a knack for cultivating international relations. His experience managing a religious order under a brutal dictatorship; his mystical bent, discerning idealistic principles while insisting on concrete actualization; his independence as a man from the Global South, free of the Cold War mindset; and the missionary orientation he shares with other Jesuits combined to prepare him well for the Catholic Church’s extensive behind-the-scenes engagement in contemporary world politics.

Francis visited Iraq this year, and there’s even been talk of him traveling to North Korea. Based on the diplomatic track record of the present pontificate so far, do you foresee any further surprises in store, say, a papal visit to Russia or China?

Francis absolutely insisted on going to Iraq — against the advice of most diplomatic and especially security specialists around him. It proved that for the Holy Father, personal safety is less important than mission. And what’s the raison d’etre of Church diplomacy? Primarily peace—peace and reconciliation, which facilitates peace. 

So, I think it is easier to picture Francis traveling to North Korea than to China or Russia. Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin (the Holy Father’s alter ego on diplomatic strategy) have been quietly engaged with Korea intensely since 2014, when Francis visited the divided peninsula on his first trip to Asia. President Moon Jae-in and his wife are devout Catholics. And the Church in Korea is the fastest growing Catholic community in Asia. A papal visit to North Korea — the ultimate “periphery,” to use Francis’ mantra — could restart peace talks. Plus, the Korean Catholic Church is so powerful, I can honestly imagine them praying this into reality.

What threats exist for the future of papal diplomacy, particularly as the world (at least in the West) seems to be getting increasingly secular? 

Pope Francis has criticized Western governments and the UN for imposing “gender ideology” and other Leftist schemes on traditional nations. The Church has allied with Muslim-majority nations to block efforts to create a “right” to abortion under the UN flag, for example, at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. Taking these stands makes the Catholic Church a target for well-organized political forces, who could turn on the Church’s unique status as a fully engaged, permanent observer at the UN.

The Catholic Church’s sovereignty is what gives the Holy Father an entry ticket to the international system. We are the only world religion recognized as sovereign under international law. (A whole chapter of God’s Diplomats is devoted to explaining this.) I fear that even Catholics don’t understand the status quo well enough to defend it. So, Rome could be vulnerable to attacks on Church sovereignty, which is what makes our diplomacy especially effective.  

Pope FrancisVatican
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