At a time of heightened religious sensitivity, Edward Pentin looks into the work of the diplomatic service of the Holy See, outlining how it can use its unique position and vast sphere of influence for the better
With origins that can be traced back to the very first centuries of the Catholic Church, the diplomatic service of the Holy See is considered to be the oldest in the world; strangely, it is also one of the least known. Early popes simply dispatched legates (or envoys) to represent them at important Church councils or for other matters, but by the fifteenth century these legates had become more permanent. During the sixteenth century they became officially known as ‘apostolic nuncios’ (papal ambassadors), and an exchange of representatives thus began taking place between those countries with established ‘nunciatures’ (papal embassies) and the Holy See.
Today the Holy See has formal diplomatic relations with 176 nations as well as the United Nations (where it enjoys Permanent Observer status) and other international agencies and secretariats. Its ambassadors are also automatically recognised as deans of the diplomatic corps wherever they are accredited, as affirmed in 1961 by the Vienna Diplomatic Convention.
What really singles the Holy See out, in this context, is its access to a vast network of missionaries, prelates and lay Catholics throughout the world, making it a valuable global ‘listening post’. As a result, Vatican diplomats are themselves very well informed and in a unique position to mediate disputes, prevent conflicts and ultimately save lives. Usually these achievements take place behind closed doors and rarely make the headlines. Even within the Church, few know, for example, that in 1978 the Holy See diplomats, led by John Paul II, prevented the ‘Beagle conflict’ – a border dispute between Argentina and Chile over three small islands at the tip of South America – from escalating into war.
Likewise, little is known about Archbishop Pablo Puente Buces, a former apostolic nuncio, and his significant role in bringing an end to the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war by reaching out to various militia groups and heads of Islamic political parties. Similar peace efforts were made by other Holy See diplomats in Eastern Congo and Mozambique. Most recently, the papal nuncio to Haiti, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, has played a vital role in marshalling resources after the country was hit by a catastrophic earthquake.
Often the Pope’s ambassadors – who number about 100 worldwide – put their own lives at risk in the course of their work. The apostolic nuncio to Burundi, Archbishop Michael Courtney, was gunned down in 2003 after campaigning for peace in the troubled country; and similar heroism was shown by Archbishop Fernando Filoni, apostolic nuncio in Baghdad during the Iraq War, who remained in his post throughout the hostilities.
Such readiness for personal self-sacrifice derives from a Vatican diplomat’s training. Schooled at the Ecclesiastical Academy, the Holy See’s ancient college for diplomats, candidates are taught to be priests first and diplomats second, which instills in them a sense of serving not just the interests of the Vatican but of their flocks – and ultimately the world as a whole.
A Holy See diplomat is also trained to be discreet. Pope John XXIII, apostolic nuncio to France during the Second World War, believed that a papal ambassador should always be ‘obedient and silent…always self-effacing and remain in the shadow.’
‘To know how to obey, to know how to be quiet, to speak when necessary, with measured words and with reserve, that is the role of the diplomat of the Holy See, and it is also that of Saint Joseph,’ he said.
The effectiveness of Holy See diplomacy can also be attributed to the fact that it represents both a sovereign state and a faith with privileged status, vital in this age of heightened religious sensitivity, as an interlocutor with the two other Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam.
Evidence of this role was seen shortly before Easter 2007, when Iran captured 15 British military personnel who were allegedly trespassing in Iranian waters. The UK government had few options: it couldn’t rely on the UN, the EU or many of its close allies to mediate the dispute because of ongoing differences over Iran’s nuclear programme. That left the Holy See as the only viable neutral mediator. Britain’s embassy officials and high-ranking Holy See diplomats therefore persuaded Pope Benedict XVI to send a letter to Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, appealing for the captives’ release.
The then Iranian Ambassador to the Holy See, Mohammed Javad Faridzadeh, recalled in an interview that his embassy received the Pope’s letter ‘with great happiness’ and immediately sent it to Iran in acknowledgment of the ‘spiritual importance the Vatican has throughout the world.’ Hours later, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad freed the captives, calling their release an Easter ‘gift’ to Britain – phraseology almost identical to that used in the Pope’s letter, which called for an ‘Easter gesture of good will.’
Aside from the Holy See’s independent standing, nuncios enjoy other advantages over their secular counterparts. As talent scouts, looking for new bishops in the countries they serve, they are close to the Church in their locality and consequently ‘nearer to the ground’ than members of other diplomatic corps. They also tend to occupy a generally privileged place within a nation’s political establishment, given their direct links with Catholics from the grassroots to the highest levels of religion and politics.
Yet many outsiders make the mistake of confusing the Holy See with Vatican City State, viewing it as merely 0.2 square miles of land in Rome. ‘They just don’t see the global reach,’ says one Rome diplomat accredited to the Holy See. ‘They think you’re dealing with San Marino. They don’t realise the flow of information.’
Alongside nuncios, Vatican diplomats stationed in Rome and other major arenas of international diplomacy can play a vital and significant role. As the Holy See’s Under-Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Pietro Parolin served as the Vatican’s ‘deputy foreign minister’ until last year. Although much of his work remains concealed, he was known to have been influential in advancing religious freedom in Vietnam, leading to last year’s historic meeting between the Vietnamese president and the Pope. Archbishop Parolin also made progress in relations with China, striking a delicate balance between ‘prophetic diplomacy’ and statecraft.
Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran was for a time the Holy See’s ‘foreign minister’ and now serves as President of the Vatican’s Political Council for Interreligious Dialogue. This new position has allowed him to help foster peace, particularly between Islam and Christianity, around the world. Last year, he made a trip to India following deadly battles waged by Hindus against Christians in the north of the country; some saw his visit as a major contributing factor to the restoration of peace and the aversion of future conflict.
More controversially, Vatican diplomats have also been at the forefront of lobbying, most notably at the UN during the 1990s, against proposed international statutes that would allow abortion. Kishore Jayabalan, who served as a Holy See official at UN headquarters in New York, considers the contribution made by the Holy See during that period to have been vital. The Holy See’s mission to promote human dignity, he believes, ‘is the most important thing, and that doesn’t matter if you’re President of the European Commission or you live in a shack and run a stand in a shanty town – you have the same God given dignity. Who else says that at the UN? People say it in terms of principle but who stands up to defend that?’
Vatican diplomacy does have its weaknesses, though. ‘Some of the best diplomats I’ve met are in the Vatican service,’ says one Rome diplomat. ‘But like any diplomatic service, it has its “stars” and it has others. You’ve got this global infrastructure and all this access to global information, but I couldn’t say that they all make the best use of it. Often it’s the absence of processing – sometimes the information just isn’t processed in sufficient time.’
Another disadvantage is that Holy See diplomacy can be constrained by the fear of retribution from local Catholic populations; whereas for diplomats of other countries, whose diasporas are likely to be much smaller, the danger is not so great.
Still, these weaknesses are minor when compared to the advantages conferred by the Holy See’s unique position and vast sphere of influence. In the 1970s, Henry Cabot Lodge, Special Presidential Envoy to the Vatican, asked a Muslim diplomat at the Holy See why his government thought it was worthwhile to maintain such a big mission at ‘a place which did not seem to concern him very much.’
The diplomat replied: ‘We don’t want to miss anything.’