The Pope as Diplomat

How the Vatican Does Foreign Policy

As Pope Benedict XVI abdicates the papacy, retiring to a life of prayer and study, he leaves behind an admirable, if somewhat chequered, record in international relations.

His influence in foreign affairs -- like that of all popes -- has been considerable. As a truly global body with over a billion members, the world’s oldest diplomatic service, and a vast network of humanitarian aid organizations, the Catholic Church is arguably able to frame foreign policy in a way no other institution can.

That was perhaps most clearly evident during Pope John Paul II’s tenure, when the Vatican sided with the West in its struggle to topple Soviet communism. But the pope and the Holy See are not foreign policymakers as such -- they can only guide world powers toward a particular vision of justice and peace.

To understand Benedict XVI’s approach to foreign affairs, it’s important to note his background as a professor. More at home with books than with the diplomatic corps (many of his recent predecessors had been trained statesmen), he primarily sought to bring the teachings of the Catholic Church to the world stage, rather than dwell on practicalities. It was an approach that in many ways proved to be an advantage: Unconstrained by the protocols of diplomacy, he could more forthrightly proclaim the Christian message to a global audience -- and his methods bore fruit, although not without a cost.

His pronouncements, which often went right to the core of an issue, were regularly regarded as diplomatic gaffes. The most famous example occurred during his 2006 lectio magistralis at the University of Regensburg. In his speech, Benedict XVI memorably quoted a medieval emperor who implied that Muhammad had only spread Islam through violence. Although the lecture was primarily meant to show that contemporary militant Western liberalism and contemporary militant Islam share the same erroneous approach to truth, his quotation set off a firestorm, testing the Holy See’s relations with Islam-majority nations and forcing the pope to issue an apology for the reaction it caused.

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