The Pope as Diplomat

How the Vatican Does Foreign Policy

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives to lead his weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square. (Max Rossi / Courtesy Reuters)

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.

And yet his comments struck a chord with many who began to debate in their own minds the problem of violence among certain Islamic groups, even if they were unwilling to articulate the issue publicly. His comments initiated reflection on what it means to love God and love one’s neighbor, and they gave urgency to an ongoing Catholic-Muslim dialogue: No longer was it about mere niceties but more about genuine encounter. Specifically, it led Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to make an historic visit to the Vatican in 2007 and launch his own foundation aimed at improving interreligious understanding last year.

At the same time, Benedict worked hard to help foster peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Although he supported the recent UN General Assembly vote recognizing the state of Palestine, he was simultaneously able to improve relations between the Church and Israel by patiently persevering with bilateral discussions on settling the Fundamental Agreement -- an incomplete 1993 accord that formed the basis of Holy See–Israel diplomatic relations -- and by visiting the Holy Land in 2009. Israeli President Shimon Peres recently described Vatican-Israeli relations as “the best they have ever been.” Israeli and Jewish leaders would frequently remark that it was easier to deal with Benedict because “you knew where you stood with him.”

Under Benedict’s watch, the Holy See also established full diplomatic relations with Russia, Botswana, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Montenegro, and most recently, South Sudan -- bringing the total of countries with formal ties to the Vatican to 180.

That is not to say that the Pope was able to accomplish all of his core goals -- namely, to establish formal diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Saudi Arabia, China, and Vietnam.

Apart from the visit by Abdullah, there has been little progress in achieving religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. Churches are still forbidden there, and priests must minister in secret. Even so, the king has lightened the hand of the country’s dreaded religious police.

In China, the pope tried hard to improve the lives of Catholics. (Chinese Catholics loyal to Rome are forced to worship underground, and only the state church, the Patriotic Association, is officially recognized.) The pope, who made clear his desire to visit the communist nation, took the unusual step of writing a letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007 in which he urged Church unity and suggested ways to achieve it. Although the statement was received with enthusiasm by the nation’s faithful, it caused embarrassment to the Chinese authorities. Nearly six years on, diplomatic relations are little closer to being restored. Chinese Catholics loyal to Rome are still imprisoned and persecuted, and the Patriotic Church continues to consecrate “bishops” without Rome’s permission.

In Vietnam, where Catholics have long been persecuted by the communist regime, the pope has had more success. The Holy See recognized that the regime was amenable to reform. Thanks to extensive diplomatic efforts by the Holy See and the establishment of a joint working group in 2007, Vietnam has since become more cooperative with the Church. It has allowed the Church to appoint bishops, and in 2011 the Vatican appointed its first envoy to the country -- a step toward establishing full diplomatic relations.

Such successes, however, have not prevented criticisms of Holy See diplomacy, which, some say, has suffered in recent years. A number of Rome diplomats believe the Vatican is not as “focused” as it was just ten years ago and complain about poor lines of communication. Due to poor governance at the Vatican, they argue, the Church fails to transmit a unified international agenda. That is why, they say, many perceive the Catholic Church to be losing influence. “Either the pope is unaware of this and cannot get a hold of it, or he is aware and doesn’t care -- and both are unacceptable,” a senior diplomat in Rome told me a couple of years ago.

And yet on a personal level, Benedict would consistently look for opportunities to voice his concerns on the international scene, always reminding a country’s citizens to make space for God and resist a growing tide of secularism. He surprised many by traveling far more than people expected -- in the end, he made 24 trips outside Italy, including visits to Cameroon, the Holy Land, Lebanon, Turkey, the United States, and the United Kingdom. He viewed each papal trip as a pilgrimage, an opportunity to proclaim the faith and bolster the local churches. In turn, he strengthened relations between those countries and the Holy See.

That is just one approach to foreign relations that John Paul II and Benedict XVI held in common. “The two pontificates were marked by a striking continuity,” says George Weigel, a papal biographer, and the author of Evangelical Catholicism. “Both men had an acute sense of the discontents of twenty-first-century democracy and tried hard to shore up its crumbling moral-cultural foundations.” According to Weigel, Benedict's four September addresses -- the speeches he delivered in Regensburg, Germany; Paris; New York; and Berlin -- “rank with John Paul II's two UN addresses as among the most important papal statements on contemporary world affairs.”

In light of the pope's decision to step down, he clearly was aware of perceptions that the Church was drifting and did care enough to renounce the papacy and entrust it to someone younger and more able to govern. Besides, more than any particular diplomatic triumph, Benedict’s real legacy will be that he never missed an opportunity to teach the world lessons on how to achieve peace -- and he did so with startling simplicity and clarity.

“Peace,” he told diplomats earlier this year, “is not simply the fruit of human effort but a participation in the very love of God. It is precisely man’s forgetfulness of God, and his failure to give him glory, which gives rise to violence.” In the world of international diplomacy, it is teachings such as these that make the difference.

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