The job of representing the pope in Burundi brings with it a fine colonial villa, but nobody would say Archbishop Paul Gallagher has an enviable post. In 2003 his predecessor, Archbishop Michael Courtney, died in a hail of bullets after mystery attackers ambushed his car. Whoever they were, the killers were clear about their target: the vehicle bore diplomatic plates and a Vatican flag, while the Irish cleric, in white cassock and purple skull cap, was known to all; so was his role in negotiating a peace accord, sealed a month earlier. The day of his death, December 29th, is now a fixture in Burundi’s calendar.
Thousands of miles away, on the frontier between Argentina and Chile, papal diplomacy is remembered in a different way. A mountain pass has been renamed after Cardinal Antonio Samorè, who before his death in 1983 helped settle a territorial dispute that could have led to war. In different ways, the Irish archbishop and the Italian cardinal represent the best of an ancient and often contentious quirk of the international scene: the fact that the Roman Catholic church, alone among faiths, is a diplomatic player.
Over the past century—despite the march of secularism—the Vatican’s role in world affairs has expanded. In 1890 a famous English Catholic, Cardinal Manning, said the Holy See’s diplomatic activities were “a mere pageant”, a medieval relic. He would be amazed to find that in 2007 papal diplomacy is more active than ever.
The real explosion came under John Paul II. When he was elected in 1978, the Holy See had full ties with 85 states. When he died, the figure was 174. Among states that dropped their misgivings were Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, Ronald Reagan’s America and Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. The Holy See now has full diplomatic relations with 176 states. Vietnam, China and Saudi Arabia are among the few without formal links. Recent years have also seen an expansion in the See’s multilateral diplomacy. It sits in on the deliberations of 16 inter-governmental bodies, including the United Nations, the African Union and the Organisation of American States.
The Vatican acts, by its own choice, as a “permanent observer” rather than a voting member of the UN; but it is a signatory to some UN human-rights conventions, including those on racial equality and the rights of the child. It uses these vantage points to lobby for its ideas: non-violence, a better economic deal for poor nations, the extension of international law, support for marriage—and, controversially, the “sanctity of life” from the time of conception, which means opposing contraception, abortion and euthanasia.
Arguments over the Holy See’s diplomatic status came to a head in 1994 when the pope’s envoys—lining up with Muslim states—used their muscle to water down the outcome of a UN meeting on population in Cairo. The Vatican took a similar, albeit slightly lower-key, stance at a follow-up conference in 1999. This prompted campaigners for “reproductive rights” to demand that the Vatican be stripped of its diplomatic status—arguing that neither as a state, nor as a religion, should the Holy See have a place at the UN.
The pope’s “diplomatic service” is a reminder of his unique and ambiguous status as both a religious and temporal leader. Formally, the pope’s diplomats represent the Holy See—not the Vatican state which, under a 1929 accord with Italy, is the sovereign power in part of Rome. But in years past, some states (such as America in the 19th century) would deal with the pope only as head of a sovereign state. The fact that pontiffs wear two hats, temporal and spiritual, gives them, and their interlocutors, a certain flexibility. In 2001, when Greece’s Orthodox clergy grumbled over a visit by Pope John Paul II, the government in Athens could retort that it was merely receiving him as a head of state.
But more and more governments have in recent years seemed happy to deal with the Holy See on its own terms, especially after John Paul II boosted its global profile. For any state, an embassy to the See offers attractions. For poor ones, it is a chance to garner information from one of the world’s best-informed chancelleries. For powerful ones, it offers a way to influence the Vatican and seek papal approval. Napoleon told his man in Rome: “Deal with the pope as if he had 200,000 men at his command.” After some years in Rome, the envoy said 500,000 was nearer the mark.
The real extent of the Vatican’s power is hard to compute. One in every six human beings was baptised into the pope’s church. Of course, many quit the faith, but he remains a global opinion-former. His views can sway Catholic votes—a point not lost on American presidents, who rarely miss a chance to visit the Vatican. In Burundi all top politicians and expatriates flock to Archbishop Gallagher’s residence for the papal feast day. Cutting a lower profile than his predecessor, the 53-year-old Englishman reports only “occasional” contacts with Burundi’s rebel factions, the last of which signed a ceasefire agreement in September 2006. In the rich world one respecter of papal clout is Britain’s new prime minister, Gordon Brown. Three years ago this son of a Presbyterian minister went to seek Vatican endorsement of a proposal to boost aid to poor nations. This year he returned to co-launch a plan to bring new vaccines to poor states.
The pope’s divisions
Papal diplomacy is almost as old as the papacy. But it was not until 1500 that a permanent nunciature, or diplomatic service, was established, in Venice. The earliest Protestant state to send an ambassador was Prussia in 1805: its envoy was Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, a philosopher and linguist. The first non-Christian state to establish relations was Japan, in 1942.
Of the countries with links today, only 78 keep missions in Rome—and they form one of the world’s odder diplomatic corps. The embassy with the biggest staff, along with that of Germany, is the Dominican Republic’s. Iran has a large mission, with as many diplomats as America. (“Who knows what other duties they have?” sighs a senior Vatican official.)
The diplomats’ main point of contact with the papal administration is the Secretariat of State, housed in the pope’s residence, the Apostolic Palace. It has two departments: the Section for General Affairs deals with national churches, while the smaller Section for Relations with States does conventional diplomacy. Its current head, in effect the Vatican’s foreign minister, is Dominique Mamberti, a French expert on Islam. Born in Morocco, Archbishop Mamberti has represented the Holy See in Algeria, Chile, Lebanon, Sudan and at the UN.
Papal diplomats, all priests nowadays, are trained at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome. The academy has had a colourful history, once losing its assets to a rogue administrator. Its graduates do two jobs: representing the Holy See to the local government and keeping a vigilant eye on national churches. Vatican envoys usually stay longer en poste than secular ones (one nuncio was in Dublin for 26 years). Some cover vast cultural distances: the nuncio in Algeria was born in Taiwan.
Conventional diplomacy is a small part of what they do. “In most places, 95% of our work relates to the life of the church,” says a former nuncio. “The overwhelming bulk of the correspondence has to do with the appointment of bishops.”
Another big difference between papal and ordinary diplomats is that the former have little protection—and never pull out of dangerous situations. “The pope leaves his representatives to suffer with the people of the country to which they are accredited,” says a Vatican official.
Compared with many foreign services, the Holy See’s is tiny, less than 300-strong. There are rarely more than two people in each mission. According to the Vatican’s official directory, the “Section for Relations with States” has only 18 diplomats and 29 other staff in Rome. Until recently, one desk officer watched Britain, South Asia and bits of Latin America. Yet visitors to the Vatican “foreign ministry” are amazed by the knowledge they find. “We are priests,” says one veteran. “We have no family. We work 24 hours a day if necessary. It’s the key to understanding why we are so few, and so efficient.”
Oded Ben-Hur, Israel’s envoy to the Holy See, adds that its diplomatic service is “just like any foreign service, with different people having different abilities. But they have an advantage: they are highly cultured. They know languages. They know history. They are very well-informed.” A former papal envoy to a war-torn nation tells with pride how the American embassy would send a diplomat each morning to ask him about the war zones, knowing the pope’s man would have been fully briefed by local nuns.
Like their secular counterparts, these brainy clerics have in recent years had to share the diplomatic action with other institutions, both official and unofficial. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, a sort of overseas-aid ministry, speaks for the Vatican in some forums, while an independent Rome-based body, the Sant’Egidio Community, has achieved some of the more spectacular successes of Catholic diplomacy. Sir Ivor Roberts, a former British diplomat who worked with Sant’Egidio over schools in Kosovo, calls it an “unorthodox, extra corps d’elite” that can plug gaps “in areas where conventional diplomacy hasn’t worked.” Mario Giro, a Sant’Egidio official, says it is now doing mediation work in “Darfur, Ivory Coast, north Uganda and two other places outside Africa I cannot name”.
In Burundi last year the Catholic Peacebuilding Network—which calls itself “a network of practitioners, academics, clergy and laity”—held a meeting on the Great Lakes region that involved the nuncio, local bishops, Sant’Egidio and other Catholic agencies: an array of expertise on the related conflicts of Burundi, Rwanda and Congo. Last month the network held a similar pan-Catholic forum in Colombia.
Even as they share tasks with sister agencies, envoys from the Vatican must live with the fact that their boss—like any political master—reserves the right to upset the whole apple-cart with “undiplomatic” outbursts. John Paul II’s blunt talk about communism swept away years of cautious accommodation. His successor has upset Muslims (by seeming to link their faith with violence), South Americans (dismayed by his views on the record of missionaries), Jews (because of the revival of a liturgy whose original form called for their conversion, though the number two in the hierarchy has said that bit of the rite might be changed), and most recently, Protestants, who ask why the Vatican chose last week to repeat its view that their churches don’t deserve the name.
These embarrassments highlight one of the drawbacks of the Holy See’s ambiguous situation: it enjoys many of the privileges of a state while also speaking for a faith. Vatican officials say this paradox is both defensible and beneficial: unlike diplomats who act for a state, and whose first duty is to promote and protect its interests, papal envoys strive for the good of humanity. A former Vatican “foreign minister”, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, said recently the Holy See “tries not only to promote and defend, if necessary, the freedom and rights of the Catholic communities around the world, but also to promote certain principles without which there is no civilisation.” But it also has a specific political agenda. It wants international status for Jerusalem. It recognises Taiwan as China. Listing the keystones of foreign policy, Cardinal Tauran stressed the “right to life at all stages of biological development”.
Statements like that make the Vatican respected in some quarters, mistrusted in others. Some activities, such as taking lethal risks for peace in Burundi, are almost universally admired. But in an age when the power of independent agencies (including Catholic ones) is growing by the day, mightn’t the Vatican enhance its authority by clarifying its own status? Instead of claiming to practise a form of inter-governmental diplomacy, it could renounce its special diplomatic status and call itself what it is—the biggest non-governmental organisation in the world.