Could Vatican diplomacy be more useful now than ever?

Could Vatican diplomacy be more useful now than ever?

By Luke Vargas   
Swiss guards at the Vatican. October 5, 2016. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
Swiss guards at the Vatican. October 5, 2016. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

In an age of uncertainty could the Catholic Church’s diplomatic contributions be more useful now than ever?

“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas from our studio at U.N. Headquarters in New York.

The following is a complete transcript of Episode Eight, “The Vatican’s impressive diplomatic reach.”

Subscribe to weekly episodes of “Wake” on iTunes or Google Play, and follow the broadcast on Twitter @WakeOnAir.


Luke Vargas: There’s the Catholic Church, and then there’s the Holy See. A nation with diplomats in 183 countries, and they’re not sitting on their hands. From starting up talks between the U.S. and Cuba to trying to mediate the crisis in Venezuela, the Vatican diplomatic corps is as active as ever.

What role can Vatican diplomacy play in the world? Could the Church’s diplomatic contributions be more useful now than ever?

We’re taking on those questions next on Wake.

Thanks for tuning in. We’re coming to you from U.N. headquarters in New York.

Several weeks ago on this show we focused on the crisis in Venezuela, and one of our panelists mentioned the Vatican’s attempts late last year to mediate between the government of Nicolás Maduro and the opposition. I then realized it was the Vatican that had sent secret letters to both President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro in a bid to get the two countries talking again several years back.

Here at the United Nations we’ve seen the Vatican take on a big role pushing a new global treaty banning nuclear weapons. Go back further and you’ll find the Vatican participating in the 2013 Geneva peace talks to try and end the Syrian war, before that, in the Truth and Reconciliation process in post-Apartheid South Africa also involved the Vatican. Pope John Paul II was actively involved in the Solidarity movement in Poland.

Vatican diplomacy, it turns out, traces back centuries, but it’s been particularly active under Pope Francis.

To help us understand Vatican diplomacy I spoke earlier this week with Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican’s Permanent Observer at the U.N.

Archbishop Bernardito Auza at a U.N. symposium on the protection of religious minorities Worldwide. November 13, 2014. UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz
Archbishop Bernardito Auza at a U.N. symposium on the protection of religious minorities Worldwide. November 13, 2014. UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

Luke Vargas: Archbishop, thank you very much for the time.

Archbishop Auza: Thank you.

Luke Vargas: For the uninitiated, I was hoping you could tell us more about the size and the scope of Vatican diplomatic efforts, the diplomatic corps, and a little bit about the global footprint of the diplomatic corps.

Archbishop Auza: Thank you for the question. Certainly, people are asking, what is the difference between the Vatican, the Vatican City State, and the Holy See? Now the Vatican City State is a small state, a territory, which is the seat of the Holy See. The Holy See is really the entity that is recognized by international law as having the capability to exercise diplomatic relations and, that is, to receive and to send diplomatic delegations.

So as of now there are 116 diplomatic missions of the Holy See. And these 116 missions are accredited to 183 countries in the world. And then they are also present in countries even without diplomatic relations with the Holy See. So it is probably one of the most expansive, I wouldn’t say probably, but certainly it’s one of the most expansive diplomatic networks in the world.

Seven of those missions are multilateral – like the United Nations in New York, the United Nations in Geneva, the European Union, the offices in Vienna, et cetera – and 112 of them are bilateral – accredited to countries. And as of now the Holy See, the Vatican, has diplomatic relations with 183 countries out of 193. And lately, just a couple of weeks ago, with Myanmar.

So that’s how we might say the global footprint of our presence, and we have never closed a nunciature, we have never closed a diplomatic mission – it’s continually expanding. I’m sure in the new future, more permanent diplomatic missions will open.

Luke Vargas: I want to ask you a little bit about the current pope, Pope Francis, who judging by the headlines in the newspaper and many academic accounts is taking a very hands-on approach to global affairs, whether he is traveling to areas of conflict or refugee camps, or using the tools of the modern age, such as social media, to promote his message.

I’m curious how you view the role he has played in developing the Vatican’s diplomatic role. Has he had a hand in the current structure?

Archbishop Auza: Well, definitely yes. He sets our agenda, in a sense, even at the United Nations, especially at the United Nations. Because really the diplomacy of the Holy See is really multilateral by nature, really. We deal with really huge international questions and the pope sets the tone, sets the priorities of what we also should be actively engaged [with] at the Untied Nations.

And as you mentioned very well his efforts to bring peace to so many conflicts in the world today. He has been to the Central African Republic. Unfortunately, as you might have read in the paper, his visit to South Sudan may not be realized this year. But he is indeed very concerned about conflicts and wars, which are now really one of the main drivers, if not the primary driver, of refugees, migrations, massive displacements of people. So for us that is really, it’s a really fundamental priority for us here at the United Nations.

Pope Francis visits the Central African Republic as the last stop on a 2015 tour of Africa. UN Photo/Nektarios Markogiannis
Pope Francis visits the Central African Republic as the last stop on a 2015 tour of Africa. UN Photo/Nektarios Markogiannis

We keep on pushing ideas from the pope on how to, even in a general sense, how to solve problems: the question of an encounter, the question of dialogue, the importance of negotiations, the importance of political compromise – all these principles we put into our statements at the Security Council or to the different discussions at the United Nations.

And then of course he’s very big on migration. That’s also one of our very, very important themes that we are engaging at the United Nations. And then you have climate change. Of course, we have a constant preoccupation, of course, about respect for life, the nature and the function of the family and marriage, et cetera.

So all this whole gamut of big questions that is not only contention to what is happening now, but also across years and even throughout really, you might say, the history of humankind. And it’s really the pope telling us where we should put our energy and our efforts, and at the same time he is really the one leading our diplomacy in a sense. He’s hands-on, he puts out themes and then we usually, kind of, make ourselves like a springboard to echo his thoughts about these big international questions.

Luke Vargas: You mention a few priorities – protecting the planet, environmental issues, protecting vulnerable persons like refugees – I’m curious if there’s a broader framework for how the Vatican decides how to exercise it’s diplomacy. Does a, for example, a Catholic community need to be under threat for the Vatican to get involved diplomatically?

Archbishop Auza: Oh not really. It’s not the spirit that’s always driven our participating in the activities at the United Nations – it’s been really our intention to contribute to the international community, to the international discussions about themes that the Catholic Church’s experience of humanity across millennia, practically 2,000 years, and then, you know, our own perspectives about how we understand human being, how do we understand rights, how we understand responsibilities.

So when we say that what would trigger a diplomatic effort or a diplomatic missions or a diplomatic act of the Holy See – when there are, for instance, fundamental violations of fundamental human rights, whether irrespective of race or irrespective of ethnicity, irrespective of religion. So it’s not because a Catholic community is being attacked, not because they’re Catholic, but above all it’s for us a big human rights question.

We condemn persecution of the Christians in the Middle East, but not only of the Christians, but we always make it a point that we don’t condemn it simply because they’re Christians, we condemn it also because these are fundamental violations – I mean, huge violations, mass atrocities, violations of fundamental human rights – not only against Christians, not only against Catholics, but also against other ethnic minorities and religious minorities in the Middle East.

And we also add that even members of the majority religion, or the majority race are also suffering, so we also have to denounce that, we also have to make it a point that we are acting simply because they are Catholics or Christians.

The Holy See flag (right) flies at UN headquarters for the first time, ahead of a visit by Pope Francis. September 25, 2015. UN Photo/Amanda Voisard
The Holy See flag (right) flies at UN headquarters for the first time, ahead of a visit by Pope Francis. September 25, 2015. UN Photo/Amanda Voisard

Luke Vargas: Is there any risk to the church as a religious institution when the Holy See engages in diplomacy? Could it prevent the church from, let’s say, being recognized in a specific country?

Archbishop Auza: Well naturally, you know, the diplomacy of the Holy See preceded much, much earlier than the Vatican City State, and we exercise diplomacy not because the Vatican City State is a state, but it is because it is the Holy See as recognized by the international law, specifically the Vienna Convention.

This is the most ancient diplomacy in continuous exercise – it’s never been interrupted. And it has also changed, in a sense, its approaches according to the times, it’s priorities. So there is certainly always a danger, even a tendency to be misunderstood. People, for instance, here at the U.N., some people in the U.N. but also especially outside the United Nations, say, why is it that the Catholic Church is the only religion admitted at the United Nations?

Well I said, we are not there because we are the Catholic Church, we are the Holy See, which is recognized by the international community as capable of exercising its diplomacy.

So we do have our priorities from our specific perspectives. We think that we should take care of nature, the environment. Fundamentally for us it’s a moral imperative. Fundamentally it’s also a religious imperative, because we believe that the environment, creation is a gift to us for which we must take care of. It’s not only because for selfish reasons that it’s bad for us, but we believe that more than, for what we might say, negative reasons we must take care of the environment because that is our duty, our responsibility.

Luke Vargas: Archbishop Bernardito Auza, thank you very much for the time.

Archbishop Auza: Thank you, thank you.


Luke Vargas: Let’s open up the discussion now and build on what the Archbishop said.

On the line from Washington today is Father Drew Christiansen, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Human Development in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Father Christiansen, welcome.

Father Drew Christiansen: Thank you, Luke.

Luke Vargas: And in Stanford, California is Dr. Jodok Troy, originally from the University of Innsbruck in Austria, but for now at the Europe Center at Stanford University where he’s been writing on Vatican diplomacy. Jodok, welcome to the show.

Dr. Jodok Troy: Hello. Thank you for having me.

Luke Vargas: Jodok, I think the Archbishop did a good job presenting some of the statistics about the current diplomatic footprint of the Vatican. You note that Napoleon once said his aides should “deal with the Pope as if he had 200,000 men at his command.”

Beyond the sheer numbers of countries in which the Vatican is present and the number of civil servants of the church, what makes the Vatican effective as a diplomatic player?

Dr. Jodok Troy: Well first of all, it’s certainly the job that the Archbishop has in the United Nations, which gives the Vatican – that is, the Holy See – a voice within the United Nations and in other international organizations. But besides, the Holy See takes a very realistic approach in its foreign policy practice.

It does not, for example, translate the church’s theological views into its diplomatic practice. Doing so it is able to remain neutral to a certain extent. Rather it seeks an overlapping consensus between moral and religious imperatives, as the Archbishop pointed out.

Second, it has a quite wide-ranging network that consists not only of diplomatic missions, but of parishes around the globe, not to speak of the countless aid projects that are led Catholics.

Another point is certainly that Holy See diplomats are not, per se, strangers like ordinary diplomats in the host countries, but tend to insert themselves with the people there on the ground. After all, they represent more than 1 billion people on the globe.

So all of these gives the Holy See a rather unique knowledge, unique capabilities, and ultimately influence in the diplomatic means.

Pope Francis addresses the General Assembly during his visit to United Nations headquarters. September 25, 2015. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
Pope Francis addresses the General Assembly during his visit to United Nations headquarters. September 25, 2015. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Luke Vargas: Father Christiansen, what about that? What are the Vatican’s unique strengths when it comes to the art of diplomacy?

Father Drew Christiansen: Well I’d reinforce what Jodok Said about, what John Paul Lederach – a Mennonite – talks about, the verticality of the church. One of the reasons the church is effective is because it’s present at different levels of society and is able to act on different levels of society.

What’s really important in divided countries is the church can also function in different ways. So there are many countries in which bishops, for instance, bishops conferences, as most recently in Congo, have served as conciliators. And when they do that, they do it with the permission and frequently the guidance of the Vatican.

Frequently they find they’re pushed into those positions because they’ve been defenders of human rights. And if they’re taking up that role then, to be a human rights advocate, you have to be impartial, so then they have to be impartial.

So there’s a kind of flow there between their engagement in the society and neutrality when neutrality is necessary. The diplomats themselves are probably more neutral, but the church in its different roles goes from being engaged to being neutral, I’d say.

And that is a strength. You have different parts of the church that can relate differently to the problem.

Luke Vargas: Father, I want to transition from abstracts to specifics.  Could you walk us through how the Vatican helped lead the U.S. and Cuba into dialogue several years back and any ways in which that involvement highlighted the Vatican’s diplomatic strengths?

Father Drew Christiansen: Again I think it’s not just the diplomats, although I think the diplomats took it to conclusion. The bishops of Cuba and the bishops of the United States had been active on that issue for some time and working with the Holy See in promoting that.

What we have in Pope Francis is a pope who’s very proactive, and he took it further and contacted the two presidents by letter, asking them to be engaged, and seeing the continuation, particularly of the U.S embargo, as being a great deprivation of the Cuban people, and asked to see that it could be relieved in some way, and then moved it ahead.

But it was, it was not just the pope but the church working in concert, I think.

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Cuba President Raúl Castro in the Oval Office, Sept. 18, 2015. White House Photo / Pete Souza.
President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Cuba President Raúl Castro in the Oval Office, Sept. 18, 2015. White House Photo / Pete Souza.

Luke Vargas: Jodok, the Archbishop mentioned that there isn’t another religion represented at the United Nations. Beyond that though, among world religions, is there anything quite like the Vatican when it comes to diplomatic engagement, whether or not they have a seat at the United Nations?

Dr. Jodok Troy: Well the Archbishop is right in that regard that there is no other religion that is highly institutionalized in terms of diplomatic representation and practice. But besides, of course there are other religious bodies like the World Council of Churches, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and a host of other, so to say, private engagements of the faithful, like the Community of Sant’Egidio, which brokered some peace deals, especially in Africa.

But all of them could not accomplish what the Vatican and the Holy See are doing in terms of diplomacy, and in terms of diplomatic practice, just because the church has been there for so long, it has a territory and, above all, it’s highly hierarchical.

Luke Vargas: Jodok, in your work you’ve noted that the continuity of players within the Holy See diplomatic corps and the church as a whole lends it some stability. It’s not, for example, like the U.S. government, where so many people come in and out on a regular basis and policies can’t be maintained over time.

Archbishop Auza, in some of his recent lectures, has also said that the policy of the church is to maintain continuity, to build on the strengths of previous popes. And yet, everyone says Pope Francis is different, that he’s bringing new energy to Vatican’s role in diplomacy.

Could you highlight any changes that Pope Francis has ushered in that have transformed the diplomatic abilities of the Vatican in recent years?

Dr. Jodok Troy: In a sense, Pope Francis is even more global in his outlook than his predecessors have been. He sees the roots and the future of the church in the “Global South,” that is to say at the margins of, from a western perspective, to what we are used to normally.

So therefore he tries to shift the geopolitical focus to the south and to the east.

To the south, for example, by helping to reestablish diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. And toward the east, for example, in seeking to establish formal relations between China and the Holy See.

Father Drew Christiansen: There were two earlier advantages that Pope Francis is able to build on.

One is that Vatican II, as opposed to previous diplomacy – which was basically just about the interests of the church as an institution – the post-Vatican II diplomacy has been interested in a diplomacy of peace and conscience, and particularly of human rights.

Participants at an undated meeting of the Second Vatican council in the early 1960's. Photo: Lothar Wolleh
Participants at an undated meeting of the Second Vatican Council – also known as Vatican II – in the early 1960’s. Photo: Lothar Wolleh

At the time of the Council, Pope John XXIII introduced a large program of human rights and the church founded various human rights offices, justice and peace offices, and [Francis] builds on that.

And I think the second is that although John Paul and others worked with NGO’s, working in a period in which NGO’s are very important in U.N. circles. At the negotiations on banning nuclear weapons, they have been invited to participate and to contribute, and everybody I talk to at the U.N. says that’s going to be the model of the future, that civil society will have a role.

And that church is kind of a mediator between civil society and governments, I think, and so has a special role to play.

One of the major actors in this area is Archbishop [Silvano Maria] Tomasi, and he just came back from a conference in Cancun, which was led by the Holy See on issues of humanitarianism, in which 150 countries participated. So this is a kind of indication of that special role the Holy See plays as a link between civil society and states as such.

Luke Vargas: These are uncertain times in the world, and I think it’s clear that President Trump is not going to have much to offer when it comes to resolving conflicts around the world – he seems pretty embattled here at home and doesn’t want the U.S. to police the world. Do you see the Vatican taking on a bigger diplomatic role in the coming years? And is there a particular conflict or topic on which you’d expect the Vatican to take the lead? Jodok I’ll start with you – 

Dr. Jodok Troy: I’m not sure about if it’s going to be more needed, but one thing that is certain is that in a world in which religion plays more and more of an important role, is that an actor like the Vatican, that is to say the Holy See, certainly brings in a lot of expertise.

This is, for example, the case with issues like religious freedom and religious persecution. Many conflicts are taking place around the world in which a Catholic minority is at stake, for example.

So there are a host of issues and conflicts around the world right now and in the foreseeable future where the Holy See is likely going to play a role, not least in cases where so-called “ultra discreet diplomacy” is a necessary undertaking.

Pope Francis visits refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. April 16, 2016. Photo: L'Osservatore Romano
Pope Francis visits refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. April 16, 2016. Photo: L’Osservatore Romano

Luke Vargas: Father Christiansen?

Father Drew Christiansen: The next major issue you’re going to be able to see the pope play a role in is the question of refugees and the humanitarian crisis of the refugees in the Mediterranean.

His next encyclical will be, is very likely to be, on migration and refugees. And in reorganizing the department that deals with social issues, he’s taken the care of refugees under his own wing with two priests working directly with him on the refugee question.

Luke Vargas: Father Drew Christiansen, senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. Father Christiansen, thank you for the time.

Father Drew Christiansen: You’re welcome. Good to be with you.

Luke Vargas: And Dr. Jodok Troy at Stanford University’s Europe Center, thank you.

Dr. Jodok Troy: Thank you very much.

Luke Vargas: If you like what you just heard leave us a review on iTunes or follow the program on Twitter @WakeOnAir.

And if there’s a subject you’d like to be featured on an upcoming episode, we’re eager to hear from you. Send us a note at and you just might hear your idea on the airwaves soon.

I’m Luke Vargas, signing off. Join us again next week on Wake.

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