Thursday, February 5, 2015

At the Heart of Vatican Diplomacy

Over at EPPC, George Weigel has published a fine article entitled "Evangelical Challenges for Vatican Diplomacy". He establishes his premise with a worthy first paragraph and goes on to draw some conclusions and make some suggestions, also regarding problematic relations with certain countries.

"The bilateral diplomacy of the Holy See is unique in world affairs, in that it has little or nothing to do with the things with which diplomats typically occupy their time: trade issues, security matters, visas. Rather, the reason why the Vatican engages in bilateral diplomacy is to secure the freedom of the Catholic Church to be itself in the countries with which the Holy See has, or wishes to have, diplomatic relations. To be sure, in crisis situations, the Holy See’s representative in a crumbling or violence-ridden state can also serve as an honest broker amidst contending local parties, or a voice for persecuted Catholic communities, or a channel for humanitarian assistance. But whatever the situation, the first task of the pope’s representative to another sovereignty is to help maintain free space for the Church’s evangelical, sacramental, educational, and charitable missions, all of which are essential to what it means to be “the Catholic Church” in any human situation."

Far be it from me to challenge George on anything and certainly not on his basic premise regarding why the Holy See has sought to obtain and establish bilateral relations with 180 nations and has a comparable number of resident ambassadors (150) to those maintained around the world by the big powers, like the USA and China. But neither compulsion nor the Weigel premise, that "...the first task of the pope’s representative to another sovereignty is to help maintain free space for the Church’s evangelical, sacramental, educational, and charitable missions, all of which are essential to what it means to be “the Catholic Church” in any human situation.", explains how this investment in personnel and material (buildings and operational expenses), which amounts to much more than most countries are willing to spend to further cultural, commercial and geopolitical aims, serves the designated purpose. In a couple words, if evangelization is your goal, there are better ways to spend your money.

Without wishing to scoff at my own trade or sell my colleagues all over the world short, I wish to question whether furthering the spread of the Gospel, in the strict sense, by freeing space for the mission of the Church, is indeed the primary goal of Vatican diplomacy. The ancient roots of my trade are tied to papal legation as exercised first at the court of the emperor in Constantinople and then at the courts of western emperors, various kings and queens across Europe. The first residential or permanent legations, of which remain today only Madrid and Vienna, functioned basically as branch offices of the Roman Curia, as was the case for Apostolic Delegates in Latin America and Africa right up until Vatican II. The enduring trait of Vatican diplomacy, however, which explains why now in the post-Conciliar period, despite the radical reduction of bureaucratic work on behalf of Rome for the Church in a given country or continent, is the drive to be present and acting in the public square, in the midst of the nations.

The unification of Italy in 1870, depriving the Pope of the Papal States and confining him to the Vatican for almost sixty years, was a terrible trauma, even if most church historians love to rate it a godsend for the Papacy. Despite what we learned in the Academy about the sovereignty of the Holy See, without territorial hegemony, based on custom/international law as illustrated by the continuous sending and receiving of ambassadors over the course of those years, I believe the case can be made for a concerted will on the part of the Vatican not to be excluded from the public square, aka world diplomatic community. This way of reading it speaks better to the reciprocity of it all, most nations being flattered by this attention from (you choose): the world's oldest monarchy, the central government of world Catholicism, an entity which stands for peace, justice, and doesn't look to improve its balance of trade with the other.

By rights, I owe both George and the reader some thoughts on the other important chapter of international accords, concordats and the like. Highly touted by some, they generally serve the contracting state more than they ever have the Holy See and the cause of the spread of the Gospel. More on that at another time!

It sounds too harsh to say that Blessed Pius IX somehow managed to get his grief institutionalized but that is sort of what I am trying to say. Perhaps the debate some of the Council Fathers demanded on the issue was premature, but the real question is not the one of diplomacy. Since Blessed Paul VI, it has been clear that Papal Representatives in the bilateral sphere have as their first duty to foster the Petrine Ministry, to help the Holy Father strengthen the brethren, bind Christ's Church together in love. Maybe now is the time to look again to see just how we are doing on that account?

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