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  • What is God’s Diplomat’s about?
    It’s the first study of Pope Francis’ diplomatic accomplishments set in a history of Vatican diplomacy. Between 1914 and 1978, every pope had served as a Vatican diplomat, which profoundly shaped the modern Church. But Francis came in with no experience in this arena, so there was no reason to expect he would excel. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio disliked traveling when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires because he didn’t like being a way from mi esposa (my wife) as he called his diocese. He even told friends he did not linger in Rome when he traveled to the Eternal City for meetings because “it’s bad for my faith.” But Francis proves to have a knack for cultivating international relations. His experience managing a religious order under a brutal dictatorship; his mystical bent, discerning idealistic principles while insisting on concrete actualization; his independence as a man from the Global South, free of the Cold War mindset, instilled in all postwar popes to date; and the missionary orientation he shares with other Jesuits combined to prepare him well for the Catholic Church’s extensive behind-the-scenes engagement in contemporary world politics. God’s Diplomat’s presents seven case studies of Francis’ accomplishments in the first eight years of his papacy (April 2013-March 2021) as Part II in the book.
  • Why is a historical context essential?
    To understand Francis’ mastery of the papal control panel requires an appreciation of the Holy See’s overall practice of foreign relations and its ancient roots. Part I of God’s Diplomats (pp 15-143) presents a concise history, the first such English-language review since Robert Graham’s 1959 classic Vatican Diplomacy: A Study of Church and State on the International Plane. The first resident diplomats in Western history were apocrisiarii, papal representatives sent from Rome to the Byzantine emperor’s court in Constantinople beginning in the fourth century. In the Medieval period, the Church developed a diplomatic system to serve the requirements of governing Christendom, the society with shared religious and cultural norms united by belief in God. Diplomatic tools were especially aimed at preserving unity. The Church and Christian doctrine was thoroughly integrated into the social fabric, while Rome in the person of the Supreme Pontiff was perceived as the ultimate authority and adjudicator, deploying agents to preserve the peace. The Catholic Church’s contemporary status as an international player flows in large part from this historical role.
  • In the book, you explain that Francis also benefits from institutional characteristics of Vatican diplomacy. What are those?
    The Holy See is organized as an absolute monarchy. That means all roads lead to the Supreme Pontiff (a title Francis rarely uses). The Catholic Church has no branches of government. The pope controls executive and judicial authority and there’s no legislature. Every member of the Vatican diplomatic corps today has the same boss: Pope Francis. Yet the caricature of the Catholic Church as a pyramid with the pope sitting on the top like a pharaoh—or CEO—is not accurate. In fact, the Church is a remarkably flexible network, organized vertically and horizontally, covering the globe. Vatican diplomats do not function in a closed or isolated system. On the contrary, they gather information, and energy, from a variety of interlocking organizations that share the same ethos, ranging from bishops with relationships to political leaders to religious sisters living in peripheral localities where the state might be absent, to lay movements with members throughout society. The well informed, discrete nature of the Catholic Church’s global diplomatic network gives each pope a flexible and responsive institutional capacity that goes far in explaining how the ancient bones of the Catholic Church remain so agile.
  • What is the difference between the terms “Holy See” and “Vatican”?
    “Holy See” refers to the government of the Catholic Church while “Vatican City” is the territory occupied by the Holy See, a land island enclosed by the city of Rome. This sovereign city-state is the world’s smallest independent country in terms of population and geography. Born of a treaty signed in 1929 with the Italian government, Vatican City gives the Holy See essential independence, but it is the Holy See that is the unique entity seated at the United Nations. Diplomats are accredited to the Holy See, not to the Vatican City micro-state (smaller in area than the Pentagon and its parking lot or the San Diego Zoo). So, while I use the terms “Holy See” and “Vatican” synonymously, the former is the power, and the latter is the place.
  • Do Pope Francis’ policies differ from his two predecessors?
    Despite some misguided attempts to paint the pope as a rogue operator, Francis’ diplomacy is squarely built on the priorities and pragmatism of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. And Francis’ pastoral approach reaches back to Pope John XXIII (1958-1963). Unlike political office holders, potentially bringing different platforms to the task, each pope inherits the same mantle of teaching and tradition. In turn, each opts to highlight various facets of the multi-colored coat. In terms of doctrine, continuity underlies stylistic difference in successive papacies. However, Francis is far more confident than Pope Benedict in leading strategic plans on a variety of fronts, while Benedict was more of an intellectual than a practitioner. Francis is also more involved in the nitty gritty details of diplomatic engagement than Pope John Paul II was. An example of how Francis continues priorities of his two predecessors while pushing into new territory is China. All three wanted to achieve greater unity for the Catholic Church in China but Francis’ team achieved the breakthrough in 2018. Francis was consistent and persistent in negotiations, while limiting the number of diplomats driving the deal. The story is laid out in chapter 11, including President Xi Jin-ping’s critical role.
  • What are some examples of Pope Francis’ skill, building on traditional papal roles?
    Throughout history, popes have served as mediators between secular powers. At the height of his power, in the Renaissance, the pope had authority to divide the world: In 1493, Pope Alexander VI drew a north–south line, from pole to pole, down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean dividing what the Catholic king of Spain could claim in the New World from what Catholic Portugal controlled in Africa. Francis assumed a contemporary role as mediator between the US and Cuban governments in 2014 (chapter 7), between successive presidents at odds in Colombia (chapter 9) in 2016, and between South Sudanese rivals in 2019 (chapter 12). In all three cases, the pope’s moral authority helped put tension on a new plane, which facilitated agreement. Francis’ willingness to get involved, his personal humility, and his independence from the twentieth centuries ideological battles also made him effective in these three cases.
  • What was something he did that was especially startling?
    Despite being personally close to the charismatic young leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), Pope Francis refused to enable the UGCC’s rhetoric about a Russian invasion of Ukraine during the Ukraine-Russian conflict that started in 2014. On the contrary, the pope bemoaned “fratricide,” pitting Christians against Christians at Ukraine’s eastern border. Francis’ active protection of dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) despite tensions in Ukraine—as well as the pope’s 2015 meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin when the West considered the Russian leader a pariah—led to a historical face-to-face meeting between ROC Patriarch Kirill, leader of the world’s largest Orthodox Church, and Francis in Cuba in February 2016, when war in Ukraine could have pulled the two apart. It was the first ever meeting of the heads of these two faith communities and the culmination of decades of negotiation as explained in chapter 6.
  • The Catholic Church is the only religion that is also considered a sovereign member of the international community. Why is that?
    Chapter 4 is dedicated to the Catholic Church’s unique “sovereign personality,” the term in international law that gives a state the right to negotiate treaties, exchange diplomats protected by the Vienna Convention, and gain recognition in the United Nations. Gaetan outlines four reasons for this status: a) the historical reality that the Church was thoroughly integrated and assimilated into the modern inter-state system that emerged after the Peace of Westphalia of 1648; b) the fact that even a landless Holy See (1870-1929) was given diplomatic recognition by other states; c) the perception in the international community that the Holy See makes valuable, unique contributions; and d) the 1929 Lateran Treaty between Italy and the Holy See granting sovereignty as “inherent.”
  • So you are saying, the Catholic Church is not a sovereign simply due to the existence of Vatican City. What is its relationship to the United Nations?
    Exactly. The United Nations, which has emerged as the main arbiter of sovereignty and the status of international actors, is clear that Church authority does not derive from the pinprick of territory upon which the Holy See sits. In the late 1950s, UN. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld observed, “When I request an audience from the Vatican, I do not go to see the King of Vatican City but the head of the Catholic Church.” In the UN directory of country names, you find guidance to use “Holy See” for all documents unless referring to telecommunications and postal issues when “Vatican City State (VCS)” is appropriate. (In the UN’s early days, it was VCS that was first invited into the UN family through its membership in the International Telegraph Union and Universal Postal Union.) Since 1964, the Holy See has had UN “permanent observer” status. In 2002, the secretary-general asked if the Holy See would consider applying for full membership as the only other permanent observer, Switzerland, voted that year to join as a full member. After extensive consultation, John Paul II concluded it would put the Holy See’s impartiality at risk but decided the UN should formalize the Holy See’s standing. Thus in 2004, the general assembly unanimously approved a resolution outlining the Holy See’s contributions while expanding its privileges after ten minutes of debate. One UN diplomat explained the new status as being akin to being a “full member state, just without the vote.”
  • You describe the beginning of modern Vatican diplomacy as occurring in 1870, what happened then?
    In 1870, the Kingdom of Italy completed the country’s reunification by stripping Rome from the Holy See. Pope Pius IX promptly declared himself a prisoner of the Apostolic Palace—a situation that lasted for the next 59 years until the Lateran Treaty was signed. Fortuitously, the first pope to cope with dispossession and landlessness for his entire pontificate was a graduate of the Vatican’s diplomatic school. Pope Leo XIII (1878–1903) understood diplomacy’s potential as he sought to reshape the Church’s global mission. Leo cemented the contemporary importance of the Vatican diplomatic corps as the infrastructure of papal influence not only to secular governments but to far-flung Catholic parishes throughout the world. The “captive popes” (1870-1929) did a brilliant job redefining Church power, centralizing it in the figure of the pope and forging new roles, valued by other sovereign actors.
  • The Vatican maintains the world’s oldest training academy for diplomats, the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, founded in 1701. What is its program like?
    With the conclusion of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the Church faced challenges from Protestant states and saw a need to enforce discipline on cardinals such as Richelieu and Mazarin who became major (rogue) diplomats working on behalf of secular interests. One response was creation of the Pontifical Academy of Ecclesiastical Nobles known as the Accademia, although admission was never limited to aristocrats. Its name was changed in 1939 to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy. Evidence of the Accademia’s universality was baked into its nature: more than half the class of students entering in 1706 came from beyond Italy. They represented some of the major belligerents in the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714): Austria, England, France, Ireland, Poland, and Portugal. One fundamental metric reflects how consistent the Accademia’s profile has been. In the first 20 years (1701–1721), 196 students graduated, and average class size was 10; in the first 20 years of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate (1978–1998), 195 students were educated at the school with an average class size of 10. Depending on the credentials a matriculating student has when he enters the Accademia, his course of study lasts 2-4 years. All are ordained priests. The Accademia’s specialized program covers international law, including treaties and conventions; diplomatic history, especially the role the Church has played; multilateral institutions; contemporary economic and social questions in the context of Catholic teaching; techniques of negotiation; and diplomatic style and writing. Information technology is required, minimally because Vatican communication is digitally encrypted. Two new courses were added for the 2020-2021 academic year: 1) The pathology of pedophilia; and 2) The plight of migrants. Pope Francis added a required “missionary year” as part of each diplomat’s formation for students matriculating in 2020.
  • All the Vatican diplomats are priests. How does that impact their approach?
    The fact that all accredited diplomats are ordained means they arrive at the Accademia with a degree in theology and a tremendous amount of shared knowledge, from familiarity with Latin to training on how to console the dying. This has two major implications for Vatican diplomacy: 1) Often, Vatican diplomats apply a pastoral approach by simply accompanying secular decision makers or mediating differences, using pastoral skills; 2) It gives the international priestly corps a certain “interoperability” when it comes to diplomacy. So, we find priests, especially their elite, bishops, assuming diplomatic roles. This is exemplified in chapter 8 on Kenya and in the account of how a Jesuit priest in Zimbabwe negotiated the end of President Mugabe’s regime in 2017.
  • What are the intellectual sources of Vatican diplomatic practice?
    The Catholic diplomatic tradition does not have one school or stock theory. Instead, five fundamental sources guide Vatican diplomats. Four are uniquely Catholic: Sacred Scripture, natural law, Catholic social thought, and the magisterium, prominently including key documents from the Second Vatican Council (chapter 3). Classic diplomatic texts comprise the fifth source (chapter 5). The Church’s intellectual foundation, especially the natural law tradition, assumes the ability of the Church to advance the good of all. So, its mission involves protecting the flock and the common good at the same time.
  • Machiavelli’s The Prince is probably the best-known treatise on inter-state relations. How does it fit into Catholic thinking on diplomacy?
    Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince might be the best known medieval treatise written by a Catholic practitioner known in our time but it was hardly the most influential. Written in 1513, its ends-justify-means advice to leaders who want to retain power is a product of its time: He represented the small but mighty Republic of Florence on missions to France, Germany, and Rome while an infamously corrupt pope, Alexander VI, sat on Peter’s throne. However, the Florentine has had little impact on papal diplomats with their own canon of classic guides, especially two, written by French Catholics. Europe’s first diplomatic handbook: Ambaxiator Brevilogus (Short Treatise on Ambassadors) was written in 1436 by Bernard du Rosier, papal legate to the Court of Castile in Spain, and later, Archbishop of Toulouse. Rosier explained that for diplomacy to be truly divine, to be God’s work, it should advance the common good, which requires peace. The author makes the case that an ambassador needs freedom of access and transit, security from violence, and exemption from local taxes. The sanctity Rosier assigns to God’s agents and the protections they need are the first attempt to define diplomatic immunity. These ideas form the basis of immunities formally assigned to accredited diplomats at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Immensely influential for centuries is On the Manner of Negotiating with Princes by Francois de Callières, published in 1716. Not only was it the go-to textbook in the eighteenth century regarding ideal conduct and methods, its influence revived in the twentieth century when scholar Ernest Satow quoted it extensively in his seminal A Guide to Diplomatic Practice (1917) and Harold Nicolson, a British diplomat and masterful commentator called it, “the best manual of diplomatic method ever written.” One finds in de Callières ideas that sound remarkably like Pope Francis’ diplomacy.
  • How do you characterize Pope Francis’ approach to diplomacy?
    In his first papal document Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel, 2013), Francis lists four principles that, he believes, should shape the thinking and behavior of those who seek to advance peace and the common good: time is greater than space, unity prevails over conflict, reality is more important than ideas, and the whole is greater than the part. Although abstract at first glance, the rules genuinely summarize his strategy and reflect his desire to avoid the divisiveness and competition that characterizes inter-state (and, too often, inter-personal) relations. He goes so far as to assert “their application can be a genuine path to peace within each nation and in the entire world.” In chapter 6, I show how these principles help explain Francis’ response to war in Ukraine. Overall, Pope Francis seeks to advance a “culture of encounter,” which is a pastoral style Francis applies to diplomacy. A diplomat who served as Francis’ permanent observer at the UN called the culture of encounter the “golden thread” tying all the pope’s “words and actions” together. This approach requires an attitude of open heartedness toward others, including rivals or opponents. It includes the pope’s call to “go to the margins” and serve people on social and geographic peripheries. Here’s what’s critical: the culture of encounter is meant to describe real encounters with real people. It’s a program of action not theory. (As one of his principles says, reality first.)
  • You outline ten “rules of thumb” pursued by Vatican diplomats—five long standing and five implemented by Francis. What are they?
    Five simple “rules of thumb” can be seen animating many Vatican diplomatic solutions for hundreds of years. They continue to be taught at the Accademia and are explained in chapter 5: Avoid Creating Winners and Losers Remain Impartial in the Face of Conflict Refrain from Partisan Politics Pursue Dialogue…with Everyone Walk the Talk: Show Faith Through Charity Pope Francis always emphasizes the following, latent in Vatican diplomatic practice: Start processes (that God can finish) Initiate encounters with humility and respect Proceed through concrete steps and gestures Allow mutual respect to grow step-by-step Find common ground and build agreement from that point
  • Do the Vatican and the US generally agree or disagree on international relations?
    It depends on the topic. Pope John Paul II strongly opposed the US invasion of Iraq. He sent a delegation to Washington DC to try to convince President Bush not to invade, to no avail. The junior diplomat in that delegation is today president of the Accademia, Vatican’s diplomatic school, Archbishop Joseph Marino, an American from Alabama. That disagreement has created tension between the two powers, to this day. Rome considers US foreign policy to be over-militarized Currently, the two also disagree about Russia. The Vatican considers Russia, where Orthodox Christianity is flourishing, a valued ally, especially in the Middle East. Bilateral relations between the Holy See and Russia were established in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI. Francis continued building engagement with both the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and Russian decision makers, meeting with President Vladimir Putin in 2015, when he was isolated by the West over Crimea. (Putin didn’t hinder the historic meeting between Francis and ROC patriarch Kirill in Cuba in February 2016.) The US and Holy See disagree over Jerusalem, considered by Rome to be an international city that deserves special designation, not the capital of one country. Under Presidents Bush and Trump, the Vatican opposed the demonization of Iran, where the Vatican has had continuous relations since 1953. Rome was supportive and helpful to the Obama Administration during its negotiations with Tehran over an anti-nuclear agreement.
  • Historically, have relations between the US and Vatican been close?
    Despite phases of coordination, such as Ronald Reagan’s relationship with Pope John Paul II to cultivate the anti-Soviet Solidarity movement in Poland, the modern norm—arguably since the US bought Catholic-majority Philippines for $20 million in 1898—is mutual skepticism between empires with deeply divergent world views. Mainly at odds when Rome refuses to defer to the American view of reality, the relationship has been punctuated by blowups. Popes consistently oppose US wars. President Franklin Roosevelt went ballistic when Pope Pius XII awarded full diplomatic recognition to Japan, just months after Pearl Harbor. The Vatican was horrified when the Pentagon unleashed nuclear mayhem on civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The second atomic bomb, which destroyed the largest Catholic cathedral in Asia, was a direct hit on the nation’s most historic Catholic district, founded by St. Francis Xavier, SJ in the sixteenth century. Despite extensive pressure from Harry Truman’s White House, the notoriously anti-Communist Pius XII refused to endorse the US crusade against Soviet power on the Korean Peninsula. A CIA director flew to Rome to reprimand a dying Pope John XXIII for opening a dialogue with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1963. The American warned him that it was dangerous “to dicker with the Kremlin;” to which the pope responded the Church would talk to everyone to achieve urgent tasks. Four years later, it was Pope Paul VI who slammed his hand on his desk in anger over bombing raids on North Vietnam—in a meeting with President Lyndon Johnson.
  • What is Pope Francis’ attitude toward war and globalization?
    Since 2013, Francis has said he sees a “piecemeal” World War III occurring across the globe. He blames arms merchants—and country’s that sell arms—for fomenting war because if you collect weapons, you will wind up using them. The pope sees financial interests behind war and thinks there’s no difference between American imperialism and Russian imperialism, for example. Francis opposes ideological colonization, often promoted by the UN and other Western actors. (Unlike the UN, the Catholic Church is actually local within every country, so it is never just an external actor.) He also opposes a vision of globalization that undermines national identity and national autonomy.
  • Francis’ policy regarding China has been controversial. How do you explain it?
    Francis’ policy does not differ from that of his two predecessors. Since John Paul II, Rome has understood that the two Chinese Catholic communities (the so-called underground, unregistered Church and the officially sanctioned Church) are both loyal to Rome. What differs is respective strategies for coping with the Communist Party that controls the country. Francis prioritized Rome’s relationship with Beijing immediately. He was elected pope within days of Xi Jin-ping’s election as president, which Francis took as a sign. One of the reasons Francis selected Pietro Parolin to serve as his Secretary of State was that Parolin led China strategy under Benedict, and came very close to achieving an agreement on the selection of bishops—the core concern and an eminently ecclesiastical (rather than political) matter. Francis has managed the diplomatic process with Chinese leadership particularly well. He did not allow inconsistencies that undermined Pope John Paul II’s effort to improve relations with the mainland, and he did not allow an anti-China group to take control, as happened under Benedict XVI. An interesting coincidence contributed to increasing the significance to Beijing of a deal with Rome: Francis and Xi were both in the US at the same time, in September 2015, and the Chinese delegation saw how popular the pope was with more extensive TV coverage and influence. Right after that, negotiations began on a different plane. Pope Francis’ emphasis on dialogue through personal encounter, finding common ground and proceeding from there, moving in concrete steps, and approaching interlocutors with humility and respect all combined to facilitate a breakthrough with Beijing that alluded his two predecessors.
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