A Diplomatic Master

October 02 2023 | by

VICTOR Gaetan believes Pope Francis is a diplomatic master. And his 2021 book, God’s Diplomats, is a tour-de-force of the Catholic Church’s engagement in the world. With Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, continued questions over the Vatican’s agreement with China over the appointment of Catholic bishops, and an ever-shifting geopolitical landscape, Gaetan’s book is more relevant than ever.

In a Q&A with the Messenger of Saint Anthony, Gaetan explains why the Catholic Church engages with saints and sinners alike.


Mr. Gaetan, why does it matter that the Vatican is engaged in international diplomacy?

International diplomacy is one way the institutional Church interacts with the world. Considering how much the inter-state system impacts all human lives, it’s a crucial way the Holy See exerts influence.

The Catholic faith is the only Church represented at the United Nations, mainly as a historical legacy. In the Medieval period, the pope deployed envoys throughout Christendom – all of Europe and beyond – to settle all sorts of disputes. The Church structured modern diplomacy, and until the late 19th century it was itself a country via the Papal States. But we’re also at the UN because other nations recognize the Church’s value as a neutral actor with moral authority.

The duality of Vatican diplomacy – representing a state, serving a religion – is at the heart of its mission. As Jesus is both divine and human, the Catholic Church is simultaneously one thing and another. This double nature creates a tension between the ideal (imitation of Christ, who models perfection) and the real: interstate relations require compromise, even with terrible people.


You write about Pope Francis’ emphasis on the “culture of encounter.” What does this mean in the diplomatic realm?

Francis has shown extraordinary talent as a world diplomat. He came to Rome with valuable experience from Argentina. At age 37, Jorge Bergoglio was selected Jesuit provincial. During that time the military dictatorship launched the “Dirty War,” a violent campaign against domestic opponents, including many Catholics. So, he coped with the most difficult political circumstances imaginable.

Most important, he gained the throne of St. Peter with some well-formed ideas regarding how to advance peace and reconciliation. And these are straight out of his experience as a pastor. In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis introduces the “culture of encounter,” a golden thread in his approach to the world. It represents 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 the peripheries. Here’s what’s critical: the culture of encounter describes real encounters with real people. It’s a program of action, not theory.

For diplomats including Francis himself, it means ongoing personal engagement with government representatives, other diplomats, and national-level stakeholders – saints and sinners alike. Eventually, this humble engagement builds trust, which is the basis for reconciliation.


The world is focused on the conflict in Ukraine. How would you assess the effectiveness of the Holy See’s diplomatic engagement in the war so far?

First, no one outside the Apostolic Palace knows exactly what the Holy See’s engagement in the Russia-Ukraine War looks like. So much diplomacy is entirely behind the scenes, which is necessary for the persistence and creativity required. Plus, the Vatican is especially discrete regarding its moves.

We know Francis is frustrated that very little diplomatic engagement – requiring real encounter – is underway.

What Francis is trying to do now is advance the conditions for peace talks. He is trying to open a path to negotiations, consulting with all parties, especially religious leaders. So few impartial moral authorities exist in the world. Francis has proven his independence, including from the US and the Western elite. I know he has the capacity to play a unique role in this stubborn, tragic war. Although, as in World War I, it might be the Western powers who don’t want the Holy See involved.


How has Pope Francis’ diplomatic style differed from Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI? In what ways are they similar?

Francis is standing on the shoulders of giants. Despite some misguided attempts to paint the Pope as a rogue operator, his diplomacy is squarely built on the priorities and pragmatism of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. And Francis’s pastoral approach reaches back to Pope John XXIII.

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 multicolored coat. In terms of doctrine, continuity underlies stylistic difference in successive papacies.

At the same time, compared to his two predecessors, there are some differences in Francis’s diplomatic style worth observing. The Pope’s vision of the Church is more decentralized. Pope Francis has activated and empowered his network of diplomats, who are his eyes and ears in 184 countries. The Pope pours over reports from around the world every morning. He might be the most informed human being in the world. He enjoys being a manager and he manages the Vatican’s diplomatic apparatus vigorously.

As well, much more than Benedict, Francis is passionately interested in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. He has deployed very talented priests to advise him in these regions, and his diplomatic legacy will probably live longest in these places.


The Holy See’s approach to China has generated quite a bit of controversy. Is it working? Is it misguided?

First, Pope Francis builds directly on analysis and initiatives regarding China developed by his two predecessors, both of whom negotiated with the government of China, too. John Paul II did deep consultation about the Middle Kingdom after Mao’s cultural revolution ended. He concluded that two Catholic communities exist in China, one functioning officially, the other avoiding registration with the state, yet both loyal to the Holy See. So the goal became bringing the two communities together.

President Xi was selected as China’s new leader just a day after Francis was elected. So, the Pope wrote a personal congratulatory letter, and Xi responded, to the surprise of Vatican staff. He selected Pietro Parolin as Secretary of State in part because he led Benedict XVI’s negotiations with the Chinese government in the aughts (the decade from 2000 to 2009).

By 2018, clarity and consistency in his diplomatic approach brought Francis the farthest in defining a modus operandi with Beijing. The two governments signed a provisional agreement regarding the appointment of bishops, giving the pope final say.

Despite the fact that the topic is largely an internal ecclesiastic matter, and the text is not even public, the Pope received criticism mainly from the Anglo-Saxon world. Frankly, I believe the criticism is misguided for at least 3 reasons: 1) it misunderstands that the Church talks to everyone; 2) Catholic survival depends on bishops who assure apostolic succession; and 3) historically, national governments have often played some role in the selection of bishops.


Finally, what are the untold or underreported successes of Vatican diplomacy over the last decade?

Untold successes happen often, especially at the country level, led by nuncios (Vaticanese for ambassadors), which is unfortunate because the faithful have no idea how much good the Church does around the world on behalf of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. I’d say the most underreported accomplishment is how Pope Francis has assiduously strengthened relations between the Church and the Muslim world, step by step, with scant outside attention.

Early in his pontificate, at the height of ravaging religious violence in the Middle East, he fostered friendship with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo – a leader who had actually broken off relations with the Vatican over a remark by Pope Benedict about a bombing in Egypt. The relationship between Francis and al-Tayeb deepened over time, and led to the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed by the two men in 2019 in Abu Dhabi. A year later, Francis cites the document as an inspiration for Fratelli Tutti.

Four months ago, the Holy See signed a bilateral treaty with Oman, and late last year the Pope visited Bahrain, a small island nation on the Arabian Peninsula. The Holy See now has diplomatic relations with the seven Gulf states – all but Saudi Arabia. This is the result of systematic outreach and a fearlessness about engaging with others. It’s the result of Francis’s commitment to personal encounter and bridging all divides. He’s a diplomatic master.


Updated on October 02 2023