Many Catholics – even devout ones – are ignorant of or a tad ashamed about the innumerable modern diplomatic overtures of the Holy See, and/or its history as a temporal power. Many see these as somehow taking away from the religious credibility of the Popes or the Church as a whole. Certainly Papal diplomatic gaffes, political blunders, and unsavoury alliances are often thrown up in our faces. But apart from the obvious response that it would be impossible to find any institution of comparable age with a better record, the fact remains that –warts and all – the political, yes, and military history of the Popes, honestly studied, alongside the current diplomatic efforts of the Holy See, give one at least as much to be proud of as any country that is or ever has been upon the face of the Earth.
The temporal power of the Popes arose out of necessity. Once Constantine legalised the Church, donations of land began to be made to the Bishop of Rome – both in the Eternal City (Constantine set the example, giving among other things his Lateran Palace) and throughout Italy and Sicily. Over the course of the next three centuries these properties became known as the Patrimonium Sancti Petri. As the imperial power faded, the Popes dipped ever more into their profits from these lands to keep the people of Rome and environs fed. The Byzantine rulers of the Duchy of Rome became ever more insignificant in the life of the City, and – as the 6th and 7th centuries rolled on, the Pope assumed temporal as well as spiritual control of the City. Thus were born the Papal States; thus too was born Papal diplomacy.
From its beginning, the diplomatic (and occasionally military) efforts of the Popes have had several ongoing goals, which in one form or another continue to the present day. These are:
- Maintaining the temporal power of the Holy See in order to uphold its spiritual independence from any worldly ruler;
- Securing the free practise of the Faith in “Christian” lands and for missionaries in the remainder;
- Reconciling opposing Christian States; and
- Organising coalitions of Christian States against common political enemies of the Faith.
Now, as we shall see, the ways in which these goals have been sought have altered immensely, as the world in which the Church lives has. But the goals themselves remain amazingly static.
The first Civil Power with which the Church had to deal was, of course, the Roman Empire (though the Kingdoms of Osroene, Armenia, and Ethiopia adopted the Faith as their State Religion before Rome did). In that sense, Pope St. Sylvester I’s dealing with Emperor Constantine I was the first example of Papal diplomacy – indeed, as “State Church,” much of the Holy See’s early diplomatic dealings were with successive Emperors – some heretical, some orthodox – at Constantinople. The Papal Apocrisiarius was the Pope’s representative to the Emperor, and the post was held by such worthies as St. Gregory the Great prior to his election as Pope (and during which time he composed the Liturgy of the Presanctified for the Byzantines). This was an essential post, at a time when the Byzantine Emperor played such an important role in the election to and functioning of the Papacy.
But the Popes of that time had also to deal with the Lombards, against whom the Byzantines were increasingly feeble. This in turn led the Popes to send emissaries to the Franks to seek protection; this culminated in the donations of Pepin and Charlemagne, the coronation of the latter as Emperor, and the creation/revival of the Holy Roman Empire. The division of the Carolingian Empire and the weakening of its successor states; the inroads of Vikings, Moors, and Normans; the increasing distance between East and West; the creation of new Christian countries in Europe, from Sweden to Bulgaria; the growth of feudalism; the Ottonian and Hohenstaufen revivals of the Holy Roman Empire (and the Investiture Controversy); and such internal dramas as the pornocracy forced successive pontiffs during the 8th to 12th centuries to send legates scurrying hither and yon to find allies. It also required them to raise troops and build fortifications, and to participate in such battles as Garigliano and Ostia. With greater or lesser success, all of these actions were indulged in to secure both the physical security of the Papacy, and the freedom of the Church to act. In pursuit of these goals, a certain facility in coalition building became a hallmark of Papal policy.
Perhaps the apex of this facility was the long series of conflicts with the Muslim powers and other non- or anti-Catholic opponents called the Crusades. Beginning in 1097, these wars were different from the normal run in that – to merit the name – they had to be conducted against an enemy of the Faith, named as a Crusade by the Pope, and attended by a Papal Legate (frequently in nominal command). Although often considered to have ended with the fall of the last Latin States in the Holy Land in 1291, such efforts continued to be blessed and mounted until the early 18th century.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Popes were in the forefront of organising (and funding) various “Holy” and “Catholic” Leagues – either to prosecute a Crusade, defend the Papal States from outside powers (French, Spanish, or Imperial) in Italy, or else to fight the nascent Protestant heresies. Such titles as “Captain General of the Church,” “Gonfalonier of the Church,” and “Athlete of Christ” were given prominent soldiers who fought for the Church; so too did the Pope on Christmas Eve bless a special sword and hat for such heroes. Dom Gueranger, in his volume on Christmas, comments upon this ceremony:
The Divine Infant, who is to be born amongst us, is the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace, whose government is upon his shoulders [Isa. ix 6], as we shall sing to-morrow, with the Church. We have already seen how the God of Hosts has honoured this power of Emmanuel, by leading powerful Nations to acknowledge him who lay in the Crib of Bethlehem as the Lord to whom they owed their adoring fealty. The same recognition of that Babe as the Mighty God is made by the ceremony to which we allude. The Sovereign Pontiff, the Vicar of our Emmanuel, blesses, in his name, a Sword and Helmet, which are to be sent to some Catholic warrior who has deserved well of the Christian world. In a letter addressed to Queen Mary of England and to Philip, her husband, Cardinal Pole gives an explanation of this solemn rite. The sword is sent to some Prince, whom the Vicar of Christ wishes to honour in the name of Jesus, who is King: for the Angel said to Mary: The Lord will give unto him the Throne of David his father [St Luke i 32]. It is from him alone that the power of the sword comes [Rom. xiii 3, 4]; for God said to Cyrus: I have girded thee (with the sword) [Isa. xlv 1,5]; and the Psalmist thus speaks to the Christ of God: Gird thy Sword upon thy thigh, O thou most Mighty! [Ps. xliv 4]. And because the Sword should not be drawn save in the cause of justice, it is for that reason that a Sword is blessed on this Night, in the midst of which rises, born unto us, the divine Sun of Justice. On the Helmet, which is both the ornament and protection of the head, there is worked, in pearls, the Dove, which is the emblem of the Holy Ghost; and this to teach him who wears it that it is not from passion or ambition that he must use his sword, but solely under the guidance of the divine Spirit, and from a motive of spreading the Kingdom of Christ.
How beautiful is this union of energy and meekness under the one symbol and ceremony! This power of blending and harmonizing the varied beauty of distinct classes of truth is not to be found save in that Christian Rome, which is our Mother and where God has established the centre of Light and Love. The ceremony we have been describing is still observed. What a grand list it would be, had we the names of all those glorious Christian Warriors, who were thus created Knights of the Church, at this solemn hour, when we celebrate the Birth of him who came to vanquish our enemy! We are going to adore this Babe in his Crib; let us think of our Mother’s teaching, and pay homage to him as our Prince and King, and beseech him to humble the enemies of his Church, and vanquish those who are leagued against both our perfection and our salvation.
To supervise and assist the Counter-Reformation, the modern system of permanent nunciatures emerged, of which those of Venice, Cologne, Turin, and Lucerne were among the first. Nevertheless, the Peace of Westphalia, which brought the Thirty Years War to an end, essentially ended the military phase of the Protestant Revolt, leaving the new creed its conquests – Pope Innocent X protested the treaties, but to no avail. Indeed, this outcome also underlined an enormous diplomatic failure on the part of the Holy See – the lack of reconciliation of France and the Habsburgs in defence of their common Faith. Instead, for two centuries (1556-1756) France allied with the Turks and Continental Protestants against Austria, who in turn allied with Protestant Great Britain against France. Thus was arranged the dynamic under which were fought the first of the World Wars which have agitated the globe since: the War of the Grand Alliance, and the Wars of Spanish and Austrian Succession. This intra-Catholic rivalry also frustrated Papal efforts on behalf of restoring the Catholic Stuarts to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland. During the same period, disputes between the Holy See and such powers as France and Venice came and went.
All was not darkness, however, for Papal diplomacy in the age of the Baroque. The treaty of Tordesillas had regulated relations between Spain and Portugal in the East and West Indies; the granting of the Patronato Real to the Kings of both countries financed the expansion of the Faith into the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The Diplomatic Revolution of 1756 finally achieved what Pope after Pope had sought: the alliance of Bourbon and Habsburg. But the Holy See and religion played a small part in this reconciliation, and the resulting Seven Years War saw the defeat of the allied Catholic nations and the elevation of Protestant Great Britain and Prussia to the most powerful nations in Europe. The following spectacle of the Catholic countries ganging up upon Pope Clement XIV to force the suppression of the Jesuits well illustrated how low the diplomatic star of the Holy See had fallen.
This depressing situation collapsed with the French Revolution and the murder of the French Royal Family. All of Europe’s monarchies allied with the Pope, whose loss of Avignon was considered the first aggression of the new regime. This alliance, however, was ended by French occupation of Rome during their campaigns in Italy, and the resulting imprisonment and death of Pius VI. His successor, however, signed a concordat with Napoleon in 1801, crowning him Emperor of the French three years later. The two fell out, however, and Pius VII followed the route his predecessor had into exile.
However, such romantic writers as Novalis, Chateaubriand and de Maistre were convincing a large part of Europe’s reading public that, far from being an outdated anachronism, the Papacy plays an essential role in the happiness of humanity. This body of opinion, at the fall of Napoleon, immensely helped Cardinal Consalvi at the Congress of Vienna bring off the seemingly miraculous feat of recovering the Papal States for the Holy See. Although declining to join the Holy Alliance because of the ecumenical nature of its membership, Pius VII certainly sympathised with its goals. The years of the Restoration or “Congress System” were a rare time of quiet on both diplomatic and military fronts for the Holy See.
As usual, of course, it did not last. The revolutionary movements in Latin America, and in Europe in 1820, 1830, and 1848, brought forth a host of secularising governments who were as hungry for Church lands as Henry VIII had ever been. With the Risorgimento, this tide reached the gates of Rome itself, calling forth from Bl. Pius IX the formation of the Pontifical Zouaves and an ultimately unsuccessful decade-long struggle to retain his independence – it would end with the Pontiff bearing the melancholy title of “prisoner in the Vatican.” Governments across the globe took advantage of the Holy See’s distraction to usurp as much power over the Church in their lands as they could. From the Vatican and its nunciatures arose a seemingly endless chorus of protest, to no avail.
Even so, and with most of its territories under foreign occupation, the Holy See continued to play an important if often frustrating role in European diplomacy. Leo XIII was able to conclude successfully most of the political struggles inherited from his predecessor; France was perhaps his most notable failure. But in 1885 he was asked by Spain and Germany to mediate their territorial dispute in the South Pacific.
World War I saw a spectacular failure for the Holy See. Pope St. Pius X broke his heart attempting to stave it off. The eminently reasonable peace plan suggested by Benedict XV in 1917 was ignored by all the belligerent rulers save Bl. Charles I of Austria (and his no less saintly Empress Zita). They lost their thrones as a result of the war, as did Russia’s Nicholas II – who lost his life as well – and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II. At Woodrow Wilson’s behest, the Holy See was excluded from the peace conferences. The age of revolution and dictatorship had begun.
Pius XI was left to face the results: persecutions in the “Terrible Triangle,” Germany, and elsewhere. In the face of it all, he proclaimed the universal Sovereignty of Christ the King. He also accomplished a key goal of Papal diplomacy – securing territorial independence, albeit minimally – with the Lateran Treaty of 1929. Apart from that single victory, however, Papal diplomats were forced to look on as World War II loomed closer and closer. In 1937, the Pope gave Queen Elena of Italy the Golden Rose; three months after the start of World War II (and with the encouragement of the new Pope, Pius XII) she wrote to her fellow Queens of the then-still neutral countries of Europe to join together to try to stop the war. It had no more effect than Benedict’s peace plan, though this effort has been cited in the cause for Elena’s sainthood.
Pius XII’s diplomats were faced with the difficult tasks, initially, of ameliorating suffering during wartime, rescuing what refugees they might, and, as the Axis collapsed, helping to rebuild. After the War, the next threat was Communism, which, in addition its ongoing work in the Soviet Union, took up the persecution of Catholics in Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, China and elsewhere. In addition to trying to help those behind the Iron and Bamboo curtains, Pius XII supported Christian Democratic politicians in Europe and elsewhere; the nascent steps toward European Union by such as Schuman (who is a candidate for beatification), Adenauer, and Gasperi (who may likewise be beatified one day); and attempts by the United States to organise anti-communist nations in groupings like NATO, SEATO, and CENTO. Despite the radical changes the world had undergone through devastating wars and entering the Atomic Age, Papal diplomacy continued its old role of coalition building against the enemy of the moment.
But as Papal diplomatic history also shows, the Holy See is intensely pragmatic in its quest to protect the free activity of the Church; thus, having suffered persecutions at the hands of the French Revolutionaries, Pius VII attempted – albeit unsuccessfully – to accommodate the Church to the Napoleonic regime. Bl. Pius IX, although personally fond of the legitimate heir to the French throne, the Count de Chambord, for the sake of maintenance of the Papal States, had to ally closely with Napoleon III – going so far, indeed, as to have him prayed for as Emperor in the canon of the Mass. At the same time, however, the Pontiff cultivated (for the same reason) a similarly close relationship with Napoleon’s great rival, Franz Josef, the Austrian Emperor.
Bl. John XXIII faced a great and similar difficulty, indeed. On the one hand, the United States of America, although certainly not a Catholic nation in any sense of the word, were the great protector of what was then called “the Free World.” Should she and her allies triumph over Communism, well and good – but if not, the Church would be at the mercy of the Soviet Union. How to continue to function under that contingency? One way was to endorse whole-heartedly the work of the United Nations, and to take a more neutral stand in world affairs than did the very pro-American Pius XII. Another was to open direct communication with the Soviets; the result was the famous (or infamous) Metz accord. The result of this latter agreement was that Communism was not mentioned – let alone condemned – at Vatican II. Unwholesome as this accord may strike us, it is important to bear in mind that those on our side who made it did not do so in order to betray the Faith, as some have charged. Rather, it was in keeping with long-established traditions of Papal policy: to deal with the powers of this Earth to the degree necessary to allow the Church to function. Unhappily, it does not always work.
In any case, Vatican II did not merely signal a change toward Communism in the shape of Ostpolitik. At the time of the Council, there were only two constitutionally Catholic powers remaining in Europe: Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal; there were a few more scattered throughout Latin America and the rest of the world. For the first time since Constantine, the Church was entirely without a major secular protector. From Vatican II onward, the thrust of Papal diplomacy altered. Rather than seeking privileges up to and including establishment of the Church in various concordats, nuncios pushed instead simply for heightened “religious liberty” and the extension of human rights – initially of course, outside the Soviet bloc.
Under Paul VI, these directions formed the basis of the Church’s foreign policy. He also began a heavy intervention into the Arab-Israeli conflict, which intervention has continued until now; actively and controversially opposed the war in Vietnam; institutionalised the relationship between the Holy See and the United Nations; and endorsed the balanced development of the post-colonial Third World and (guardedly) the Non-Aligned Movement. Needless to say, not all of these initiatives were universally welcomed. Neither were his domestic moves: abolishing most of the hereditary lay offices of the Papal Court and the privileges of the Black Nobility; disbanding the Noble Guard and the Palatine Guard of Honour (whose members, however, formed the Associazione SS. Pietro e Paolo, and who, during the current Pontificate, have reverted to their old uniforms); demilitarised the Gendarmerie; streamlined the Papal chamberlains and other assistants; and in general removed many of the age-old trappings of temporal power.
Under Bl. John Paul II, while many of Paul VI’s policies remained intact, many did not. A native of Poland and skilled in dealing with the Communists, the new Pontiff subtly began attacking the system that oppressed his homeland – and steadfastly opposed its extension in Nicaragua; many credit him, alongside President Reagan, for the fall of the Soviet bloc. At the same time, as the West, now free of the threat of Soviet conquest, began to increasingly absorb non- and anti-Christian morality into its public life, the Holy See, through its membership in various multilateral agencies, began forming voting coalitions made up of the few remaining Christian governments, and ironically, Islamic States, to oppose these measures wherever possible. John Paul’s mediation staved off war between Argentina and Chile in 1982, and his seemingly endless journeys around the world both encouraged his flock and reminded the powers that be of the continuing importance of the Church in today’s world – if only because of its numbers. Perhaps in response the number of nations maintaining diplomatic relations with the Holy See (and the allied Sovereign Order of Malta) skyrocketed, until only a handful of minor states (though, to be sure, including Saudi Arabia and North Korea) today lack Apostolic Nunciatures. In 1986, he began concluding treaties with many states, regulating their Military Ordinariates in accord with new Church legislation.
Under Benedict XVI both the diplomatic struggles and growth of his predecessor’s pontificate have continued, albeit with a few notable additions. Among these is the rapprochement with Putin’s Russia, begun by a 2009 visit by the Russian leader to the Vatican. As a result, Moscow now has a Nunciature and the Holy See a Russian Embassy, the traditionally anti-Papal Russian Orthodox Church has declared the Vatican an ally in the struggle against the secularisation and de-Christianisation of Europe (and its publishing arm has issued a book of the Pope’s words), and the heiress to the Russian Throne, the Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna made a pilgrimage to Rome with her son in 2010, meeting both the Pope and the Secretary of State. The Holy See has backed Russia’s and Serbia’s stance against Kosovar independence, while maintaining friendly relations with the local authorities.
Pope Benedict’s dealings with the United Nations have roused some controversy, most notably in his encyclical Caritas in veritate, in which he calls for giving the UN and other such organisations “real teeth.” The reaction in some quarters was a bit hysterical, but it must be understood – in keeping with the tradition of coalition-building earlier referred to; that this is his reaction to the inescapable fact of globalisation, wherein all the forces that ally against – well, common decency, to say nothing of the teachings of the Church – unite on a global basis. The same, the encyclical makes clear, must be true of those forces’ opponents. Whether or not his is the best solution history, as with all of his predecessors’ policies, will doubtless tell us.
The diplomatic work of the Holy See today is regulated by international protocol originally worked out at the Congress of Vienna and last updated in 1961. By its dictates, the Pope, as Head of State of Vatican City, home of the Holy See, is given the honours and privileges of a sovereign (his status as Bishop of Rome is entirely separate, diplomatically); thus, all of the Cardinals, as possible inheritors of the Throne of St. Peter, have similarly the rank of Princes of the Blood in secular Monarchies. In traditionally Catholic countries the Nuncio is Dean of the diplomatic corps; elsewhere it is the diplomat with seniority in posting.
As with any Head of State, the Pope receives newly arrived diplomats at a ceremonial reception of letters of credence. In his speech answering that of the new ambassador, he will generally praise the history, culture, and Catholicity (if any – faith in general, if not) of the country concerned, raise any questions he might have about current conditions (sometimes delivering admonitions), and close by asking to be remembered to the Head of State and for blessings from God upon the new ambassador and his countrymen. Similarly also to universal practice among sovereigns, in January he will conduct a sort of levee for the Holy See’s diplomatic corps in January, during which time the Pope delivers a sort of “State of the World” address, indicating problem areas and possible solutions – every Pontiff has a global perspective, heightened by the lack of ambition for his country. The Papal diplomatic service is run by the Section for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State; young diplomats are trained at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy.
One of the peculiarities of Papal diplomacy is that, as a vestige of the days of the Roman Question, no nation may combine her embassies to Italy and the Holy See; either she must maintain two separate ones (with that to the Holy See often jointly accredited to the Order of Malta and San Marino), or else she must accredit an embassy in a neighbouring country with duty of representing her at the Papal Court.
Given that, with the exception of a few traditionally Catholic and to some degree, Orthodox nations, only a small minority of governments agree with the policies of the Holy See and the teachings of the Catholic Church, one might well wonder why they bother to deal diplomatically with the Vatican at all. The websites of the British and American embassies of the Holy See offer some insights. For the British:
Given the global reach of the Catholic Church, as well as its associated networks, the Holy See is both a global listening post, and an organisation which delivers key services such as healthcare and education.
The Embassy is therefore well-placed to interact with the Holy See on global issues such as international development, conflict prevention and post-conflict reconciliation, and environmental issues. Other areas of shared interest include encouraging disarmament, promoting and protecting human rights, and, in an era when religion is becoming increasingly relevant in international relations, charting the age-old discussions between faith and reason, and between the different faiths themselves.
This is closely echoed by their American cousins. While certainly an extremely secular outlook, it is perhaps preferable to that of the Irish, who recently closed their embassy to the Holy See and now deal with the Papacy directly from Dublin, ostensibly for economic reasons. Perhaps the Vatican should respond in kind, and deal with the Irish government from the London Nunciature. But in any case, one thing is certain – no matter how much they may dislike one another, the Holy See and the governments of the Earth will always have to co-exist, so long as their subjects have both bodies and souls.