Soft Power Heard 'Round the World: a Look at Vatican Diplomacy

…peace is not simply the absence of warfare, based on a precarious balance of power; it is fashioned by efforts directed day after day towards the establishment of an order willed by God, with a more perfect justice among men and women. 

—Blessed Paul VI [1]  

Pope Francis’ episcopate has delighted, and in some cases, confounded commentators with his bold statements and his desire to reform the Vatican’s scandal-plagued bureaucracy. Francis has also sought to return the papacy to the leading international role it attained during the era of St. John Paul II. John Paul II not only was the first non-Italian to be elected to the papacy since 1522, he also traveled so widely and drew such overflow crowds everywhere he went that some historians believe no other human being in the history of the world had been seen in person as much as he was. [2]   

When Paul VI traveled outside Italy he was the first pontiff to do so since 1809. While popes have always issued commentaries, encyclicals, and made statements on international issues, the travels of such Bishops of Rome as Paul VI, John Paul II, and Francis have added untold credibility to their statements, which otherwise might have come across as ivory-tower pronouncements. Francis has also installed a trusted Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who shares the pontiff’s concerns, and has a seasoned resume from serving the Holy See in diplomatic hot-spots like Vietnam and Venezuela. [3]  

Pope Francis was criticized in a number of circles last year when he refused to meet the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and de-facto international symbol of the struggle to liberate Tibet from China’s domination. [4]  Was the Holy See practicing realpolitik or was there something more in play here? The soft power of the Vatican, of course, has limits in a fallen world. The pontiff and his representatives have “only” moral suasion, where secular powers with the greatest armies and economic sway may continue to do as they see fit whether acting ethically or not. China has a surprisingly high number of Roman Catholics although they are organized by the ruling Communist Party into associations that ultimately are loyal to the State rather than the Holy See. Keen observers see a key element to the Vatican’s brand of diplomacy in the reaction to China that is geared towards the “long haul,” not an election cycle or an annual report as many political leaders or corporate interests might. Pope Francis and his advisers likely seek to keep open lines of communication going with the Chinese Communists so that their voices can be heard on subsequent human rights issues that a more confrontational approach won’t receive.

The popes who served in the totalitarian era prior to and during the Second World War (i.e. Pius XI and Pius XII) played a delicate balancing act by renouncing racism, anti-Semitism, and chauvinistic nationalism, but also signed treaties with unsavory regimes to be able to protect the Catholic interests in war areas so that their personnel could minister to beleaguered citizens and assist persecuted populations wherever they could.  Similarly, after the War, Popes St. John XXIII and Blessed Paul VI spoke out against the spread of communism but also implicated the Western powers for their role in the subsequent Cold War intrigue. [5] St. John Paul II’s personal experiences as a young man in Nazi Germany-occupied Poland, followed by his country being led by a Russian Soviet-controlled communist government in his formative years as a cleric, gave him the experience to confront totalitarianism forcefully, while understanding that the lot of populations under the control of these states could be made worse if some care and discretion were not maintained in public statements. John Paul lent his support to the non-violent Solidarity (Solidarnosc) labor movement in 1980, which stressed that self-organized social groups could advance the rights of its members and affect social change without violence and without formal connections with societal elites. The international audience reached by the Pope did not bring military strikes, and the Solidarity movement and the allied Orange Alternative artistic movement were persecuted by the Polish government, but the opposition movement grew and got more determined until the puppet regime toppled in 1989. [6]  

This long term vision for change was also seen recently in Pope Francis’ efforts to broker the end of the U.S. embargo of Cuba. As far back as 1998, St. John Paul II had visited the island and spoke out against the U.S. policy. [7]  But it took years of work by Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the Archbishop of Havana, to build up trust in the Vatican’s intentions within the corridors of power in the Castro regime, while also defending the Church’s integrity and independence from being co-opted or stage-managed by the State. That unsung effort finally paid off with Francis’s ability to invite representatives of both governments for secret meetings at the Vatican, which paved the road for the thaw in relations.

John Paul II and Ronald Reagan forged a close relationship because both men wanted to send communism to the graveyard of bad ideologies during their tenures. But the back story of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and The Vatican is much more ambivalent. From its beginnings as a nation the U.S. sent representatives to the Holy See, but stopped doing so in 1867. Heightened Catholic immigration to America resulted in a rise of anti-Catholic bigotry from the primarily Protestant population. A notable development was the development of a conspiracy theory that key members of the ring of plotters who killed President Abraham Lincoln and attempted to assassinate other members of his cabinet were Catholics, or doing the bidding of the Jesuits. [8]  One-hundred seventeen years elapsed before the Reagan administration restored ties, although informal envoys and communications continued to take place from time to time in the long period of diplomatic malaise.

Although recent presidents such as the Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have all expressed admiration for the pope who served at the time they were in office, there should be no mistaking the fact that the Holy See holds to its independence, and calls the U.S. to task when it feels that our government has taken the wrong position on a particular issue. When Republicans with conservative ideas have held the reins of power, issues relating to American materialism, economic inequality, the unchecked power of Wall Street, and the use of the death penalty have cropped up in public statements by the sitting pontiff. On the other hand, popes have been critical of the policies of Democratic administrations regarding abortion, same-sex marriage, and the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Additionally, some policy decisions that both Blue and Red forces in American politics have supported, such as the Afghan and Iraqi wars, subsequent “enhanced interrogation” techniques, detentions without trial, and drone strikes, have all been denounced by the Holy See. [9]  

Another point of critical disagreement is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Pope Francis has tried to bring the age-old enemies to the peace table, and has supported a two-state solution. The Holy See has also supported efforts to make Jerusalem an international city. Most boldly, the Vatican recently recognized the Palestinian State, leading to a firestorm of protest in some pro-Israel quarters of the American political scene. [10]   

In all of these international issues, the Church seeks to use the power of moral persuasion, the extensive links it has painstakingly built with secular societies and governments, and encouragement of its millions of adherents around the world to bring about the common good and build justice. Francis explained the Holy See’s persistent but long-term approach toward breaking down world strife, corruption, and inequity when imparting his holiday greetings to gathered envoys to the Holy See just before Christmas: “The work of an ambassador lies in small steps, small things, but they always end up making peace, bringing closer the hearts of people, sowing brotherhood among people,” he said. “This is your job, but with little things, tiny things.” [11]

This is the soft voice that will one day make the powerful tremble.

Kirk G. Morrison


Kirk Morrison is national committee chairman of the American Solidarity Party