Behind the Scenes

A look at the influence of Vatican diplomacy.

Most Catholics would be hardpressed to name a Vatican diplomat.

So much of their work takes place behind the scenes that sometimes it’s easy to forget the Holy See has overseas envoys at all. Yet the oldest diplomatic corps in the world has arguably prevented more conflicts and saved more lives than any other.

Helping to avert wars and make peace, however, rarely makes the headlines. Few, for example, know the Holy See prevented Argentina from waging war against Chile in 1978 over three small islands in the Beagle Channel.

John Paul II and his envoy, Cardinal Antonio Samoré, not only helped avoid conflict, but the two states went on to sign a lasting peace treaty in 1984 (their respective heads of state visited Pope Benedict XVI last year to thank the Vatican on the 25th anniversary of the accord).

Few outside the Vatican are also aware that Archbishop Pablo Puente Buces, a former apostolic nuncio to Lebanon, played a significant role in helping bring to an end the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war, taking risks to build bridges with militia groups and some of the heads of Muslim political parties. Similar peace efforts were made by Holy See diplomats in Eastern Congo and Mozambique.

And more recently, in Haiti, nuncio Archbishop Bernardito Auza played a vital role in being the first to reveal the true gravity of the situation on the ground and in marshalling resources after January’s devastating earthquake. In the absence of security, he called on the Church to make use of its moral authority to ensure aid distributed by Catholic Relief Services reached those in need.

Often nuncios—who number about 100 worldwide—will also put their own lives at great risk to help bring peace to the countries they serve. One of the most well-known instances of this in recent times was the Irish Archbishop Michael Courtney, who was gunned down in Burundi in 2003. Similar heroism was shown by Archbishop Fernando Filoni, who remained in his post at the nunciature in Baghdad throughout the second Iraq War. He is now the sostituto, responsible for the day-to-day running of the Secretariat of State.

Then there are the innumerable examples heroism among Vatican diplomats during the Second World War, including Pope Pius XII, a former nuncio to Germany, who at risk to his own life covertly ordered the hiding of thousands of Roman Jews in monasteries and convents.


That readiness for personal selfsacrifice undoubtedly owes much to a diplomat’s training and formation. In contrast to their secular counterparts, officials schooled at the Ecclesiastical Academy—the Holy See’s college for diplomats—are always taught to be priests first, diplomats second, instilling in the candidate a sense of serving not just the interests of the Vatican, but his flock and the world as a whole.

A Holy See diplomat is also trained to be discreet. Pope John XXIII, a Vatican nuncio to France during the Second World War, said a papal nuncio should always be “obedient and silent…always self-effacing and remain in the shadow.” He added: “To know how to obey, to know how to be quiet, to speak when necessary, with measured words and with reserve, that is the role of the diplomat of the Holy See, and it is also that of St. Joseph.”

Such prudence is considered vital to the effectiveness of their work, and indeed that of all diplomats. Shedding a light of transparency on diplomacy risks showing up mechanisms that are best kept secret if they are to remain effective.

But the effectiveness of Holy See diplomacy—which goes back to the time of Constantine and the first papal legates—can also be attributed to the Holy See being a sovereign state that has formal relations with 178 other nations. It also represents a faith that has a privileged status as interlocutor with Judaism and Islam, vital in an age of heightened religious sensitivity.

A good example of this can be seen in another behind-the-scenes example of successful Vatican diplomacy shortly before Easter in 2007. At the time, the British Foreign Office was facing a major diplomatic crisis: Iran had captured 15 British military personnel for allegedly trespassing in Iranian waters and the UK government was running out of options to secure their return.

Officials in London couldn’t rely on the United Nations, the European Union, or many of their close allies to mediate the release of the captives because of ongoing differences over Iran’s nuclear program. That left the Holy See as the only viable and neutral mediator. So Britain’s embassy officials and high ranking Holy See diplomats persuaded Pope Benedict XVI to send a letter to Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, appealing for the release of the military captives.

The then-ambassador from Iran to the Holy See, Mohammed Javad Faridzadeh, recalled in an interview that his embassy received the Pope’s letter “with great happiness” and immediately sent it to Iran “as we know the spiritual importance the Vatican has throughout the world.” Hours later, on April 4, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad freed the captives, saying their release was an Easter “gift” to Britain— phraseology almost identical to that used in the letter in which the Pope asked the Iranian leader to free them as an “Easter gesture of good will.”

But aside from the Holy See’s independent standing with some countries, nuncios themselves have advantages over their secular counterparts. As talent scouts, looking for new bishops in the countries they serve, they are close to the Church in their locality and far closer to the ground than any ordinary diplomatic corps. They also automatically have a generally privileged place in a nation’s political establishment, and have direct links with Catholics from the grassroots to the highest levels of religion and politics.

To take Britain as an example, any nuncio to the Court of St. James will be familiar with all the nation’s Catholic politicians and peers. As soon as he arrives in London, he will have the same amount of influence and contacts as other senior ambassadors with the government of the day, and enjoy direct links to all the religious leaders of British society, from the archbishops of Westminster and Canterbury, to the moderator of the Church of Scotland and the chief rabbi. Multiply that amount of contact by all the countries in which the Holy See has diplomatic representation, and the outreach and potential influence are vast.

Yet many make the mistake of confusing the Holy See with the Vatican, viewing it as simply a 0.2 square mile of land in Rome. In the 1970s, Henry Cabot Lodge, US special presidential envoy to the Vatican, asked a Muslim diplomat at the Holy See why his government thought it was worthwhile to maintain such a big mission at “a place which did not seem to concern him very much.” The diplomat replied, “We don’t want to miss anything.”

“Sometimes people see the Vatican, but without the Annuario Pontificio [the Holy See’s personnel directory of nuncios, bishops, priests, and religious worldwide],” said one Rome diplomat. “They just don’t see the global reach— they just think you’re dealing with San Marino, they don’t realize the flow of information.” He said that in two minutes any diplomat could find someone who will know the answer to his query by looking at the Annuario yearbook. “I don’t know of a single book in the world that would encapsulate globalization as much as that book, because it’s a complete global infrastructure. If you want to find a book that touches 17.5 percent of the world’s population, you have it in there.”

But as the Iranian episode showed, it’s not just nuncios who are generally well informed. Diplomats stationed at the Vatican and at major arenas of international diplomacy can also play a vital and significant role.

Two Italian-born diplomats, Archbishops Pietro Parolin and Gabriele Caccia, were exceptional senior officials in the Secretariat of State until their promotions last year to be nuncios to Venezuela and Lebanon, respectively.

During his time as under-secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Parolin effectively served as the Holy See’s “deputy foreign minister.” Although much of his work remains concealed, he was known to have been influential in advancing a general rapprochement with Vietnam that led to the first meeting ever between a Vietnamese president and the Pope last year. He also made progress in relations with China, striking a delicate balance between prophetic diplomacy and statecraft, as John Paul II successfully did during the 1980s in relation to Soviet Communism. Archbishop Parolin was also at the forefront of negotiations to approve and implement the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As assessor for general affairs, whose role is to foster relations with bishops and diplomatic missions of the Holy See, Archbishop Caccia’s achievements are lesser known, but he was widely respected in Rome’s diplomatic circles for conducting gentle and delicate diplomacy, skills which will be important to the fragile political situation in Lebanon.

An old-hand at Vatican diplomacy, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, now the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has long since left his former position as the Holy See’s “foreign minister.” But in his current position, he is still in a position to save lives and foster peace, or at least restrain conflict. Last year, he made a trip to India following deadly battles waged by Hindus against Christians in the Orissa region of the country. Some saw his visit as a “major contributing factor” to helping restore peace and good relations and to averting future conflict.

Within the larger framework of multilateral diplomacy, the flurry of diplomatic activity at the Vatican to try to avert the Iraq War in 2003 was visible to all. In addition, the effectiveness of largely hidden Holy See diplomacy at the United Nations has been considerable.

Perhaps among the most important Vatican achievements in recent years were at the UN conferences in Cairo in 1994 (on population and development) and in Beijing in 1995 (on women). At those events, the Holy See argued that global population policy and family planning should ultimately be guided by the respect for life and for the dignity of the human person.

Austin Ruse, director of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (CFAM), stressed that Holy See diplomats have been consistent in standing up for the right to life. “Sometimes, the Holy See has had to stand completely alone,” he said. “Sometimes the Holy See has been berated by the chairman of the meeting for holding up ‘consensus.’ Sometimes the Holy See has been surrounded by rabid, chanting pro-abortion feminists who threaten and berate them. Sometimes the Holy See has been held up in the New York Times as part of an ‘unholy alliance’ formed to block women’s rights. No matter. With very few exceptions, the Holy See has always held firm.”

He added that, usually behind the scenes, diplomats have been most effective in blocking efforts to recognize a universal human right to abortion, and that John Paul II and the just-retired Cardinal Renato Martino, a former Holy See permanent observer to the UN, “were instrumental in forging a coalition of Catholic and Muslim states that endures to this day.”

Kishore Jayabalan, who served as a Holy See official at the United Nations in New York in the late 1990s, believes the contribution of the Holy See is both vital and unmatched at the UN. “Promoting human dignity is the most important thing and that doesn’t matter if you’re president of the European Commission or you live in a shack and run a stand in a shanty town, you have the same God-given dignity,” he said. “Who else says that at the UN? People say it in terms of principle but who stands up to defend that?”


In an age of Islamic terrorism and secular fundamentalism, the Church is also sought out. It is not that other nations seek to co-opt Holy See diplomats to assist with covert intelligence; rather the diplomats are seen as helpful in tackling the root causes of terrorism, and better understanding a terrorist’s motives. “While the Catholic Church doesn’t go out of its way to criticize false theologies, it does have the correct theological notion of who God is and that has very real-world consequences,” said Jayabalan, now Rome director of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a think tank. “Vatican diplomacy therefore has to act as a corrective to both fundamentalists and secularism.”

But it isn’t just in conflict situations or disaster areas that the Holy See’s diplomatic network has saved lives. Through its connections with Church leaders, volunteers, and the large number Catholic humanitarian relief organizations, much work is done with governments in the field of international development—also seen by many states as vital to international security.

Yet like any organization, Holy See diplomacy has its weaknesses. As with all other nations, it is not absolutely neutral. The Church, for example, cannot be impartial about the demise of Christian population in the Middle East as it is actively engaged in trying to prevent emigration. But it is still possible for Holy See diplomats to create a space in which to be effective.

Also, although generally of a high standard, not all Holy See diplomats shine. “Some of the best diplomats I’ve met are in the Vatican service,” said one source. “But like any diplomatic service, it’s got its stars and it has others. You’ve got this global infrastructure and all this access to global information but I couldn’t say that they all make the best use of it. Often it’s the absence of processing; sometimes the information just isn’t processed in sufficient time.”

Another weakness is that Holy See diplomacy can be constrained by fear of retribution by local populations, whereas for diplomats of other countries— whose diaspora is likely to be much smaller—the danger is not the same. The Church is often a very strong institution for many countries and provides the only really effective space where dissent is possible. Poland in the 1980s is one example, or Venezuela and Zimbabwe today.

But whatever its practical strengths and weaknesses, the ultimate goal of the Holy See diplomatic corps remains vital and unique: to uphold human dignity and promote and defend the rights and freedoms of the faithful—principles that have spared many lives in the past, and will no doubt save many more in the future.


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About Edward Pentin 11 Articles
Edward Pentin began reporting on the pope and the Vatican with Vatican Radio before moving on to become the Rome correspondent for EWTN's National Catholic Register. He has also reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for a number of other publications including Newsweek, Newsmax, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review, a Franciscan publication specializing in the Church and the Middle East. Edward is the author of “The Next Pope: The Leading Cardinal Candidates” (Sophia Institute Press, 2020) and “The Rigging of a Vatican Synod? An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family” (Ignatius Press, 2015).