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The Next Pope and Vatican Diplomacy

The institutional default positions in Vatican diplomacy do not reflect two lessons taught by the late 20th century.

A view of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. (Credit: Bohumil Petrik/CNA.)

During a short papal flight from Boston to New York on October 2, 1979, Father Jan Schotte (later a cardinal but then a low-ranking curial official) discovered that Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, had done some serious editing of the speech Pope John Paul II would give at the United Nations later that day. Schotte, who had helped develop the text, found to his dismay that Cardinal Casaroli had cut just about everything the Soviet Union and its communist bloc satellites might find offensive – such as a robust papal defense of religious freedom and other human rights. Schotte took the revised, bowdlerized text to John Paul II’s private cabin on Shepherd One and explained why he thought Casaroli, the architect of the Vatican’s attempt at a rapprochement with communist regimes in the late 1960s and 1970s, was wrong to dumb down the speech.

John Paul looked over the marked-up text, thought a bit, and then took Schotte’s advice. Speaking at what the world imagined to be its greatest rostrum, he would make a strong, principled defense of human rights. And if tyrannical regimes were upset by that, too bad.

They were indeed upset, and their unease was palpable to all of us in the General Assembly Hall that day. But embattled Catholics behind the iron curtain were reminded that they had a champion in Rome who was not going to play world politics by the world’s rules. The Pope was going to play by evangelical rules.

 Cardinal Schotte’s recollections of that incident, which he recounted to me in 1997, have taken on a new salience, for Vatican diplomacy seems to be reverting to a Casaroli-style accommodation of thuggish regimes. Earlier this month, for example, a Sunday Angelus address in which Pope Francis would express, in the mildest possible way, concerns about the new National Security Law in Hong Kong and its chilling effect on human rights was distributed to reporters an hour before the noontime Angelus. Then, shortly before the Pope appeared, reporters were told that the remarks on China and Hong Kong would not be made after all.

It is not difficult to imagine what happened: a disciple of the late Cardinal Casaroli likely persuaded the Pope to avoid saying anything that could be regarded as criticism of the Chinese communist regime.

In The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (recently published by Ignatius Press), I suggest that the institutional default positions in Vatican diplomacy do not reflect two lessons taught by the late 20th century: the only authority the Holy See has in world politics today is moral authority; that moral authority is depleted when the Church fails to speak the truth to power, especially totalitarian and authoritarian power. The truth can be spoken prudently and in charity; but it must be spoken. If the truth is not spoken, the Vatican tacitly confesses its weakness and is always playing defense on a field defined by the enemies of Christ and the Church.

Recent papal diplomacy has constantly stressed the importance of “dialogue.” And yes, “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war,” as Winston Churchill famously said. But Vatican efforts at dialogue that do not begin from the understanding that authoritarian and totalitarian regimes regard “dialogue” as a tactic for maintaining their power are not going to get very far. The current Chinese regime, for example, is not interested in “dialogue” about or within Hong King; it is interested in crushing the liberties it swore it would honor after the city reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. To pretend otherwise makes the situation worse. The same cautionary rubric applies to Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Russia, and other systemic violators of human rights.

In The Next Pope, I underscore that truth-telling in Vatican diplomacy is also essential for evangelical reasons. In countries that systematically abuse their people, the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel is impaired when those people do not perceive the Catholic Church as their defender. Thus the next pope, I propose, should mandate a wholesale reevaluation of Vatican diplomacy in the post-World War II period, bringing qualified lay experts into the discussion. That study must include a thorough, unblinkered evaluation of the Casaroli legacy, which remains a force in the papal diplomatic service and the curial bureaucracy – despite incontrovertible, documented evidence that Cardinal Casaroli’s approach to communist powers failed, and in fact made matters worse.

The Holy See’s moral authority, and the Church’s evangelical mission, are at stake.

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About George Weigel 419 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).


  1. I sometimes think the core issue is cowardice. Those Church leaders who don’t have the confidence that comes from utter belief in their faith nor faith in their beliefs. And so they justify that timidity by rationalizing it: to themselves first and foremost, but also to the secular world. It’s a way of squirming out of their moral responsibility.

    • Ah, yes, the biblical and binary distinction especially between good and evil, versus the spectrum mentality—ranging from alphabetical gender theory to wide-road self-deception in any setting.

      The biggest lie of all is the lie within the lie, which is precisely why Pope St. John Paul II set things straight (so to speak) with moral absolutes, in (the never mentioned) Veritatis Splendor. Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent. The layered look is in—the mystery of iniquity.

      So, it’s not simply a matter of choosing good or evil. . . rather, we first set aside the good such that the desired evil, in a diversity of forms, then can be rationalized as the good within an enabling echo chamber of double-speak.

      The timeless St. Augustine writes of “fantastica fornicatio”—the prostituting of the mind to its own fancies. But, let’s not be so quick (below) to set aside Weigel’s book. Isn’t it there where he says that the first step is to fire the fifty?

    • As Ian Ker quoted John Newman in his biography, “If the Church would be vigorous and influential, it must be decided and plain-spoken in its doctrine…”

      Truth to power comes to mind.

  2. I don’t know why anyone would take Mr. Weigel’s attempts at prognostication seriously after he so badly interpreted and misread and wrongly forecast the significance and endurance of the JPII/BXVI era. All these recent articles are just adverts for his new book posing as articles. It’s Ignatius Press’s version of product placement, like Disney pushing its merchandise on the ABC network. Mr. Weigel has a cushy, do-nothing, think-tank job and has been irrelevant for quite some time now.

    • Mr. Sampson
      This article also struck me as advertising for his book. Regardless, I feel that his analysis is highly accurate.

      I’ll remind you that the Church quickly spread in Her first three centuries despite intense persecution by tyrant Rome.

      She didn’t spread by accommodating herself to power.

    • Mr. Weigel’s syndicated column appears in some 90+ outlets each week. It’s quite normal for any author–whether a syndicated columnist or otherwise–to write essays and do interviews in order to promote books. Call them “adverts”, but they are free articles. And, yes, Ignatius Press promotes the books they publish. Shocking! Even more shocking is how they use said sales to pay authors and to publish more books. The fact that any of this upsets or annoys some readers is both strange and amusing to me.

    • Thank you, Mr. Sampson, for your incisive comment. George Weigel is a blind guide who persists in living in the 1980’s

  3. If our Catholic Church really believed that our faith, and not “the world” is the most important thing, then “The Congregation for the Faith” would be the highest Congregation in the Vatican.

    But instead, ever since Pope Paul VI, the Vatican Secretary of State has been promoted as the most important, and the Congregation for the Faith was demoted to second tier.

    Now, to finish the repudiation of the faith, the Pontiff Francis has raised the Secretariat of State as a super-Congregation, controlling all others, while simultaneously demoting the Congregation for the Faith deep into a third (or lower?) level, inside the new phony Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples under the dancing pop-idol “His new Eminence” Tagle, who, along with “His Eninence” Secretary of State Parolin, condoned the Pachamama idolatry of October 2019 by the Pontiff Francis.

    “The World” is the priority for the above named men. McCarrick is pleased…

  4. It is easy to sit at home comfortably and criticize those who have to chose between a rock and a hard place.
    Pope Pius XII was accused of signing the pact with the devil when he signed the concordat with Hitler in the hope to protect Catholics and the churches from harm and destruction.
    The Vatican has made a deal with a dictatorship in China in order to dorther relations between church and China.
    Now the pope is in a difficult situation again wondering for sure if any criticism of the government will lead to a persecution of Catholics and priests.

  5. Jesus was put in front of the same kind of people. This type of people sent Him to His death. Money and all the evil that goes with it. I will take God with humility to the heavenly end!!

  6. The Pope likes China and does not want to offend it. He regards the Chinese as closet Christians. He wants said that the communists had stolen the flag of Christianity.

  7. My name is Paul Murphy and I was once a good practicing catholic, lately I have been extremely upset with the decisions the the Pope +church have been making. My family has fought in WW2 ,Vietnam ,I served in Cuba as my parents had 3 sons that were US Marines and are anti-communist. The Pope has sold out americans and the church is now holding hands with the chinese commies, skipping down the street singing kumbiya ,totally disgusting signed ANGRY VETERAN

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