Berkley Forum

Global Conceptions, International Interactions: the Holy See in World Politics

Responding to The Vatican and Peacebuilding: Exploring the Church's Role in Conflict Resolution

Although the mediation under the auspices of the Holy See in the Venezuelan peace talks came to a halt and resumed without its involvement, this is illustrative of the Holy See’s diplomatic conduct in a world of states. To this, it certainly is not a newcomer as an impressive list of nunciatures (i.e., embassies) around the world indicates. It is, therefore, not a question if the Holy See should play a part in the diplomatic community; it has already done so since the beginnings of diplomatic conduct as we know it today. Certainly, in many cases, the prominence of the Holy See helps its credibility and acceptance as a mediator, as it did in the Venezuelan case. Not least as the majority of the population is Catholic and the Church is a trusted institution known for speaking truth to power. However, the Holy See agents also have been able to participate in the mediation on legal and political grounds as it is nominally on equal terms with states.

Hence, the Holy See does not only represent a religious body, but a member of the society of states entitled to offer good services to its peers or be called upon by them—not to speak of its self-given moral responsibility to do so. The Second Vatican Council, for example, enshrined a global humanitarian mission, believing that the Church “can contribute greatly toward making the family of man and its history more human.” The Catholic Church has participated in international politics in different forms of political and social organizations, divisions, fragmentations, and defragmentations ever since. A particular case in point is the Holy See’s contribution as a diplomatic fringe player in the international diplomatic order, which at all times consisted of multiple co-existing orders rather than being only state-centric.

Particularly in Latin America, the Holy See has a record of accomplishment of brokering peace accords—in the Beagle channel arbitration in the 1970s—or contributing to the sway in diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. All of this is not to speak about the involvement of bishops and clergy in domestic disputes and intermingling in politics. On the lower official level, clergy tend to be seen as being a part of the society, rather than mere strangers as diplomats usually are in their host country. In many cases, the Church thus has a head start when it comes down to political and diplomatic engagement.

Despite the fact that popes and church officials have done all of this in the past, Pope Francis adds a different layer to the global engagement of the Holy See. Coming himself from the Global South, the periphery from the point of view of a Eurocentric Church, he conceptualizes international politics as global politics. This is most obvious at his look at politics from the margins of society and the spin he gives the papal human rights discourse, referring to social justice, structural problems, and collective solutions that, in his conception, individual rights are not able to solve. He does so nested in crosscutting international hierarchical structures—well known in the Church’s institutional mind—and not as foreign affairs conducted by the head of state of the Vatican City or a religious leader among others amidst an anarchical system.

Francis’ conception of global politics is not a question of us versus them or East versus West. The Pope’s and the Catholic Church’s mission is for all the others, those at the periphery or margins of politics and society. It is unmasking to observe Francis’ attempts to out-narrate existing rivalries, as, for example, he does not mirror former East-West tensions. Instead, he is shifting the focus on geopolitics to Latin America like Pope John Paul II did in Eastern Europe. Doing so, he steps out of previous narratives displaying centralism and ideology. Put another way, Francis’ conception of global politics is a marker of the importance of global questions about international political conduct. In functional terms, Francis holds onto a traditional conception of international politics as indicated by the extension of the diplomatic apparatus and traditional diplomatic services. Progressive global conceptualization and traditional hands-on operative engagement with politics are not mutually exclusive. The recent, albeit somewhat deflating, engagement in Venezuela is yet another indicator for this linking of global conceptions and international interactions.
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