Readers may have the impression that Vatican diplomacy takes place only at the highest levels, with the pope, the Secretariat of State, and the Vatican diplomatic corps. Indeed, that’s the way it was until recently. But in the 1990s it changed quite dramatically, as the Holy See sought to involve others, particularly bishops’ conferences, in its diplomatic efforts.

When I first came to the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) as it was then known, the received tradition was that the Holy See frowned on bishops’ conferences working together on issues. Individual conferences might do so in close relationship with the Vatican Secretariat of State, but pairs or clusters of conferences were discouraged from coordinating with one another. By the time I left the conference in 2004, that unwritten policy had ended.

The man responsible for that change was the late Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, then an archbishop, who in the mid-1990s was the Vatican secretary for relations with states, that is, foreign minister. 

A Frenchman with a refreshingly modern approach to diplomacy, Tauran and I became friends over faxes, the new technology of the day. In the course of business, I would consult his deputy for guidance on international issues the USCC was dealing with. When the deputy was out, not standing on protocol, Archbishop Tauran answered himself. 

When we met later at a U.S. bishops’ annual meeting, he greeted me jocularly, “Ah, Father Christiansen. How is the secretary of state?” I responded, “Archbishop, Archbishop Roach”—the then-chair of the bishops’ International Policy Committee—“is secretary of state. I am only minister general of the Foreign Office,” a title used in Israel and elsewhere to identify the chief civil servant in the foreign ministry. 

In the intervening years, when I was visiting the Holy Land, the Secretariat of State would mission me with communications for the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the foreign consuls in Jerusalem, then still positions of standing, representing their countries both to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. 

Things were already changing with an outsider like myself carrying messages to other diplomats. But Tauran seemed to understand a shift in the world order was underway. Human rights and humanitarian movements, universities and foundations were carrying out what was called Track II diplomacy. Civil society was beginning to work with governments and international organizations. World affairs was no longer a chessboard, as Anne-Marie Slaughter has written, but a three-dimensional game in a complex network of states, international organizations, and civil society institutions and movements working together in a network of relations.

When I was about to resign my job from the bishops’ conference in 1997, there was a mysterious call from Rome asking me not to resign. I was exhausted and needed a break, but before leaving my office I stopped in Rome to discuss the request. 

My interlocutor, the Secretariat of State’s veteran Middle East expert, Msgr. Luigi Gatti, appealed to me “not to leave the ring,” that is to stay engaged particularly on Middle East policy. Then he added a surprising request, “Drew,” Monsignor Gatti told me, “You’ve got to coordinate policy with the Europeans,” by which I thought he meant the conferences of the major European governments. The Holy See, particularly Cardinal Tauran, understood that the Church’s diplomatic power could be augmented when it worked in a “network” with church leaders in other countries and with major Catholic organizations like Caritas Internationalis.

Given the assumption that episcopal conferences didn’t coordinate with one another, I responded to Msgr. Gatti that I would need to bring some key bishops into our conversation. And so, a few weeks later, at the beginning of the 1997 Synod for America, I visited the Secretariat of State with Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, the longtime head of Jewish affairs and the then-bishop chair of international policy. The shift of Vatican policy to include bishops’ conferences was underway. 

During a short sabbatical, I visited the bishops’ conferences in England, France, and Germany to assess the possibilities for collaborating on policy toward the Holy Land. In October, when presidents of major bishops’ conference around the world came together in Jerusalem to hear a message from Archbishop Tauran laying out the Holy See’s positions on the final status for Holy City, negotiations on the issue were then thought to be on the horizon. The heads of local churches piggy-backed on Tauran’s meeting to form what we clumsily called “The Coordination of Bishops’ Conferences in Support of the Church in the Holy Land.”

In the beginning, the coordination was just between staff offices, but after the Second Intifada in 2000, the presidents of conferences began to meet themselves every January with the bishops of the Holy Land (Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Cyprus) to offer solidarity to the local church, to experience the local situations for themselves, to learn from other local experts, and to explore possibilities for action together. 

When I left the conference at the end of 2004, the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales took over facilitation of the coordination, and they continue to do so today.

In 2014, the Holy See joined an initiative of civil society and the nonnuclear states to explore “the humanitarian consequences” of nuclear weapons. The movement led in 2017 to the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The conference in which the treaty was crafted included civil society groups as well as the usual diplomats. The Holy See had a special role to play with leading civil society groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). But unlike the ICRC, it was empowered by a General Assembly resolution and a vote of its fellow state conferees; it cast its vote at the UN in favor of the treaty. 

A new global reality was unfolding. The new forum for Vatican diplomacy is a world of networking that Archbishop Tauran had anticipated in requesting the bishops’ conferences of the Atlantic world to collaborate in supporting the Church in the Holy Land and in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian question.

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