The Enduring Power of the Papacy: Pope Francis and International Relations

By: Timothy Byrnes

November 26, 2019

Vatican Diplomacy in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

The pope is an utterly unique actor in international relations (IR). Acting in some ways like a state, Pope Francis currently enjoys formal diplomatic relations with over 180 individual countries across the globe, from Albania to Zimbabwe. At the same time, the pope is the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church, a religious community numbering more than a billion souls. As a result of that institutional status, the pope is also a major global celebrity, the “first citizen of global civil society,” and a widely recognized participant in public debates surrounding a broad spectrum of global political issues.

In terms of his formal role, the pope engages in international diplomacy as the embodiment of a “juridical actor” known as the Holy See. An inaccurate shorthand often refers to “Vatican embassies,” or to “the Vatican” engaging in diplomatic relations with one country or another. In fact, however, it is the Holy See and not the Vatican City State that is recognized under international law. And it is the pope who in his person embodies the Holy See as a legal actor. Like his predecessors, therefore, Francis enjoys access to global politics through this formal diplomatic role. And the current pope has played that role actively. Among other instances, he has sought to deepen and reorient the Holy See’s relationship with China; he has tried to dampen inter-ethnic and inter-confessional conflicts in Ukraine; and he has leveraged his formal diplomatic relations with both the United States and Cuba to act as a backchannel mediator in negotiations leading to steps (albeit halting) to restore relations between those two long-term antagonists.

No other religious leader has anything approaching this level of formal access to the diplomatic realm and the pope’s diplomatic status is definitely part of what grants the papacy such a high profile in global political affairs. That profile, however, is also grounded in the papacy’s place at the head of a sprawling, transnational Church with adherents in virtually every corner of the globe. This status, as one of the world’s most recognizable, and in institutional terms authoritative, religious leaders has granted the papacy a significant amount of what IR theorists refer to as “soft power.”

It is telling that in his seminal book on soft power, Joseph S. Nye cited papal influence as a clear example of his subject matter even before he deigned to define what soft power was. “Some loyal Catholics may follow the pope’s teaching on capital punishment,” Nye noted on page two of his book, “not because of a threat of excommunication but [instead] out of respect for his moral authority.” Then, after defining soft power as “an intangible attraction that persuades us to go along with others’ purposes without an explicit threat or exchange taking place,” Nye immediately returned to the papacy as a paradigmatic example of an institution wielding the kind of power he was seeking to explicate. “The Vatican,” Nye insisted “has soft power despite Stalin’s mocking question ‘How many divisions does the Pope have?’” 

Francis, like all popes, exercises his soft power through two very different channels of influence. The first is through direct application of papal preferences to political dynamics on the world stage. This can be through papal actions, statements, or initiatives—targeted at specific world leaders or the “global community” at large—meant to advance either the institutional interests of the Church or a policy-related position or worldview associated with the Church’s teachings. Francis has taken every opportunity granted to him by his unique level of visibility to raise the profile of poverty as a global issue; he has endeavored to link the central issue of poverty to other salient issues of our day, prominently including climate change and migration; and like many of his predecessors he has spoken out in favor of peace and non-violence, both as general global norms and in very specific contexts such as Syria, Mozambique, and Afghanistan.

Second, Francis exercises his soft power indirectly, by speaking to and influencing the members of his global Church who then, in turn, advance related initiatives and policy preferences through their own lay vocations in the secular world. Here, Francis has clearly devoted his considerable energies to fortify the definition of his religious community as a “Church for the poor,” that serves as a “field hospital” for the hurting, and that is led by bishops who are so close to their flocks that “they have the smell of the sheep.” It is in the context of this central commitment, by the way, that we can best understand Francis’ calls for internal reform of his Church. The pope’s caustic denunciations of clericalism, his revitalization of synodal governance that respects local initiative, and even his call for the Church to retreat from the parapets of culture war politics in the United States and elsewhere are all parts of the same papal project: to emphasize the needs of the poor, and to orient the energies and resources of his Church to address those needs.

This indirect application of soft power through the mediation of his transnational Church may not be as obvious as the pope’s formal diplomatic role or as the leveraging of his global celebrity for the advancement of his interests and preferences. However, a full appreciation for the complexity of the papacy’s role in contemporary international relations must be as complex and multifaceted as its subject. The pope has no “divisions,” and hasn’t had any since the disappearance of temporal power in the nineteenth century. But the pope remains a formal diplomatic actor in the twenty-first century. And he continues to exercise “soft power,” both through his own personal presence in the corridors of power, and through his unparalleled access to the spiritual priorities and moral consciences of a global flock.

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