Vatican Peace Diplomacy in Our Present Age of Religious Diplomatic Competition

By: Blandine Chelini-Pont

December 9, 2019

Vatican Diplomacy in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

In the past, the concept of religious diplomacy covered the pope’s and the Holy See’s activities, by the Vatican channel, whose international recognition has enabled a unique form of leadership for decades. It was particularly fostered by the development of the international community from 1918 onwards.

Peace diplomacy has thus been the main international activity of the Catholic Church since World War I and its awareness of contemporary wars has changed in nature. Since then, peace—the means of preserving it and the means of recovering it—has been its priority objective, alongside preserving or advancing its own interests. 

The Holy See supported Wilson’s League of Nations, Roosevelt’s United Nations. It pushed and supported all major conferences on disarmament, non-proliferation, those prohibiting chemical or biological weapons, etc. The Catholic Church has also reconfigured its own doctrine of just war in the face of atomic weapon immorality and the balance of terror that justified its proceeding. The Church continues to denounce other dirty techniques of contemporary wars, such as anti-personnel mines, human body disintegrative weapons, cluster bombs, drone bombings, etc. 

In front of the world public, the pope also takes a stand on ongoing crises or violence. He denounces harmful contexts and environments, and repeats his solutions in terms of peace or disarmament. He may intervene, in person or through diplomats or clergy, in the resolution of civil crises, ceasefire negotiations, inter-state reconciliations, etc. The pope—and other Catholic legates representing him—has had some great successes in recent years, but many conflicts have rejected his guidance, because their nature was not “international,” but rather very local.

Thus, Catholic institutional diplomacy is subject to limitations, including the lack of Catholic populations needed to weigh in on present conflict-ridden areas, such as the Middle East, as well as its diplomatic non-existence in certain countries, such as Saudi Arabia and China, despite the recent move (September 2018) towards an agreement on the designation of bishops. 

But above all, what is competing with Vatican peace diplomacy is another non-state, localized religious diplomacy, which is still poorly evaluated. That diplomacy passes through different channels and can be supported in situ by UN authorities. Channels for this new diplomacy are as follows:

  1. The inter-religious NGO for peace. This is the case of Religions for Peace, but also of other less well-known NGOs such as the International Interfaith Peace Corps, the International Movement for a Just World, and Conciliation Resources. An exhaustive list of these NGOs and their actions has to be done. From the 1980s to the 1990s, Religions for Peace evolved towards what could be called hybrid diplomacy, conducted directly by religious actors, themselves transformed into civil society diplomats, in countries torn apart by conflicts. Representatives of Religions for Peace—usually organized at the national level between the major religious leaders—act as a kind of substitute for national or international diplomats. They replace them, in the verge of civil war and ethno-religious conflicts.
  2. The uni-confessional NGO for peace. This is the case of the Community of Sant'Egidio, which invented the model and acted in many civil war negotiations, notably in Africa. It is a now developed model for other denominations such as the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, Muslims for Peace, United for Peace. These networks are beginning to be studied. Their means of action vary, according to their amplitude and their ability to penetrate the international community. 
  3. The religious think tank, with international and diplomatic pretensions, whose initiators and funds are opaquer, such as the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy, the Institute for Sustainable Peace. It is not always easy to know the exact place of geopolitical orientations and governmental directives in this last type of structure, between lobbying and contact interface. But this is the latest generation of faith-based organizations for peace mediation

Although we still lack elements to define more precisely this third type of structure, we can notice that for the first two, to which Religions for Peace belongs, there is a strong connection between interreligious engagement and engagement for peace, then there is a shift from a "theoretical" doctrinal and mediatic involvement for peace, for disarmament and other themes, to ground practice. This evolution appeared with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR. It shows how representative religious actors—like faith-based NGOs composed with civil actors—have sought to make a concrete contribution to local conflict resolution, after the successful phase of their formal internationalization.

Internal "competition" that exists within the Catholic world in diplomatic matters (communities, specific NGOs, but also partnership within ecumenical and interreligious groups, such as the so successful Assisi meetings), is finally doubled by a new "external" competition. There are now states advancing their own religious diplomacy. 

In terms of peacemaking, the Vatican future lies in its ability to consolidate partnerships at the ground level with other religious peace makers of the civil society. Facing it, state actors, such as the Organization for Islamic Cooperation—exactly the opposite of the Vatican, an inter-state organization that pretends to represent Muslim ummah, when the Vatican is a formal state merging with a global Church—deploy their own models and alternative diplomatic objectives, whose priority does (no longer?) seem to promote peace in the world.

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