A Masterclass on the Catholic Church’s Diplomatic Mission

BOOK REVIEW: Victor Gaetan’s recent book explains how the Church does diplomacy and why the Vatican and United States don’t often see eye-to-eye.

'God's Diplomats' by Victor Gaetan
'God's Diplomats' by Victor Gaetan (photo: Rowman and Littlefield)

God’s Diplomats:

Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy and America’s Armageddon

By Victor Gaetan

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2021

476 pages; $49 (hardcover)

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For many Catholics in the United States today, Vatican diplomacy is often a source of considerable confusion. Beginning from the premise that the U.S., the world’s longtime champion of democracy and human rights, and the Catholic Church, the sacrament of Christ’s salvation, are both “on the same side,” the conclusion one expects to see is a significant degree of collaboration and agreement. 

Therefore, the fact that American and Holy See diplomatic priorities often clash — as they have, recently, in places like China, Cuba and the Ukraine — is a jarring experience for many.

Shouldn’t the “city on a hill” and “the light of the world” be singing from the same song sheet? Whatever happened to the good ol’ days of Ronald Reagan and John Paul II vanquishing communism in swashbuckling style? And is this all just a product of Pope Francis misunderstanding (at best) or disliking (at worst) the U.S.?

In his new book, God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy and America’s Armageddon, award-winning journalist and chronicler of Church diplomacy Victor Gaetan gets to the heart of this cognitive dissonance on the opening page, providing a radically different starting point for understanding U.S.-Vatican relations: “The modern norm” between the two, he says, “is mutual skepticism between empires with deeply divergent worldviews.”

As Gaetan documents, tensions between Washington and the Vatican City over world diplomacy are nothing new. President Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, was livid when the Holy See established diplomatic relations with Japan during World War II — and the Holy See, in turn, was enraged when the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Japan, in one instance directly targeting the cathedral of Nagasaki, East Asia’s largest Catholic church at the time. 

During the Cold War, the U.S. pundits frequently criticized the Holy See’s “naïve” dialogues with the Soviet Union, while popes like Pius XII and Paul VI were critical of American military interventions in places like Korea and Vietnam.

More recently, Pope St. John Paul II criticized George W. Bush’s justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a bid for security by telling the president that “at the feet of this idol that you call security, you want to sacrifice all human dignity.”

Gaetan depicts Pope Francis, although unique in some ways — perhaps especially with his “global south” rather than “western” perspective — as more or less a continuation of the long-established norms of Vatican diplomacy. As Gaetan puts it in one instance, “dialogue is the Holy See’s favored tactic, not a proposition Francis invented.”

In fact, if anything has changed in U.S.-Vatican relations, Gaetan suggests it’s on the American end of the equation. Especially since emerging as the lone superpower at the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been willing to use the hard power of military force more readily than the soft power of culture and diplomacy to advance its interests, a trend that worries Vatican officials. Furthermore, even that soft power itself has become tainted — America’s arrogant imposition of abortion access and non-natural sexual theories on developing nations is a form of “ideological colonization” that greatly troubles the Holy Father.

At a more fundamental level, Gaetan says the United States and the Holy See are simply animated by different goals, and therefore different diplomatic visions. For the former, diplomacy is the means to securing power and national interests. For the latter, it is an extension of its pastoral ministry, and peace — which is necessary for the common good — is “its raison d’etre,” explains Gaetan.

But in order to explain the Holy See’s distinct approach — especially to a U.S. audience that might be more familiar with diplomacy as conceived and practiced by a temporal superpower — Gaetan goes deeper than merely a list of contrasts. Instead, he presents perhaps the most comprehensive account of Vatican diplomacy on its own terms you’ll find anywhere outside of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the Vatican’s school for diplomats, known simply as the Accademia

Instead of a focus on U.S.-Vatican clashes and projections of “America’s Armageddon,” as the book’s somewhat salacious title suggests, the heart of God’s Diplomats is a masterclass on how the Church does diplomacy — its origins, historical development, theological basis, aims, formation of diplomats, organization and tactics. In fact, Gaetan even includes real-life case studies that Vatican diplomats-in-training are taught — such as the “Unchristian” Treaty of Versailles or the successful prevention of abortion being included in international law at the United Nation’s Cairo summit in 1994 — including the diplomatic lessons drawn out by Accademia faculty.

The first half of the book is devoted to a thorough and factual examination of Church diplomacy. The chapters are helpfully structured, built around key ideas like the typical traits of Vatican diplomats (collegiality, efficiency, discretion, deep knowledge and dedication) and the core pursuits of Church diplomacy (representation of the Church, mediation of conflict, preservation of the faith and evangelization). The general principles in these chapters are illustrated by a treasure trove of real-life and historical examples, and Gaetan’s work is supremely sourced and cited.

As an international journalist with a graduate degree from the elite Fletcher School of International Law at Tufts University, but also as a practicing Catholic with deep fidelity to the Church, Gaetan is exceptionally equipped to present this unique synthesis of theology and diplomacy. It’s hard to imagine someone without both of these dimensions accurately speaking about, for instance, how priestly identity and ministry is at the heart of the Vatican’s conception of diplomacy, a point Gaetan quotes St. John Chrysostom extensively to make. 

In the second half of the book, Gaetan’s extensive connections and attention to detail steal the show. After providing a brief assessment of Pope Francis’ diplomatic approach (“manager,” “missionary” and “mystic”), Gaetan provides in-depth examinations of several key episodes from Francis’ papacy, that take us to places like Colombia, South Sudan and the Middle East.

All are thorough and illuminating, but two stand out: First is Gaetan’s analysis of the Church’s decades-long and multi-pontificate process of building relations with the Chinese government for the sake of securing spiritual unity among Chinese Catholics. For instance, readers will benefit from knowing that John Paul II, though decidedly anti-communist, was also adamant that the Holy See needed to be in dialogue with the Chinese government. In fact, in contrast to a U.S. style of diplomacy that seems to favor rhetorical bombshells, calls for immediate action, and “no talk” lists, the past three popes have been willing to tolerate — not commit, it must be said — present evils for the sake of incremental change and a possible future peace. 

In painstaking detail, Gaetan documents the ins and outs of Vatican-Sino diplomatic efforts over the past few decades, suggesting that “small steps” have been achieved, although the eventual outcome is still murky. 

The most powerful chapter, however, is Gaetan’s assessment of Cuba. This chapter distinguishes itself by being more personal than the rest, as it includes within its account of Vatican-Cuba relations a powerful portrayal of Oswaldo Paya. 

Paya was not a Vatican diplomat or a churchman, but a freedom activist on the ground in Cuba. Gaetan befriended Paya, and describes him as a “holy man” who possessed “the wisdom of a true Christian.” The founder of the Christian Movement for Liberation, Paya nonetheless felt left behind by the Church hierarchy, which prioritized not alienating the Castro regime. Neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI met with Paya when they visited Cuba, nor did Pope Francis meet with dissidents during his 2015 visit, and local Church leadership continues to keep its distance from the movement. 

In fact, in a rare break from his tendency to paint the Church’s diplomatic efforts in the best of possible lights, Gaetan lightly criticizes Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the former archbishop of Havana, for his lack of support for Paya in a section entitled “A Church that Turned Its Back.” Paya died in 2013 after his car was ran off the road in what nearly everyone but the communist regime acknowledges was a government-backed hit. 

“It’s as though the Catholic Church’s mission to protect the institutional Church includes the obligation to stand aside, making room for those who follow Christ all the way to crucifixion,” Gaetan says in a poignant reflection on the life and death of Paya.

Gaetan’s extensive knowledge of Vatican diplomacy and his personal familiarity with many of the people and places he writes about makes this book both an engaging and informative read. But though he is an expert on “God’s diplomats,” we can’t necessarily expect him to be one. Thus, while impartiality is a hallmark of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, it isn’t necessarily one of Gaetan’s book, as he has his opinions and his perspectives.

For instance, Cardinal Joseph Zen ze-Kiun, the former prelate of Hong Kong and a critic of the Vatican’s openness to dialogue with Beijing, is painted as something of a bogeyman — a prelate who uses his platform to “undermine evolving Vatican-Chinese relations” and is “ideologically driven,” who once “hissed quietly in [Gaetan’s] ear.”  At one point, Gaetan suggests Cardinal Zen is more of a prophetic voice than a diplomatic one, but the same could be said of Oswaldo Paya, and it’s not entirely clear why the Cuban dissident and critic of the hierarchy is portrayed as a holy man, while the Chinese cardinal is treated like a problem. Gaetan likely has his reasons for making the distinction, but perhaps a more intentionally comparative analysis would’ve been helpful, especially if his intended audience is likely to view the scenarios as somewhat similar.

Another question that could’ve been anticipated and subsequently answered is why Pope Francis’ engagement with former President Donald Trump was so markedly confrontational — a considerable break from the way the Holy Father and his predecessors typically have engaged with heads of state. 

To be sure, Trump was unconventional, brash and even disrespectful — but so were many of the world leaders the Holy See has forged diplomatic ties with over the centuries. In fact, Gaetan notes elsewhere that headstrong, confrontational papal diplomacy has never really proven fruitful — so why was it employed with Trump? 

The topic is not really addressed. In one instance, in the course of describing the tenuous history of U.S.-Vatican relations, Gaetan simply writes, “Then President Donald Trump happened …” — without much of an explanation of why Trump elicited such a different approach, or whether or not that approach was successful. 

God’s Diplomats, then, is somewhat of a mix of impartial description and informed opinion. Not everyone will agree with how different issues are framed, or how different figures are portrayed. But what certainly cannot be argued with is the fact that Gaetan has given a gift not only to foreign policy practitioners, but also to American Catholics. You will not find a book on Church diplomacy as accessible, comprehensive, and faithful, as God’s Diplomats. It is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the Vatican’s diplomatic priorities better — and especially why they don’t always align with America’s.