Diplomat of the Word, Diplomat to the World: Pope Francis’ Role on the Global Stage

NEWS ANALYSIS: As we enter a new decade, a retrospective on the Holy Father’s impact on the international stage offers an insight into one of the most important aspects of his pontificate.

L-R: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis and Israeli President Shimon Peres meet in the Vatican gardens to pray for peace on June 8, 2014.
L-R: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis and Israeli President Shimon Peres meet in the Vatican gardens to pray for peace on June 8, 2014. (photo: Alan Holdren/CNA)

Since his election to the throne of Peter almost seven years ago, Pope Francis has worked tirelessly to promote peace in the international arena through many meaningful and unexpected diplomatic initiatives. From his crucial mediating role between the U.S. and Cuba in 2014, to the encounter between Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas he organized in the Vatican garden the same year, or his visit to a refugee camp in Greece in 2016, his actions have left no one indifferent.

In a world that seems to be lacking great political figures, Pope Francis — who created the widely-known concepts of “Piecemeal World War III” and “globalized indifference” and who popularized the rejection of the “throwaway culture” — quickly became a source of inspiration for people around the world, even among unbelievers or people from other religions.

Thanks to Pope Francis’ direct and simple approach, pontifical diplomacy may be finding renewed momentum at a time when the Church seems to be losing influence in almost all the decision-making spheres of global politics. Despite Rome’s perceived isolation on the international stage, the Holy See has paradoxically had the highest number of full bilateral relations in its history, with 183 nations in total, compared to 180 in 2012, and around 20 from the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th century.

Pope Francis’ approach, while definitely innovative in crucial ways, is built on the model provided by his pontifical predecessors and other ambassadors of the Church and also on the Holy See’s historically consistent diplomatic tradition.


‘Expert on Humanity’

In his famous address to the members of the United Nations in 1965, Pope St. Paul VI recalled that the main expertise the Holy See could provide to nations in the diplomatic sphere is the fact that the Church with Christ as its model is an “expert on humanity.” With such a statement, Pope Paul VI also provided an accurate definition of pontifical diplomacy as one that relates to the entire human dimension. Indeed, through diplomacy within its own institutions, the Church has been able to hone its political skills, thereby creating a strong and long-lasting communion between Rome and diocesan bishops in the Western Church as well as between the Western Church and the governing entities of the Eastern Church.

“The Holy See uses the same instruments as traditional diplomacy, but with a different purpose,” Vincenzo Buonomo told the Register. Buonomo is the first lay rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, where he teaches international law, and has written books in the field of international relations, development and human rights. Vatican diplomacy, he said, “is not about conquering power or privileged economic relations, but to guarantee that churches in the different countries can be free; it has also a role of advocacy for important decisions to the world, decisions that are not immediately welcomed in decision-making centers.”

Jean-Baptiste Noé holds a similar view on Vatican diplomacy. Noé is the editor in chief of the French geopolitical magazine Conflits and recently published François le Diplomate (“Francis the Diplomat”), a book entirely dedicated to Pope Francis’ international policy. The aim of pontifical diplomacy is not, in his view, “to have a direct influence, but to infuse a spirit that can be then relayed.” It is a “diplomacy of diffuse influence” that introduces “ideas and major themes that can then be taken up again.”

And such a conception — in effect, serving as the moral and spiritual conscience for the world — is not new if we look back to the long history of pontifical attempts to affect international relations and conflicts for the sake of lasting peace among men. In particular, the correspondence between Cardinals Ercole Consalvi and Bartolomeo Pacca during the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) offers a powerful glimpse into the Holy See’s efforts at that time, to make its presence felt in the discussions of long-term peace for early 19th-century Europe in the wake of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815).

Two centuries earlier, apostolic nuncio to Germany Fabio Chigi — who subsequently became Pope Alexander VII — actively took part in the so-called Peace of Westphalia treaties (1648), which had a decisive impact on the future of Europe.

“Chigi did his utmost to promote the concept of negotiation as a solution in the face of the strength of arms,” Buonomo said, highlighting the continuity in the Church’s history in this respect. In his view, such a continuity in pontifical diplomacy is rooted in three permanent strategic goals: prevention, regulation and elimination of conflict.

“History shows there has always been a [continuity] — with some novelties, as the Church has always paid attention to the signs of the times and knew how to adapt her strategy according to contexts,” Buonomo added.


Papal Legacy

Whereas Pope Francis clearly follows John Paul II’s path by reconnecting with his practice of being a traveling and missionary pope, the continuity of Francis’ diplomacy with that of Benedict XVI is undeniable: Most of the major diplomatic concerns that Francis resolved were first engaged by the now-pope emeritus. Indeed, as Noé points out, cases like the rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba, the historic encounter with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba, or the deployment of strategies to pacify the conflict in Syria are all developments of things that were initiated under Benedict’s pontificate.

Moreover, globalization and its consequences on people of different nations is another theme that unites the two pontiffs. Both have offered abundant spiritual reflections over economic and international relations within the framework of globalization.

“The idea of giving a soul to globalization was a theme dear to Pope Benedict,” Pasquale Ferrara told the Register. Ferrara, ambassador of Italy in Algiers and author of the book Il Mondo di Francesco: Bergoglio e la Politica Internazionale (“Francis’ World: Pope Bergoglio and International Politics”), sees a continuity between Benedict’s constructive criticism against globalization — which never denied the benefits that globalization brought to the world — and Francis’ focus on equity, which is a response to the “great forgotten” victims of unchecked globalization.


A Wider Center of Action

But in addressing globalization, Pope Francis reveals his innovative approach to diplomacy. For in his concerns for globalization, the Holy Father founded his approach to engaging the world, an engagement primarily focused on the universality of mankind. By advocating a truly global governance that is no longer focused on Western countries, he has been helping to redraw the lines of international relations.

“He doesn’t conceive the world from a hegemonic center — that is, from the West — but from periphery,” Ferrara said, proposing that the idea of a globalization that accounts for this periphery refers, for Francis, not only to geographic zones but also to all the realities that are excluded from strategical and decision-making centers.

For example, in 2015, the Holy Father’s decision to open the “holy door” of the Jubilee Year of Mercy in Bangui (in a war-torn Central African Republic) reflected his genuine interest in peripheral conflicts that are likely to have, in his opinion, consequences on other regions.

“He has a global vision of the world and seeks to show that ‘everything is connected,’ that some ‘small conflicts’ which are not often mentioned can play an essential part in what he calls the ‘Piecemeal World War III,’” Noé told the Register, adding that through his diplomacy Francis has also drawn significant public attention to “forgotten conflicts” like those in Yemen, Myanmar or South Sudan — conflicts that have been causing great suffering to local populations.


Legitimate Multilateralism Renewed

In his traditional annual address to the Vatican’s diplomatic corps on Jan. 9, the Holy Father reaffirmed his support for the United Nations’ multilateral approach to diplomacy as the only model capable of avoiding power struggles and large-scale wars. At the same time, Pope Francis plainly called for a “general reform” of such a multilateral system because of the current lack of a “clear objective rooting” most international organizations, especially in their vocabulary.

Such a statement is fully in line with what has been a constant concern for Pope Francis since the beginning of his pontificate. As a member of the U.N. and other multilateral institutions such as the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, the Vatican has found in these organizations a privileged channel to spread its voice and to have a more concrete impact on major global decisions.

The Holy Father is urging this approach at a time when the very notion of multilateralism is more than ever contested as a threat not only to countries’ sovereignty but divisive to the very concept of sovereignty. Nonetheless, the Holy Father felt the pressing need to give a renewed legitimacy to these multilateral institutions by deeply reforming them — to give them a soul.

“If we look back to his speeches to the U.N., the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N., which are all multilateral institutions, we can see that Francis did a critical analysis of these structures,” Buonomo said. “He didn’t say that they should be used for this or that, but that they have a goal; and if they can’t reach it, they should be modified; structures are not immutable, and if they are no longer valid, they must be emptied and rebuilt: I would say he advocates an evolving multilateralism.”


Accountability Through Dialogue

The question of interreligious dialogue, especially with Islam, has been one of the key elements of the Pope’s foreign policy since 2013. If some of his important decisions — such as the publication of the “Document on Human Fraternity” at the conclusion of his apostolic trip to the United Arab Emirates in February 2019 — have surprised the Catholic world, his approach is nevertheless in direct line with a tradition started several decades ago, under the impetus of French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue from 2007 until his death in 2018.

A seasoned diplomat, Cardinal Tauran also served during John Paul II’s pontificate as secretary for relations with states (1990-2003).

“Pope Francis really valued the cardinal’s action, that John Paul II once called ‘Tauran’s Doctrine,’” Noé said, noting that the French cardinal was the instigator of the meeting between Pope Francis and the grand imam of al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo in 2016 and of the apostolic journey to Egypt in 2017. Cardinal Tauran also organized the papal trip to Abu Dhabi, which culminated in the signature of the joint statement on human fraternity in 2019.

Without ignoring the difficulties and limits of interreligious dialogue, Cardinal Tauran also saw in this kind of openness a strategy likely to defuse hostility toward Christians in Islamic lands. Indeed, as Noé points out, such an approach was also meant to hold Islamic leaders accountable. If they authentically accepted dialogue, sooner or later, they would be forced to accept religious freedom.

“By discussing with different countries and religious authorities, the Holy See somehow makes them compete and pushes other Islamic capitals to take a position,” Noé said.

According to Noé, Pope Francis “listened to Cardinal Tauran a lot and kept him at his position despite his illness,” noting that the cardinal had been struggling with Parkinson’s for many years.

“This cardinal really influenced Francis’ Muslim policy,” Noé added.


Beyond the Catholic World

The impact that Pope Francis’ words and actions have had in global politics also suggests that the Vatican diplomacy can have a strong evangelizing scope.

Such a dimension was further highlighted by Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See’s current secretary for relations with states. During a Jan. 8 speech the archbishop delivered on the 50th anniversary of the Holy See’s presence at the Council of Europe, he said that Christians “have a particularly important role to play in Europe” and that, through “their own testimony within society, they can recall the ethical foundations that must guide our actions in the world.”

While stressing the fact that the delicate issues related to the protection of human life must be addressed “without being limited to some specific medical, scientific or legal fields,” Archbishop Gallagher pointed to the Church’s holistic anthropological approach, which gained new impetus after the publication in 2015 of Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home).

This papal encyclical, Buonomo said, shouldn’t be reduced to a kind of treatise on ecology, as it doesn’t ignore any aspect of the human person’s life, whether spiritual, economic or political.

“It is not only about preserving the common home as such, but, above all, about preserving the people that live within this common home, and it implies duties first of all and then inviolable rights,” Buonomo said.

This original approach gave Francis a lot of influence on the international stage, reasserting the Church’s position among the most reliable interlocutors for ethical issues.

“His words are not limited to those who go to Mass, and we can already see the results of such a stance,” Ferrara concluded. “Laudato Si is being studied in academic, cultural and political circles that are total strangers to faith: These themes are so profound that they challenge anyone’s conscience, and the document provides the Church significant scope to spread her message.”

Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.