Ireland’s Decision to Reopen Its Vatican Embassy May Signal Changing Diplomacy

NEWS ANALYSIS: International lecturer points to the election of Pope Francis as a possible turning point.

A Celtic cross on the hill at Cashel, Tipperary, Ireland.
A Celtic cross on the hill at Cashel, Tipperary, Ireland. (photo: CNA courtesy of Tom Haymes)

VATICAN CITY — Ireland’s decision to reopen its embassy at the Vatican may be part of a changing climate of diplomacy at the Holy See observed by a professor of international relations.

“Going back to Pope Francis’ election and the variety of statements in December and January … all point to a set of new emphases for the future — human trafficking, small arms [and] Syria,” Scott Thomas, senior lecturer of international relations at the University of Bath, England, told CNA Jan. 27.

Thomas cited the Holy See’s position during the Geneva II peace talks on Syria; Pope Francis’ address to ambassadors accredited to the Holy See; and the recent meeting between the Vatican and U.S. secretaries of state.

A. Alexander Stummvoll, a postdoctoral fellow for the Millennium Nucleus for the Study of States and Democracy in Latin America, explained in a paper for the Canadian International Council that with Pope Francis “we are seeing a new role shift in which ‘comforter of the afflicted’ becomes the dominant role and conceptions such as mercy, social justice and solidarity are the emerging priorities.”

This last shift may have been decisive in leading the Irish government to reopen its embassy to the Vatican.

The Irish government chose to reopen the embassy Jan. 21; it had been closed in November 2011, ostensibly for economic motives.

“This will enable Ireland to engage directly with the leadership of Pope Francis on the issues of poverty eradication, hunger and human rights,” stated the Irish foreign affairs department.

Irish minister for foreign affairs, Eamon Gilmore, said, “Our aim is to complement the work and global presence of our state agencies as we continue to win new business for Ireland.”

According to Thomas, “This comment sounds very commercial — emerging and established markets — but, clearly, the moral and ethical context and dimension of those markets is important after the financial crisis, and Ireland would not want to be seen as wrong-footed, on the wrong side of these arguments.”

Thomas also added that “the Irish decision is also part of a domestic policy. The country is rooted in the Labour Party’s constituency, but it also has the larger dimension of Irish political culture as a Catholic country.”

A bond has been found, he said, in Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, “which makes clear exactly the moral context for capitalism to operate effectively, that is, the efficiency of markets is dependent on open and free information, and trust is the basis for the alleged efficiency of markets. And this is part of a common argument and critique of capitalism which Francis shares with some socialists.”

Stummvoll described the evolution of the Holy See’s diplomatic role during the last century by saying that “Pius XII cast the Vatican as a warrior in the early Cold War period; under Pope John XXIII, Paul VI and in the first half of the pontificate of John Paul II, the Vatican assumed the posture of an independent prophet that was increasingly critical of both East and West. In the second half of the pontificate of John Paul II and under Benedict XVI, the Cold War having ended, the Vatican began to assume the role of a cultural warrior.”

Stummvoll maintains that, under Pope Francis, the focus will be on the Church as “comforter of the afflicted.”

Economics was the reason given for the 2011 closure of the Irish Embassy; Ireland retained an ambassador to the Vatican, though he was non-resident. In a period of financial turmoil, economy might be a perfect reason to take such a step.

This happened to the Vatican in 1867, when the U.S., retaliating for Pope Pius IX’s perceived support for the Confederate States of America, cut off funding to the Vatican legation.

The closure of the Irish Embassy to the Holy See has been seen in the context of a deterioration in relations between Rome and Dublin since the publication of the Murphy Report (results of a government investigation into sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin) in November 2009, but Pope Francis’ efforts seem to have brought again to the forefront the Vatican’s diplomatic efforts.

This may be a reason why Ireland wants to be among the states with a “privileged” relation with the Holy See.

“If the U.S. and other great powers see the advantage of relations with the Holy See, certainly Ireland can benefit,” Thomas said. “I would imagine in the beginning this could be anti-clerical, given the situation facing the Irish Church, but the longer view … does relate to the prestige of Vatican diplomacy and the history of the Church's influence in the Middle East.”

Andrea Gagliarducci is the Vatican observer for Catholic News Agency.