Vatican’s Diplomatic Approach Treads Careful Path

ANALYSIS: The Vatican’s diplomacy — at the service of people and, first of all, at the service of peace — presents many challenges.

Pope Francis holds a rosary during the prayer service for peace Oct. 27, 2023.
Pope Francis holds a rosary during the prayer service for peace Oct. 27, 2023. (photo: Stefano Costantino/SOPA Images / AP )

A recent news report about a “fraught” private call between Pope Francis and Israeli President Isaac Herzog underscores the daunting diplomatic challenge the Holy See faces as it tries to respond to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in a balanced, prudent way that prioritizes people and peace over politics.

The conversation, which neither side has confirmed nor denied, took place in late October during the early stages of Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza, after Hamas on Oct. 7 launched terror attacks that killed approximately 1,200 Israelis and took captive 250 civilian hostages, including children.

According to The Washington Post report, which cited an unnamed senior Israeli official familiar with the call, the Israeli president was describing the horror of Hamas’ attack when the Pope interjected by saying that it was “forbidden to respond to terror with terror.”

When Herzog protested that the Israeli government was doing what was needed in Gaza to defend its own people, the Pope allegedly said that those responsible for the Hamas attack should be held accountable, but not civilians.

The exchange, if accurate, has added to the strains placed on the Vatican-Israel relationship since the outbreak of the war.

The Holy See’s diplomatic efforts around the world call for prudence, impartiality and attention to every word, but this is not easy, especially for Pope Francis, who is used to speaking in a non-diplomatic manner, often through public gestures. The danger is that those gestures will be misinterpreted and backfire diplomatically.

This is precisely what happened at the 2022 Via Crucis event at the Colosseum in Rome. As a demonstration of reconciliation, the Pope wanted two women — one Ukrainian and the other Russian — to hold a cross together at the 13th Station, “Jesus Dies on the Cross,” with a meditation written by members of a Ukrainian family and a Russian family read aloud. Ahead of the event, Ukrainian officials registered their strong disapproval.

“For the Greek Catholics of Ukraine, the texts and gestures of the 13th Station of this Way of the Cross are incoherent and even offensive, especially in the context of the expected second, even bloodier, attack of Russian troops on our cities and villages,” Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, said at the time.

In the end, the two women still appeared together at the station but the spoken meditation was replaced by a moment of silence.

Likewise, Pope Francis wanted to show closeness to a war-torn population by meeting separately with Palestinian and Israeli representatives on Nov. 22. Afterward, at his general audience, the Pope stirred controversy when he referred to his encounters.

“They suffer so much, and I heard how they both suffer. Wars do this, but here we have gone beyond wars,” he said, adding, “This is not warfare; this is terrorism,” a statement interpreted by some to be a judgment on Israel’s continued military campaign.

By this time, according to the Post’s report, Pope Francis already had spoken in similar terms to the Israeli president. In a conversation with the Register’s sister publication Catholic News Agency on Dec. 4, Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, Rafael Schutz, stressed that “no official had commented till now on record to the alleged phone conversation between the Pope and President Herzog, so I won’t be the first to do so.”

Two-State Solution ‘Irrelevant’?

Immediately after the conflict began, the Holy See appealed for a cease-fire and the opening of humanitarian corridors. The religious leaders of the Holy Land have launched several appeals, also highlighting the problematic situation experienced in the Gaza Strip. Schutz intervened on a few occasions, criticizing the stance taken by religious leaders, who, according to him, did not highlight who was the aggressor and who was being attacked.

It was not, the ambassador explained to CNA, “a systematic comparison between the pontifical diplomacy and statements or articles from local churches. My comments to the latter came mainly when I noticed factual inaccuracies or bias.”

From the start of the war, however, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, has sought to demonstrate balance and neutrality. He visited the Israeli embassy to the Holy See on Oct. 13 and the Palestinian embassy four days later.

He also gave an interview to Vatican Media on Oct. 13, outlining the Holy See’s position. First, he expressed “total and firm condemnation” for the “inhuman” terrorist attack carried out by Hamas on Oct. 7. Second, he offered to be “ready for any necessary mediation.” And, third, he reiterated the need today, more than ever, to arrive at the “two peoples-two states” solution that “would allow Palestinians and Israelis to live side by side, in peace and security.”

His third point raises a question, however. While the Holy See has consistently advocated for the “two peoples-two states” solution to the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is it the right time to discuss this?

In the view of Israeli Ambassador Schutz, such talk is premature.

“The question about the support for the ‘two-states solution’ belongs to the discussion about ‘the day after’ [the war],” he said. Though the discussion is “important,” he told CNA that it’s “irrelevant to the current war,” especially because of the “terrible blow we suffered on Oct. 7.”

“Hamas’ criminal attack is not related to the Israeli-Palestinian territorial dispute. The organization is the Palestinian branch of a worldwide fundamentalist Islamic coalition, whose explicit aim is destroying the Judeo-Christian civilization, as we’ve witnessed with ISIS, Boko Haram and others,” he explained. “It has nothing to do with what will be the borders of Israel since, for them, Israel should not exist at all.”

As the war proceeds, Cardinal Parolin has continued to condemn the Hamas attacks, while also highlighting the urgent need to address the deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“I believe that the Holy See has not overlooked Hamas,” the cardinal said in response to journalists Nov. 26, when he was asked about the criticism coming from Israel.

‘It’s Not Easy Right Now’

While the Vatican’s approach seems to irritate both sides at different times and pleases no one, the fact remains that the Holy See does not have, nor can it endorse, a political language.

The Vatican’s diplomacy is at the service of people and, first of all, at the service of peace. The condemnation of every act of terrorism is firm. Yet the humanitarian situation and concerns about escalation are issues that the Vatican does not overlook.

Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa understands this need for balance. On Nov. 27, he addressed a greeting at the opening of the plenary assembly of the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe.

“As Churches,” he explained, “it is important to try to use a language that is not exclusive.”

That is to say, added the cardinal, that the language of the Church does not take sides between pros and cons and avoids falling into the logic of “being with one means being against the other.”

“Especially as Christians, we must not fall into the trap of opposing narratives but try to say things truthfully, condemn what happened on Oct. 7, but also speak for the pain of too many Palestinian victims, and find an inclusive language. It’s not easy right now.”

The Latin patriarch also noted that “this war has broken out, but we don't see how it can end. There is no exit strategy. Once the bombings are over and the military operation is over, what will happen? It is unclear, nor is the political project for the post-war period known.”

The cardinal also asked the European bishops to inform their governments of the situation to help the two peoples find a way out.

Searching for a Path Forward

While Cardinal Parolin has offered the Holy See’s help in mediating the conflict, it is difficult to envision that happening, as neither side perceives the Holy See as a neutral third party.

What, then, is the role of the Holy See?

When there was the invasion of Iraq by ISIS, the then Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue issued two notes in which it asked all partners in the dialogue, in particular the Muslim ones, to condemn the terrorist acts. However, a solution of this kind does not appear to be in the works.

Still, it bears noting that, on Oct. 30, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican foreign minister, had a telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

The Holy See and Iran generally have good relations, albeit with some tensions. They also have a cultural bridge that led the University of Qom to translate the Catechism of the Catholic Church into Farsi.

Archbishop Gallagher and Abdollahian held a bilateral meeting last September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Iran had put on the table the proposal to ally to defend the sacred books. The last discussion was aimed at not inciting an extension of the conflict in the Holy Land, avoiding a regional conflict, and avoiding transforming the conflict into an “existential threat” for Israel, which would make any attempt at peace useless.

Meanwhile, there are constant calls for a cease-fire. However, Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See looks above all to the final objective, that is, the eradication of terrorism.

“De-escalation or a cease-fire are not a goal, but a means to achieve it,” Schutz stressed.

“The goal is to reestablish the possibility for routine, secure life for Israeli citizens in their homes along the Gaza Strip, near the border with Lebanon, and in the rest of the Israeli sovereign territory,” he added. “If the way to restore security for Israeli citizens is by de-escalation, I’ll be the first to support it. Unfortunately, knowing our enemies and their goals, I don’t think so.”

This is the reality of the situation that papal diplomacy confronts. Added to these challenges: the dire straits of the few remaining Christians in Gaza.

“After this war, we don’t know what will remain,” Cardinal Pizzaballa said. “Almost all the homes of our Christian families have been destroyed.”

In addition to an abrupt halt in tourism due to the war, the work permits of Palestinians in Israel have been canceled, except for jobs in health care, hospitals and schools, he said, resulting in a “a tough social situation, a worrying poverty.”

Also worrying, he said, is “the emotional impact that this war has had on the Israeli and Palestinian populations,” who now experience deep hatred and strong resentment, so that “those forms of coexistence that previously existed are completely erased and have now disappeared; and the media … just hammer on these feelings by pitting one against the other.”

This much is certain: The path toward reconciliation will be a long and difficult journey.