Pope Benedict XVI greets Vatican-accredited diplomats during an audience at the Vatican Jan. 10. (CNS photo/Alessia Pierdomenico, Reuters)
Behind Rome's Pantheon, in the Piazza della Minerva, is a curious statue of an elephant with an obelisk on its back. Visitors to Rome often notice the famous statue — carved by a student of Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1667 — but pay no attention to the building that faces it. This four-floor palazzo houses the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, also known as the Vatican diplomatic school. It is somehow fitting that no one seems to notice this unassuming building. After all, Vatican diplomacy is largely about discretion.
Most of the work of Vatican diplomats is done behind the scenes and never makes the papers. This work can take the form of helping priests and sisters obtain visas to work in countries such as Israel and Cuba. Or it can be much more exciting, such as trying to keep countries from going to war (as was the case with Chile and Argentina in the late 1970s and early 1980s) or helping to secure the release of British sailors captured by Iran in the spring of 2007.
"You are called to collaborate in building up the Church, serving the Petrine ministry in the Christian communities to which you are sent," Pope John Paul II once told students at the Academy. The pope described diplomatic activity as something "particularly delicate," reminding the students that they deal with civil society, working "to promote the great ideals of justice, of peace, of solidarity, indispensable values for the full protection of the dignity of the human person."
PROTECTING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
The Holy See has diplomatic relations with 178 different countries. That number itself is a sign of the high regard that governments have for the Vatican despite any differences they might have on particular issues.
The apostolic nuncios (usually archbishops) and other members of the Holy See's diplomatic corps have a mission as the Holy See's representatives before the civil authorities in each country. They also serve as a bridge between the Vatican and the local Catholic community.
"The Holy See has a highly respected diplomatic corps with sharp eyes and sharp ears," said Francis Campbell, the outgoing British ambassador to the Holy See. "It is far closer to the ground than any ordinary diplomatic corps through its network of bishops and clergy in each place."
As a result, Campbell said, the Holy See has one of the best-informed diplomatic networks in the world.
Vatican diplomacy has a long history, dating back more than 1,500 years by some accounts. The diplomatic school for the Holy See was formally instituted in 1701. That all adds up to centuries of diplomatic experience, something that has served the Church well across the globe.
As Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, once the foreign minister for the Holy See, pointed out, the Vatican's diplomatic activity goes beyond looking out for the rights and the needs of Catholics.
"Our duty is to promote and defend not only the freedom and rights of Catholic communities around the world, but also to promote certain principles without which there is no civilization," Tauran said. "One of the most important of these principles is to protect the right to life at all stages."
The overarching goal of the diplomatic corps is to advocate respect for human rights. This includes the promotion of religious freedom for all believers, with particular concern for the Catholic Church's ability to operate freely.
Jim Nicholson, the former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See (2001-05), recalled that he was able to attend Mass in the heavily Islamic United Arab Emirates, something he said is a result of Vatican insistence on reciprocal rights for believers. "They're really making a mark on that," Nicholson said. "It's far from perfect, but they're making progress."
In addition, the Vatican does not have to worry about economic or military concerns, which is an advantage when it comes to even-handed diplomacy, Nicholson added. He went on to describe the Holy See's diplomatic corps as "sophisticated, informed and dependable."
"They make a difference primarily in the whole human rights context," Nicholson said. "It's who they are, and it's what they stand for — human dignity."
A MORAL VOICE
While the watchword may be discretion, the Holy See is ready to make its voice heard and even go to the mat when there are serious moral issues at stake.
Such was the case in 1994 with the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. The conference became a battle of different worldviews, and the Vatican was not afraid to play hardball in such a pivotal showdown.
For example, the Vatican took on the U.S. delegation, headed by then-Vice President Al Gore, charging it with misrepresenting its position regarding abortion. Pope John Paul II weighed in as well, harshly criticizing the draft document for the conference. In addition, the pope delivered a strong message to the executive director of the U.N. Fund for Population Activities, Nafis Sadik. "In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life," John Paul II said.
Most of the time, though, the diplomacy is quiet work in defense of human rights. "What sets the pope's envoys apart is that they are charged to speak and act for the good of humanity, not just for the sovereign entity they represent, and not just for Catholics," said Mary Ann Glendon, Harvard law professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See (2007-09).
Glendon said she was lucky to serve at a time when the partnership between the United States and the Holy See was especially close, with a shared commitment to human rights — especially religious freedom — and to fostering interreligious dialogue.
She believes that neither the United States nor the Vatican gets adequate credit for their work against poverty, hunger and disease, and pointed out that the Holy See oversees the "world's largest network of health care, educational and relief agencies."
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, agrees that the Vatican brings a light of hope to the world.
"In an environment of much media reporting on violent conflicts, on the financial and economic crisis, on the clash of civilizations and clash of cultures, the Holy See puts forward the vision of a civilization of love," Tomasi said. "The diplomacy of the Holy See walks along with the peoples of the world in the ups and downs of their history."
Greg Burke is the Rome correspondent for Fox News.