As The Pope Heads To Mexico And Cuba, A Quieter Vatican Diplomacy Is Tested Anew

In 1998 when Pope John Paul II made a historic trip to Havana, Vatican diplomacy was on full display. Pope Benedict XVI's arrival in Cuba, after a visit to Mexico, reminds us that the influence of the Catholic Church is based above all on its vas

John Paul II and Jimmy Carter in another era (Marion Doss)
John Paul II and Jimmy Carter in another era (Marion Doss)
Stéphanie Le Bars

Pope Benedict XVI does not travel much. The four or five trips abroad that he makes each year, and the speeches that he makes to his foreign flocks, as well as to the leaders of the countries he visits, are therefore key indicators of Vatican positions.

The Pope's trip to Cuba and Mexico, which begins Friday, should be a typical example of this. The United States has already made its stance on the matter clear: they "hope" that Benedict will raise the question of human rights in Cuba. Indeed, the mediation of the Cuban Church facilitated the released of 115 political prisoners over the past two years.

And of course, the Cuba precedent was set back in 1998 when Pope Benedict's predecessor, John-Paul II, made a historic visit to one of the last bastions of communism in the world.

In Mexico, the current diplomatic situation may also catch up with Benedict XVI. The Pope will undoubtedly not mention the name ‘Florence Cassez", the French citizen condemned to 60 years in prison by the Mexican justice system, but - behind the scenes – the local Catholic Church's efforts to demonstrate the young woman's "absolute innocence" are being discreetly endorsed by Rome.

These are just two examples of the international clout the Vatican is still thought to wield. The diplomatic telegrams sent by the U.S. Secretary of State and published by Wikileaks in December 2010 highlight keen American interest in Catholic networks and the papal speeches. And yet it remains difficult to accurately measure the influence, real or assumed, of the Catholic Church when it comes to true global change and international politics.

John Paul's pontificate was characterized by its self-assured, assertive stance on diplomatic matters. The influence, or at least the presence, of the Catholic Church throughout the world was re-established by his many trips around the world, his active participation in the fall of communism, his efforts to instigate lasting dialogue with other religions and the doubling (to 179) of diplomatic representation within the Vatican City during his pontificate . Since then, both the world and the Pope have changed.

The end of the "communist challenge"

Elected in 2005, Benedict XVI cultivates a less visible approach to diplomacy. "Benedict XVI is the first Pope who does not face the communist challenge, which used to be a determining factor of Vatican diplomacy," says François Mabille, an international relations expert at the Paris-based Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. "Neither has he appointed an illustrious personality to embody his diplomatic stance, men like the Cardinals Agostino Casaroli or Roger Etchegaray" who were responsible for international relations, and in particular for liaising with communist countries, under Paul VI and John-Paul II.

The researcher added that the "decline of the Catholic Church in certain parts of the world, often mentioned by the Pope himself, represents a relative decline in its diplomatic power."

Less convinced of this "decline," a Vatican insider stresses that "Vatican diplomacy often bewilders conventional diplomats...It is displayed at a pastoral level. At the end of the day, the Catholic Church defends its values and its followers, wherever they can be found, by searching for pragmatic solutions in all countries." And with all regimes.

Thus, although the Vatican regularly condemns any type of violence, it rarely adopts a specific stance, and advocates dialogue in all cases. And, on many occasions, such as its unequivocal refusal to endorse war or its position on bioethical issues, the Vatican often seems to be swimming against the currents of international realpolitik and worldwide social trends.

Observers have been examining the Vatican's silence during the crisis last year in the Ivory Coast, and the low-profile it maintained during the initial months of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. In January, the Pope finished his speech to the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See by affirming that: "Initial optimism has yielded to an acknowledgement of the difficulties of this moment of transition and change," insisting on "recognition of the inalienable dignity of each human person and of his or her fundamental rights," in particular religious freedom.

As a diplomat explains: "the ‘other world", Islam, has become a constant source of worry for the Catholic Church, especially regarding the fate of Christians in the East."

Other more ecclesiastical aspects are also regularly emphasized, such as the need for a fresh evangelization of the more secular countries in the West, the Church's work to maintain special links with certain Catholic countries in Europe such as Italy, Spain and Poland, or the shrinking gap between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox and the patriarchate in Moscow.

But the influence of the Catholic Church isn't dependent on the Pope alone. "Vatican diplomacy is more present in grassroots movements than at the level of international relations," explains Mabille. Moreover, governments hold in high esteem its incomparable network of nunciatures, congregations and NGOs throughout the world, "even reaching China and North Korea," as highlighted by the WikiLeaks memos.

Even outside of Catholic circles, notable credit is given to the work of Catholic NGOs in the fields of health and human rights; the role of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace's local commissions; and the involvement of the Catholic community of Sant'Egidio in negotiations to settle ongoing violent conflicts, like those in Mozambique or the African Great Lakes region.

But Vatican diplomacy also takes place within the more formal context of international organizations. Present either as an observer or as a full member, the Vatican defends the values of the Catholic Church within the inner circles of the United Nations and the Europe Union, as well as at large international conferences on disarmament, demographics, the status of women, and, more recently, on water, where it sometimes establishes alliances with other religions.

The Vatican's overt lobbying on these occasions emphasizes, in its own way, particular topics including religious freedom, but also more delicate topics such as bioethics, abortion and euthanasia, the use of embryonic stem cells, gay marriage, AIDS and discussions of reproduction and gender theory. But the international community's withdrawal from such areas of discussion may well reduce the opportunities for the Vatican to raise these issues, thus reducing its sphere of influence still further.

Read more from Le Monde in French.

Photo - Marion Doss

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