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In His Holiness’ Service . . . Why Diplomatic Relations Matter

February 12, 2014 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


(Editor’s Note: Fr. John L. Ubel is the rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul, St. Paul, Minn. The following commentary appeared in the February 2, 2014, cathedral bulletin, and it is reprinted here with permission. All rights reserved.)

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I’d be a lousy diplomat, mostly because I lack the necessary skills to refrain from offering my own opinions! Diplomacy requires significant restraint and a willingness to represent another without regard for one’s own personal opinions. The history of U.S. relations with the Vatican is long, involved, and complicated. As the central government of the Church, the Holy See has a legal personality that allows it to enter into treaties as the juridical equal of a state and to send and receive diplomatic representatives.
Thanks to the courage of President Ronald Reagan, the United States government and the Holy See just observed the 30th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between the two parties. And Reagan took some real heat for allowing it.
Even early U.S. bishops like John Ireland resisted it out of fears that Protestants would think that U.S. Church leaders would be perceived as merely “taking marching orders” from the banks of the Tiber. While those fears were justified following the “Know-Nothing” days of the 1850s, they are misguided today.
The diplomatic service of the Holy See is considered to be the oldest in the world. Today the Holy See has formal diplomatic relations with 179 nations (from Albania to Zimbabwe) as well as the United Nations (where it enjoys Permanent Observer status) and other international agencies such as the European Union. Formal relations with Spain date back to the 15th century! Only the U.S. has diplomatic relations with more nations!
Some people see no reason at all why the Vatican should be in the diplomacy business, vehemently resenting this fact, seeing it as an encroachment of the Church in society. Vatican diplomats have also been at the forefront of lobbying, most notably at the United Nations, often teaming up with Muslim nations standing against proposed international statutes that would increase access to abortion. This too angers secularists to no end.
I heartily reject this mischaracterization of the role of the Vatican. Let me give you a few examples of the work of nuncios:
Archbishop Emanuele Clarizio arranged for a ceasefire in the Dominican Republic in 1965; on the border between Argentina and Chile, a mountain pass has been renamed after Antonio Cardinal Samorè, who helped settle a territorial dispute that could have led to war in the Beagle Channel conflict of 1978; Archbishop Michael Courtney, nuncio to Burundi, was gunned down in 2003 after campaigning for peace in that troubled country. The Burundese still remember December 29, the anniversary of his death; Archbishop Fernando Filoni, apostolic nuncio in Baghdad, refused to leave his post during the Iraq War, as the Church wants its diplomats to be with the people through thick and thin.
Both Popes Pius XII and John XXIII were once papal diplomats themselves. Diplomats provide vital service both to the Church and society.
Vatican diplomats are trained at the prestigious Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, a building located just behind the Pantheon. You would hardly notice it amongst shops and the more noteworthy sites, but the men live and study there for three to four years while pursuing diplomatic studies. They are highly trained to think internationally, not locally.
I recall one Philadelphia priest who used to visit the residence for American priest students on Sundays to watch NFL games on the Armed Forces network. He needed special permission from his superiors just to visit! They are trained to be priests of the world and travel with Vatican passports, not that of their countries of origin! They are released for service to the Holy See by their local bishops. It means saying goodbye to any semblance of life as one knew it, as new diplomats move every three years or so all around the world.
Eventually, they may become nuncios, ordained bishops, and become the chief representative of the Holy See to that nation. The vast majority of their work is strictly Church related, as they have a key role in screening potential candidates for the office of bishop, sending recommendations to Rome for the eventual approval of the Pope.
Very recently, the U.S. government has decided to relocate its Vatican Embassy from a self-contained building near the Circus Maximus to the same compound as the U.S. Embassy to Italy. It will no longer be free standing, even if a separate entrance is maintained.
While technically this satisfies the requirements of the treaty, it is clearly a diminution of the post. Five former U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican have criticized the move, including those who have served under both Democratic and Republican presidents. Current U.S. Ambassador Ken Hackett supports the move. The U.S. government claims that it is a cost-cutting measure based upon security following Benghazi, but no one really thinks that Rome is akin to Libya with respect to security.
Former U.S. Ambassador the Vatican, James Nicholson, said, “It’s turning this embassy into a stepchild of the embassy to Italy.”
Let us pray for all papal diplomats in their delicate and often lonely work of representing the Catholic Church all across the globe.

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