Pope Francis has emphasized the broad availability of COVID vaccination as an issue to be pressed upon governments around the world by the Vatican diplomatic corps. While stressing international cooperation, Francis also noted that some international organizations are undermining their own work through agendas that “are increasingly dictated by a mindset that rejects the natural foundations of humanity and the cultural roots that constitute the identity of many peoples”—in other words, “ideological colonization”.
These emphases initiate us into the odd world of Vatican diplomacy with the various nations around the world. But what is the meaning of “diplomacy” for a Catholic? And how is it part of an integral Catholic life?
An accident of history?
In an important sense, formal Vatican diplomacy is an historical artifact arising from the immense worldly influence enjoyed by the popes and bishops in a largely Catholic society, in which the pope governed the Papal States and bishops and religious orders throughout Europe controlled extensive territorial holdings. Vatican diplomacy emerged at a time when the Church was a major independent factor in contemporary affairs, as both a spiritual and a temporal power expected to transcend purely regional dynastic, political and economic concerns. Partly through an accident of history, and partly through her international character, the Church has managed to retain a diplomatic role, including her rather unique participation in the United Nations.
Today, as the last vestiges disappear of a civilization substantially formed through Catholic influence, it is somewhat of an anomaly that the Church still has a small territory (implying a recognition of her independence of any particular worldly government) and still retains a diplomatic role which is generally recognized around the world. Obviously this presents opportunities for good, especially a routine way for the Church to advocate with most governments for peace, the enhancement of the common good, and the recognition of her own spiritual liberty.
At the same time, the Church’s strength does not lie in diplomacy, her mission does not depend on diplomacy, and her fundamental interests are not best served through diplomacy. Moreover, the diplomatic approach to world problems can at times replace or at least obscure the Church’s fundamental mission. We see this most clearly whenever we find popes and bishops (and their representatives) emphasizing generally acceptable natural goals at the expense of an unflinching proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Diplomacy can at times open paths to both the service of the common good and greater freedom of operation for Catholic mission (which, obviously, is also conducive to the common good). But there is always a temptation to be “diplomatic” in the sense of championing a small set of mutually-acceptable values at the expense of an honest and open adherence to Christ.
Conversion and diplomacy
We must remember that the strength which underlies the most effective diplomacy is always a form of conversion. This is especially true for the Church, which ought to desire conversion to Christ first and foremost, rendering diplomacy a skill to be employed to smooth the way or to resolve inessential differences. I do not mean to suggest that the Vatican currently emphasizes diplomacy over conversion, though the disastrous accord with China does at least raise this question. But I do suggest that when it comes to the Christian life, clergy and laity alike will always be afflicted by a temptation to emphasize diplomacy at the expense of conversion—seeking common ground rather than proclaiming the gospel.
At the risk of sounding like a parrot who is content to repeat what he hears without making a good story out of it, I will simply say very quickly that this temptation is most common when it comes to a kind of Christian subservience to the dominant culture. We all know how hard it is to “find the right time and the right way” of going beyond the words and concepts the dominant culture wants to hear. We all know what it is like to emphasize a steadily diminishing common ground in order to avoid confrontation or even embarrassment. In other words, we are always tempted to begin with the assumption that we cannot “win”.
This in itself is a reminder that if we are not motivated by “the glory of God and the salvation of souls”, then we will never go beyond that shrinking common ground at all. For as Christians we are called, each in our own way, to do exactly what St. Paul urged the new bishop Timothy to do:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry. (2 Tim 4:1-5)
The diplomacy of Christ
St. Paul, of course, had ample experience with the results of preaching the Gospel, not only with the joys of fostering faith in those who are receptive, but with the trials imposed by those who are not receptive. Interestingly, however, he associates particular “times of stress” with the “last days”, when men will love self and money, and become proud, arrogant, unholy, and haters of the good (cf. 2 Tim 3: 2-5).
I suspect the “last days” in Scripture often refers to ordinary days in the lives of those who reject the Gospel, and Paul warns us to avoid such people. But we must never forget those for whom these days may not be their last, that is, those who have had little opportunity to know any better, and who may not be willfully devoted to evil. It is precisely our willingness to proclaim the Gospel—rather than simply to base relationships on what is currently believed by others—that gives others a chance to put an end to an otherwise interminable frustration, by finding joy in Christ.
For as St. Paul wrote to the Romans:
“[E]very one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!” [Rom 10:13-15]
The Church is not called in the first place to diplomacy. Nor are Christians made new as priests, diplomats and kings: Not diplomats but prophets. Diplomacy bears God’s fruit, then, only in the light of a prophetic grace. It is a human tool which proves its worth in the service of the gospel of Christ:
So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. [2 Cor 5:20]
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