Ode to the Corps
Over the past century—despite the march of secularism—the Vatican's role in world affairs has expanded. In 1890 a famous English Catholic, Cardinal Manning, said the Holy See's diplomatic activities were “a mere pageant”, a medieval relic. He would be amazed to find that in 2007 papal diplomacy is more active than ever.That latter component of the corps' unique espirit is underscored by two high-profile departures from North American nunciatures this month, as Monsignors Michael Crotty and Matteo De Mori leave their posts in Ottawa and Washington, respectively, to take up assignments at the Vatican outpost in Baghdad.
The real explosion came under John Paul II. When he was elected in 1978, the Holy See had full ties with 85 states. When he died, the figure was 174. Among states that dropped their misgivings were Margaret Thatcher's Britain, Ronald Reagan's America and Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union. The Holy See now has full diplomatic relations with 176 states. Vietnam, China and Saudi Arabia are among the few without formal links. Recent years have also seen an expansion in the See's multilateral diplomacy. It sits in on the deliberations of 16 inter-governmental bodies, including the United Nations, the African Union and the Organisation of American States....
The pope's “diplomatic service” is a reminder of his unique and ambiguous status as both a religious and temporal leader. Formally, the pope's diplomats represent the Holy See—not the Vatican state which, under a 1929 accord with Italy, is the sovereign power in part of Rome. But in years past, some states (such as America in the 19th century) would deal with the pope only as head of a sovereign state. The fact that pontiffs wear two hats, temporal and spiritual, gives them, and their interlocutors, a certain flexibility. In 2001, when Greece's Orthodox clergy grumbled over a visit by Pope John Paul II, the government in Athens could retort that it was merely receiving him as a head of state.
But more and more governments have in recent years seemed happy to deal with the Holy See on its own terms, especially after John Paul II boosted its global profile. For any state, an embassy to the See offers attractions. For poor ones, it is a chance to garner information from one of the world's best-informed chancelleries. For powerful ones, it offers a way to influence the Vatican and seek papal approval. Napoleon told his man in Rome: “Deal with the pope as if he had 200,000 men at his command.” After some years in Rome, the envoy said 500,000 was nearer the mark.
The real extent of the Vatican's power is hard to compute. One in every six human beings was baptised into the pope's church. Of course, many quit the faith, but he remains a global opinion-former. His views can sway Catholic votes—a point not lost on American presidents, who rarely miss a chance to visit the Vatican. In Burundi all top politicians and expatriates flock to Archbishop Gallagher's residence for the papal feast day. Cutting a lower profile than his predecessor, the 53-year-old Englishman reports only “occasional” contacts with Burundi's rebel factions, the last of which signed a ceasefire agreement in September 2006. In the rich world one respecter of papal clout is Britain's new prime minister, Gordon Brown. Three years ago this son of a Presbyterian minister went to seek Vatican endorsement of a proposal to boost aid to poor nations. This year he returned to co-launch a plan to bring new vaccines to poor states.
Papal diplomacy is almost as old as the papacy. But it was not until 1500 that a permanent nunciature, or diplomatic service, was established, in Venice. The earliest Protestant state to send an ambassador was Prussia in 1805: its envoy was Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, a philosopher and linguist. The first non-Christian state to establish relations was Japan, in 1942.
Of the countries with links today, only 78 keep missions in Rome—and they form one of the world's odder diplomatic corps. The embassy with the biggest staff, along with that of Germany, is the Dominican Republic's. Iran has a large mission, with as many diplomats as America. (“Who knows what other duties they have?” sighs a senior Vatican official.)...
Papal diplomats, all priests nowadays, are trained at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome. The academy has had a colourful history, once losing its assets to a rogue administrator. Its graduates do two jobs: representing the Holy See to the local government and keeping a vigilant eye on national churches. Vatican envoys usually stay longer en poste than secular ones (one nuncio was in Dublin for 26 years). Some cover vast cultural distances: the nuncio in Algeria was born in Taiwan.
Conventional diplomacy is a small part of what they do. “In most places, 95% of our work relates to the life of the church,” says a former nuncio. “The overwhelming bulk of the correspondence has to do with the appointment of bishops.”
Another big difference between papal and ordinary diplomats is that the former have little protection—and never pull out of dangerous situations. “The pope leaves his representatives to suffer with the people of the country to which they are accredited,” says a Vatican official.
The Iraq mission -- whose former head, Archbishop Fernando Filoni, is settling into the Sostituto's office in San Damaso -- also represents the Holy See in Jordan.