By JOHN THAVIS, CNS | Published January 6, 2011
If there’s one clear conclusion that can be drawn from the Vatican-related WikiLeaks disclosures, it’s that the United States takes the Vatican and its diplomatic activity very seriously.
In memo after memo in recent years, officials of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See have reported back to Washington on the impact of papal trips, statements and documents; on the Vatican’s behind-the-scenes efforts to head off conflicts; on church-state tensions in Latin America; on the evolution of Catholic teaching on bioethics; and even on the international repercussions of ecumenical affairs.
When a Vatican agency organized a conference on genetically modified foods, the U.S. embassy paid attention. When the Vatican condemned human trafficking, embassy officials met with Vatican counterparts to broaden areas of cooperation on that issue.
And when Pope Benedict XVI said in 2007 that “nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees,” the embassy quickly objected, telling a high-level Vatican official that Iraq was experiencing positive developments and that the papal comments were not constructive.
Reading the cables, it’s hard to imagine that before 1984, the United States did not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Today, the U.S. Embassy has five diplomatic officials and a support staff of 14, and is considered one of the busiest delegations accredited to the Vatican.
To anyone still wondering why so much attention is being paid to the world’s smallest state, a U.S. Embassy cable of 2009—prepared for President Barack Obama ahead of his first meeting with Pope Benedict—gave the answer:
“The Vatican is second only to the United States in the number of countries with which it enjoys diplomatic relations (188 and 177, respectively), and there are Catholic priests, nuns and laypeople in every country on the planet. As a result, the Holy See is interested and well-informed about developments all over the globe,” it said.
Since that memo was written, the Vatican has established full diplomatic relations with Russia, bringing the total to 178 countries. That leaves only about 16 countries off the list, places such as China, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. The Vatican also maintains delegations to nearly 20 international institutions, including the United Nations.
The WikiLeaks cables have described Vatican diplomats as generally well-informed and as influential lobbyists behind the scenes. What’s amazing is that the Vatican accomplishes all this with a relatively tiny diplomatic corps—a few hundred bishops and priests who were hand-picked and trained at a little-known diplomatic academy in downtown Rome.
The academy has only 30 or so priest-students, who spend years studying papal diplomacy, diplomatic style, diplomatic history and international law. By the time they graduate, they are expected to be fluent in four languages.
Most of the graduates go on to serve at lower-level positions at a Vatican nunciature, or embassy, and are rotated to new posts after a few years. Some may be brought back for a turn at the “Second Section” of the Vatican Secretariat of State, a kind of international nerve-center where about 35 prelates keep tabs on the entire world.
Eventually, they may become papal nuncios, or ambassadors. The nuncio’s job differs from that of a normal ambassador in several respects, however. For one thing, a nuncio acts not only as the pope’s representative to a foreign government, but as the pope’s liaison with the local Catholic population. Much of his time, therefore, is spent dealing with internal church affairs.
In a broader sense, unlike other ambassadors, the papal nuncio is promoting a moral agenda, not the commercial or political interests of his government. A primary focus of papal diplomats in recent decades has been human rights, peaceful resolution of conflicts and protection of core social values. Those concerns show up repeatedly in the WikiLeaks cables.
In Rome, the Vatican also communicates with U.S. diplomats through various agencies of the Roman Curia, in particular the pontifical councils that deal with justice and peace, migration, health care, charity work and the family. Embassy officials seek out experts who work at these councils for briefings on the Vatican’s position and—as one can now read in detail—report it all back to the U.S. State Department.
Vatican officials, of course, also are reading the WikiLeaks cables with interest. So far they seem unsurprised at the content. Much of the U.S. Embassy’s effort seems geared toward enlarging areas of U.S.-Vatican cooperation, which has never been a secret objective. The cables show the Vatican as open on some issues, such as human trafficking, but clearly wary of becoming too closely identified with the policies and initiatives of the world’s biggest superpower.
Occasionally, there are frank assessments of differences, as in a U.S. Embassy memo from July 2001, which forecast continued problems with the Vatican over Israel, the death penalty and Iraq.
“The Vatican will continue to oppose U.S. efforts to isolate Saddam Hussein. We should recognize that the Vatican will not support our efforts in Iraq, and investigate ways to limit Vatican interference with our objectives,” the cable said tersely.
The WikiLeaks cables often reveal U.S. diplomats as trying very hard to figure out the Vatican, as they deal with an institution that is both a sovereign state and the center of a global religion. One “confidential” cable boiled it down to the simplest terms: “The Vatican strives to translate its religious beliefs and its humanitarian concerns into concrete policies.”