Pope Francis and International Relations: A New Diplomacy of Dialogue

Photo courtesy of Lee Pellegrini
Photo courtesy of Lee Pellegrini

by Fr. Charles R. Gallagher, S.J




Charles R. Gallagher, S.J. is an assistant professor in the Department of History. His latest writing is “The Roman Catholic Church and Modern Terrorism: Ideology, Human Rights, and the Hermeneutic of Discontinuity,” in Socialist History.


“Where will this new hippie Pope take us next?,” Comedian Stephen Colbert recently asked in his inimitably wacky way on an edition of The Colbert Report. Colbert was reflecting on many of the stylistic changes that Pope Francis has become well-known for over the first few months of his papacy. For Colbert, the arrival of tie-dyed priestly vestments was certainly on the horizon. Although goofy, Colbert’s original question about the direction the new pope will set is a compelling one, particularly when it comes to assessing the papacy's new path in diplomacy and international relations activity. The Secretariat of State of the Holy See is one of the most prestigious diplomatic corps in the world, sending and receiving diplomats from 180 countries and international governmental organizations throughout the world. Yet, due to Pope Francis’ personal choices and personality, the media barrage has left unreported a quiet revolution taking place in the way the Holy See conducts its diplomacy worldwide.


Most Vatican observers have yet to consider how the diplomacy of the Holy See has changed, and is changing, under Pope Francis. Even during the first few weeks of his papacy there were hints of change. For example, while his two predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both spoke of "development" as a means of uplifting the poor, Pope Francis dropped the term completely and instead began talking about "poverty." The focus shifted from those doing the giving to the real people who needed what was given. The same stark turn was noticeable in other areas of international concern. While previous popes spoke of "international labor," for example, this new pope began to speak of ground-level actors and his concern for "workers’ rights."


But perhaps the largest – and least noticed – shift that this Pope has made in the realm of international relations has been the shift from "the diplomacy of determination" about religious liberty around the world to a new emphasis on dialogue between states and groups. One of the main diplomatic thrusts under the predecessor of Pope Francis, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, was a constant effort to draw attention to issues of religious liberty around the world. By and large, this was connected to Christian and other religious bodies who were suffering under various levels of persecution. While this initiative was, of course, noble and good, its dynamic was by and large inward-looking. Christians were the object, not necessarily seeking interaction with their persecutors, but trying to draw third parties into sympathetic understanding with the role of Christians as object. Dialogue was not a priority.


Pope Francis is beginning to change this approach. At his recent address to diplomats, Pope Francis refrained from employing the term "religious liberty," instead drawing attention to "a lively hope to signs of openness" in countries where the liberties of Christians are denied. Moreover, if Francis is urging ordinary Catholics to "go out to the margins," to welcome those found there, he seems to have the same expectations for his own diplomats. “Everywhere, the way to resolve open questions must be that of diplomacy and dialogue,” the pope urged his own and many of the world’s diplomats. Encouraging a “culture of encounter,” Francis observed that “being closed and isolated always makes for a stifling, heavy atmosphere which sooner or later ends up creating sadness and oppression.” According to Francis, dialogue dispels oppression.


The shift toward dialogue was clearly in the front of Francis’ mind when he chose the Vatican’s top diplomat some months ago. His choice for Vatican Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, will be a significant player in creating the new culture of encounter. In his earlier days Archbishop Parolin was an eager student of Cardinal Agostino Casaroli – the father of the dialogue model of Vatican diplomacy and its consummate practitioner during the 1970’s. In his heyday, Casaroli nearly single-handedly orchestrated a thaw in relations between the Holy See and its old foe the Soviet Union – all via an emphasis on openness and dialogue rather than dug-in determination. The diplomacy of dialogue promises much for the future. Dialogue will lead to new opportunities in places where Christians are currently in need of breaking stalemates, such as in China, the Middle East, and Russia. But it also means new possibilities for diplomatic breakthroughs, political engagement, the alleviation of suffering, and the expansion of good will across borders and states. So, in the end, Stephen Colbert’s question about where this pope will lead the Church next is an exciting one.


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