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The Vatican’s diplomatic crisis of crises

As Pope Francis meets with his ambassadors from around the world, he has a lot to talk about - and they might have some questions for him.

Pope Francis and Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin at Rome's Fiumicino airport. Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Pope Francis met Thursday with members of the Holy See’s diplomatic corps, the apostolic nuncios and other senior officials who are the pope’s formal representatives in embassies around the world.

On day two of the triennial four-day meeting in Rome, Francis told his global representatives they were his emissaries to “a world shaken,” first by a pandemic and now by war, before throwing the floor open for a private question and answer session.

While that session took place behind closed doors, it's clear Francis and his ambassadors have a lot to talk about, with the Holy See at the center of several diplomatic storms across the world, and with the Vatican’s diplomatic credibility under threat on several fronts.

Francis told the session Thursday that the world has, “thank God,” moved past the worst of the Coronavirus pandemic, during which the papal diplomats had “brought the closeness of the pope to the people and the Church.”

“You have been points of reference during moments of extreme loss and turbulence,” he said.

But while the pandemic has abated, Francis reiterated his warning that the globe faces “a Third World War fought piecemeal,” centered especially on Ukraine, which he called “a particularly serious war, due to the violation of international law, the risks of nuclear escalation and the drastic economic and social consequences.”

In recent years, Francis has been clear he wants his diplomatic corps to function as missionaries as much as ambassadors — in 2019 he instituted a missionary year as part of the training of Vatican diplomats at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy.

But carrying out that missionary mandate faces some serious headwinds, both internal and external.

For a start, after several rough economic years, the Vatican’s network or embassies faces the same budget constraints as the rest of the Roman Curia, having to do more with little. In 2021, the Holy See budgeted only 43 million euros for the maintenance of its embassy missions.

While this was more money than nearly any other departmental budget, it was still less than the 45 million allocated for the Rome-based Dicastery for Communications.

And if lack of money is an issue, so too is lack of manpower. As Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin has admitted, the “general crisis” of priestly and religious vocations has hit the diplomatic academy’s recruiting pool hard.

“Every year it is challenging to find new candidates,” Parolin said in a recent interview, and more than a dozen senior diplomatic posts are currently vacant for lack of qualified men to fill them.

And while the Holy See’s diplomatic service is doing its work with fewer resources, it is also facing the reality that it has more to do, and the work is getting harder.

On Thursday, Francis highlighted the war in Ukraine as the epicenter of global unrest, and the Church’s position in that country, and the Vatican’s position on the diplomatic field there, both present considerable challenges to be met.

As The Pillar has been reporting since the Russian invasion began, the conflict in Ukraine has a distinctly religious tinge.

President Vladimir Putin’s vision of a Russiky mir, or Russian world, encompassing Ukraine is enthusiastically supported by the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill, who has extended that philosophical support to public endorsement of the invasion as a quasi-religious crusade against Western secular liberalism.

Kirill’s militaristic jingoism has been seen as blasphemous by many religious leaders, and served to push Ukraine’s three Christian Churches closer together. This has been an awkward alliance at times, with the autocephalous Orthodox Church (in communion with Constantinople) and its Russian-affiliated counterpart being pushed together by the realities of the war along with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Managing these inter-eccelisal relations would be fraught enough for the local nuncio without the added complications of Russian priests, parishes, and even dioceses coming over to both the Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic Churches.

And on top of all this have been Pope Francis’ own frequent public statements on the invasion which have, at times, appeared so overtly calibrated to courting a meeting with Kirill that it has led to open denunciation by the Ukrainian ambassador to the Holy See.

But Ukraine is by now means the only, or even necessarily the most sensitive diplomatic trouble spot the Vatican is trying to navigate.

In Nicaragua, the leftist dictatorship of Daniel Ortega has prosecuted a draconian crackdown on the Church, which has seized parish buildings and facilities across the country, and currently has Bishop Rolando Álvarez in custody.

Álvarez, apart from being clearly a prisoner of the faith, is also a thorny diplomatic problem.

During the weeks in which he was effectively under house arrest, with national police surrounding his chancery, the Holy See and the country’s bishops’ conference had reportedly been negotiating for him to leave the country and go into exile — he would have been the third bishop to be effectively expelled from the country by the Ortega regime, after auxiliary Bishop Silivio Báez was forced to flee in 2019, and the Vatican’s own nuncio to the country was formally kicked out earlier this year.

Instead Álvarez elected to stay, despite the government’s threats against him, presenting Rome with a particular diplomatic conundrum.

The Vatican and Pope Francis have adopted a measured tone in response to the bishop’s arrest, drawing considerable criticism.

On the one hand, it is understandable that, with a bishop in custody and several priests in a notorious prison, the Holy See doesn’t want to provoke Ortega into making martyrs. But, on the other hand, Álvarez’s desire to stay in his country as a witness to what the government is doing to his flock is, in many ways, exemplary of the kind of missionary witness Francis has made clear he wants his own diplomats to give.

That witness, and that papal directive, will both be undercut if the Holy See cannot find a way of recognizing it at work in Nicaragua — but without even a nuncio on the ground, the obstacles to balancing these competing priorities is obvious.

Also on the immediate horizon for Holy See diplomats is the looming renewal of the controversial Vatican-China deal, which expires at the beginning of October.

Negotiations on a further two-year extension of the accord, which grants the Communist Party a role in the appointment of bishops on the mainland are reported to be far-advanced, and the deal as good as done: Pope Francis has personally thrown his weight behind the episcopal arrangement, despite the constant drum roll of arrests, church demolitions, and legal crackdowns on Catholics in the country over the last four years.

That arrangement has been a magnet for criticism.

Apart from internal Church concerns about formal cooperation with a government actively persecuting the faith, on the global diplomatic stage the Holy See’s silence on the apparent genocide underway against the Uighurs people in Xinxiang Province, and the crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong, has been deafening.

Following a damning report on China’s possible “crimes against humanity” from the United Nations this week, many would otherwise expect the Vatican to be leading calls for action on the decimation of an entire people. Instead, that prophetic witness remains apparently sublimated in favor of a kind of ecclesiastical realpolitik, which has yet to yield obvious results.

Nevertheless, the Vatican’s state department has remained publicly committed to its engagement with China, even while senior diplomats are privately conceding the deal was, effectively, a mistake.

Speaking about the impending renewal of the China deal last week, Cardinal Parolin said that “When you negotiate with someone, you must always start from recognizing their good faith. Otherwise, the negotiation makes no sense.”

While that may be the diplomatic thing to say, for many Vatican and China watchers it is hard to find much good faith to recognize on China’s part — even on the specific issue of bishops’ appointments, recent cases have suggested Beijing has made the process entirely its own, effectively crowding the Church out of its own hierarchy in the country.

While that situation might present an quiet ecclesiastical crisis in it’s own right, the extent to which the Vatican’s diplomatic stance on China appears to be “grin and bear it” is taking a toll on its international credibility, and the strength of its attempts to be a voice for human dignity and rights elsewhere.

As Francis continues his sessions with his ambassadors from around the world, and fields their questions, some may ask the pope to clarify what he wants from them, really — prophetic missionary witness, or cautious pragmatism?

If they did, they might find the answer to be as inscrutable, and as conflicting, as the much of the diplomacy currently coming out of Rome.

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