The election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere introduced a new style—notably his “culture of encounter”—and rejuvenated an ancient institution that, despite its enormously long tradition, was facing a string of challenges, from financial and sexual scandals to embarrassing leaks of classified documents. A valuable contribution not only to the study of Francis’s diplomacy, but also to the study of papal diplomacy more generally, is provided by Victor Gaetan’s God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon ( 2021, Rowman & Littlefield).

The Holy See holds a special place in international law, as no other world religion is considered sovereign, giving it a legally sanctioned role in international affairs. Its special status, plus the pope’s role as a transnational absolute monarch, unlike, say, leadership structures of the Orthodox or Protestant churches, make it unique in the history of diplomacy. Gaetan skillfully analyses important contemporary topics and events while using anecdotes to present the inner mechanisms of papal diplomacy. Rich details, including first-hand accounts and witnesses’ interviews, bring the reader into this secret world

In the first part of the book, Gaetan explains how the diplomacy of the Holy See functions. The Holy See’s “international personality” is explained, and the organization, skills, and principles of its diplomacy are placed in a rich historic context. The second part of the book is where the central value of this book lies. Detailed case studies show Pope Francis’s relentless and energetic involvement in many world crises bearing witness to the relevance of papal diplomacy in the troubled contemporary world.

The cases range across the world from Ukraine to Kenya and from Colombia to South Sudan. Gaetan demonstrates the vitality and visibility of papal diplomacy in places where it has been historically dominant, as well as in those parts of the world where the Catholic Church would appear to be a minor player. As Gaetan recounts, Pope Francis’s effort to reconcile Washington and Havana in 2014 was probably his diplomatic tour de force.

While the book is centered on the diplomacy of the Holy See, Gaetan continually contrasts it with the US role in international affairs. He cites many historical examples—from Pope Leo XIII’s attitude toward the American occupation of the Philippines to Pope Benedict XVI’s policy toward Russia—when the Vatican strongly diverged from American policies. It does not matter that its geographic footprint, Vatican City State, covers an area smaller than the Pentagon and its parking lot (or, indeed, the San Diego Zoo)—Rome is warily watched by Washington. Gaetan demonstrates that the Vatican has proven its independence over and over, even in situations (i.e., the Cold War era) when the two states had the same ideological enemy.

Gaetan seeks to contrast “American arrogance and Vatican wisdom.” In its methods of international engagement, as well as its adherence to principles, the Holy See usually eschews temporary policies and seeks solutions that do not result in “winners” and “losers.” And it is not shy about this fact. In 2020, the pope’s advisors told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who criticized the Holy See’s negotiations with China, that the Sino-Vatican deal “is a matter that has nothing to do with American politics.” Then, Francis refused to meet with him. It was an open reprimand of the US, indifferent to the country’s global authority.

Gaetan asserts continuity between Francis, who is “standing on the shoulders of giants,” and his predecessors. Yet, Pope Francis is unique: “the hallmarks of Francis’s approach are three: commitment to the centrality of personal encounters in problem solving, respect for local perception, and patience.” He explains the significance of Pope Francis’s uplifting those from “off the beaten track,” from the “peripheries—a leitmotif for this papacy—as well as his promotion of power-sharing (as opposed to the centralization of power practiced by his two predecessors). Apart from the popes, Gaetan sheds light on the work of other important diplomats, such as Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran and the current Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

We do not always have to agree with Gaetan. He is mainly laudatory toward papal diplomacy and sometimes his conclusions are a bit quick. On other occasions, his idealistic perspective on international relations leads him to criticize American diplomacy as “generating worldwide chaos,” which may be a narrow vision of the great power dynamics of international relations.

However, for its abundance of details, as well as for the passion and dedication it shows, this book stands out among studies of papal diplomacy. God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon is a welcome addition to the literature on the Holy See and it should not be missed, not only by scholars and a more general audience interested in the Holy See, but also by anyone interested in diplomacy and diplomatic negotiation in contemporary international relations.

Image: Cardinal Parolin addresses the U.N. General Assembly in 2019. Vatican News.

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Boris Vukićević

Boris Vukićević is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Montenegro in Podgorica. He graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Montenegro in 2005 and obtained his MA and PhD in International Relations from the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Montenegro, where he has been employed since 2005.  His research deals mostly with the history of international relations, comparative Balkan politics, as well as with subjects of contemporary international relations, particularly the Holy See and its foreign policy. He is the author of numerous academic papers as well as a book on the diplomacy of the Holy See.

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