Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, blesses Archbishop Charles J. Brown, the new apostolic nuncio to Ireland, during his episcopal ordination by Pope Benedict XVI at a Mass marking the feast of the Epiphany in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Jan. 6. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Calm and collected: Amid crisis, Vatican diplomacy shows 'maturity'

By  Francis X. Rocca, Catholic News Service
  • January 9, 2012

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI's early January address to the Vatican diplomatic corps, an annual tradition that reaffirms the Holy See's commitment to its relations with foreign states, comes after an especially trying year for Vatican diplomacy.

In November, the Irish government announced that it would close its embassy to the Holy See, to continue relations through an ambassador based in Dublin. The move was ostensibly to cut costs, but its timing, closely following harsh criticisms of the Vatican's record on clerical sex abuse by the Irish prime minister and other officials, strongly suggested that it was really a political rebuke.

Whatever the reason, the spectacle of a historically Catholic country presenting its relations with the Holy See as fair game for the budget cutter's ax struck many observers as the latest sign of the Vatican's diminishing diplomatic prestige, especially in an increasingly secular West.

Yet the Vatican's response to that move has reflected its distinctive diplomatic strengths, as well as the unique priorities of a sovereign state whose head is also the leader of a global church.

Certainly, the costs of dealing with the Vatican have become a consideration in these straitened times, even for some of the world's richest countries. Both Britain and the Netherlands recently consolidated the physical operations of their missions to the Holy See with their larger embassies to the Republic of Italy. Diplomatic sources say that the U.S. Department of State also considered such a measure but finally decided against it following resistance from its own diplomats in Rome.

Jealous of its identity as a sovereign state distinct from Italy, the Holy See frowns seriously on such economies, insisting that every country maintain at least the cosmetic distinction of a different address for its Vatican mission, if only by using a separate entrance into the building housing both embassies.

Such keen sensitivity to protocol might seem excessively formalistic. But centuries of experience in diplomacy at the highest levels -- far longer than that of almost any other state in existence today -- has taught the Vatican that diplomatic ties, though of largely symbolic importance, can serve as real-world leverage in power politics.

In its asymmetrical struggle to protect the religious freedom of the more than 10 million Catholics in mainland China, one of the Vatican's few bargaining chips is its willingness to establish diplomatic ties with the Chinese government. The Vatican has long made it clear that it would grant recognition to China and downgrade its ties with the rival island nation of Taiwan, in return for guarantees of religious freedom, including the Pope's ability to choose Chinese Catholic bishops without state interference.

But last year was an especially hard one in the Holy See's relations with Beijing, as the government broke an unspoken arrangement with Rome by ordering the ordination of several bishops without papal approval.

When receiving a group of 11 new ambassadors in the Apostolic Palace in December, Pope Benedict dispensed with the usual practice of handing each one a personalized message. Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, explained that the new policy would not apply to ambassadors based in Rome.

Was the Pope reacting to Ireland's decision by making the point that he takes nonresident ambassadors less seriously than their resident counterparts? Perhaps. But in the case of Ireland, far from playing tit-for-tat, the Vatican has instead shown greater commitment to its diplomatic relationship with Dublin. The selection as nuncio to Ireland of the Irish-American Archbishop Charles J. Brown, a nondiplomat who worked under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was a rare outside-the-box appointment and has won the Holy See high praise in the Irish press -- a rare event in recent years.

The Archbishop Brown appointment makes sense in light of the distinctive dual role filled by a papal nuncio, who not only represents the Holy See to the government of a foreign state, but also acts as primary liaison between the papacy and the local church.

"They wanted a first-class man to maintain good relations with the Irish Catholic community in this time of crisis for the Irish Catholic Church," said Thomas P. Melady, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See during the administration of President George H. W. Bush.

At the same time, Melady said, sending Archbishop Brown shows that the Vatican appreciates Dublin's value as an international "contact point" and listening post. Such a "calm and collected" response to Ireland thus reflects not only pastoral concern but also the "maturity of Vatican diplomacy," Melady said, adding that when it comes to the Holy See's international relations, "they've been in business a long time."

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