December 17 was marked by a historic diplomatic breakthrough when President Obama announced that the United States would restore full relations with Cuba after 53 years of isolation. On the same day, Pope Francis, who had been credited with playing a vital role in facilitating the rapprochement, celebrated his 78th birthday.
“The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision,” Francis said in a Vatican-issued statement following the announcement of reestablished U.S.-Cuba relations. “The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.”
In the months leading up to the agreement that restored relations, Pope Francis wrote personal letters to President Obama and President Raúl Castro encouraging them to resolve humanitarian issues, release political prisoners, and “initiate a new phase in relations.” He also hosted a diplomatic meeting between the two sides in October; the Vatican served as an agreeable location for both countries to conduct their nearly final negotiations.
Pope Francis’s talent for personal communication — from his accessible speeches to his tweetable remarks and heartfelt personal phone calls — has not gone unnoticed. But the diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and Cuba suggests that his abilities as a communicator do not stop with his successes in re-welcoming young, disenchanted Catholics, promoting transparency and approachability within the Catholic Church, and making himself known as a public personality. Rather, he has made apparent his potential as a diplomatic actor and his interest in mediating international conflicts and relations.
Pope Francis’s emerging diplomatic role in international negotiations in and of itself is not remarkable, however. Papacy and international relations have a long and intertwined history. One could note, for example, Pope John Paul II’s diplomatic achievement in helping to bring down the Berlin Wall. But what is unprecedented regarding Pope Francis’s role, however, are his particular allegiances and areas of expertise. As the first pope with a Latin American background, and as one to bluntly acknowledge that today’s world is becoming “less and less Eurocentric,” Pope Francis’ diplomatic ventures could have an unprecedented effect in terms of the Holy See’s role in international mediation.
The scope of the Church and its global reach throughout history has led some to name it one of the first multinational organizations, and the religious conviction of individual dignity has formed the basis for the Church’s theoretical universalization of human rights. Despite various changes, controversies and fractions in theological matters from pope to pope, the Holy See has been relatively consistent in promoting peace and security, and acting as a stabilizing power in international relations since the 20th century.
While critics point out apparent disparities between domestic and international Church policy, raising arguments about the means by which the Vatican handles domestic issues —handling of sexual abuse, for example — these more volatile domestic issues have not necessarily affected the Church’s role as an international actor.
This marked separation between a volatile domestic policy track record and a somewhat consistent international diplomacy position for the Church is accompanied by a legal separation between the two in terms of international law. The pope heads two different entities and consequently acts in two separate, international legal roles. He is both the supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church as well as the head of state of the physical territory of the Vatican City. The Holy See essentially acts as the Vatican City state’s secretary of state and is equipped with an extensive diplomatic apparatus, including embassies in almost all countries in the world, though the pope himself is always the chief agent of Holy See diplomacy. The Holy See is generally recognized as a member and participant in international society, and holds observer status at the United Nations.
In his recent article, Ted Widmer sheds light on the role of the pope in mediating the U.S.-Soviet face off during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, a time that many Americans remember as marked by uncertainty and a sense of helplessness. When war was narrowly avoided, credit was given to America’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. But the role of another crucial player —Pope John XXIII — is often overlooked. At the height of the crisis, Pope John XXIII issued a statement that Nikita Kruschev, the leader of the Soviet Union, later called a sole “gleam of hope.” And in the following ten years, Widmer writes, Pope John XXIII “was essentially an ally, moving both publicly and behind the scenes to support their push for peace.”
Today, Pope Francis’s role in diplomacy is deserving of special attention as we look to assess the Church’s future place in the world order. Pope Francis has emphasized the need for the Church to direct its interest toward the “fringes of society,” and the “rest,” or the periphery, which the Church must care for. This initiative coincides with his personal role as the first Latin American Pope, as well as with today’s new centers of Catholicism, no longer solely within Europe.
In the case of Cuba, Pope Francis’s diplomatic success was in part a result of special expertise. To the Pope’s prodigious knowledge on the issue, his secretary of state Cardin Parolin brings experience as apostolic nuncio in Venezuala, one of Cuba’s closest allies. Such a background has equipped Parolin with the ability to understand the regional dynamics at work. It seems, however, that Pope Francis does not plan on limiting his diplomatic efforts just to conflicts in which he has firm expertise or regional knowledge.
As he revitalizes the Church — and its diplomacy — in the Global South, the pope also looks to encourage Climate Change negotiations and establish greater dialogue with Islam. Such efforts have garnered some tangible results, like the prayer summit he held between the Israeli and Palestinian presidents.
Regardless of whether one believes the Church’s role in international politics and diplomacy is a force for beneficence or harm, it seems to be a powerful force, and one that is here to stay. Furthermore, Pope Francis’s particular areas of interest and allegiance suggest that the Holy See’s diplomatic focuses under his leadership may set a new precedent for the pope’s role on the world stage, particularly in its initiatives and mediation beyond Europe.