The role of the Pope is undoubtedly unique in world politics. No world leader can claim the same blend of political and spiritual leadership, nor the vast following worldwide. He commands no armies and directs few economic resources, but his power is real and considerable, not only among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, but among all players on the world stage. However, though papal power has always been significant, it is only in recent decades that vocal and controversial diplomacy has become a hallmark of the Vatican’s foreign policy. Before the World Wars, popes limited themselves to mostly discreet action, rarely offering dramatic condemnations or capturing world attention. But, evolving especially through the Popes St. John Paul II and Francis, the modern Supreme Pontiff has become a moral mouthpiece on the world’s injustices and an important broker of international disputes. These New Popes may appear at first to be simply well-intentioned but powerless clerics, but in truth, they occupy a new and crucial role in 21st century world politics that may prove to be a game-changer.
Traditionally, the Vatican has always had a voice in global affairs, but how it has chosen to exercise that voice has changed. The key feature of papal diplomacy before the World Wars was its limited objectives and discrete methods. Of course, the Holy See would campaign strongly against attacks on Catholics or the Church, but always on a case-by-case basis, with no sweeping ideological condemnations. Popes also tried to work on behalf of non-Catholics, especially with the arrival of the 20th century, but always in a limited capacity. No stranger to secrecy and mystery, the Vatican also chose to pursue its foreign policy objectives with little to no outside awareness. Guarding its actions under the veil of secrecy helped it settle delicate issues without embroiling the Church in public and heated arguments with powerful states. This began to change with the rise of Nazi Germany and the spread of fascism and communism across the world. Pope Pius XI utterly condemned the racist ideals of Nazism in his encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, throwing out the modern papal practice of isolated diplomacy in favor of a dramatic denunciation of an entire political creed. Acting publicly and brazenly, he called upon world leaders to take notice of what was happening in Germany and criticized what he called a “conspiracy of silence” among the Western media to ignore the atrocities. The precedent he set would be ratcheted up exponentially in the decades to come.
Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978 and immediately embarked on a radical redefining of the Pope’s role in world affairs. The Polish Pope completely shed the practice of limiting the Church’s foreign policy objectives, preferring instead to exercise his vast influence to achieve meaningful and sweeping change. He spoke out early and often on the evils of Communism, denouncing its state-enforced atheism, rigid totalitarianism, and institutional disdain for human life. Giving the people of his homeland the rallying cry of “Do not be afraid,” he is credited by all sides in having been instrumental in the creation of the anti-Communist Solidarity movement in Poland and the worldwide collapse of Communism. Though it is likely the Vatican was engaged in covert diplomatic efforts against Soviet empire (such as secretly funneling money from the American government to Solidarity and other anti-Communist groups in Eastern Europe), the Pope added a new, vocal, and public dimension to its foreign policy. In other theaters, the Pope was equally active, especially in denouncing dictatorships and human rights abuses. Pinochet in Chile, Baby Doc Duvalier in Haiti, Stroessner in Paraguay, and Marcos in the Philippines, all these dictators found their regimes fundamentally weakened following papal visits and denunciations. Opposition leaders and Catholic bishops rallied around the pontiff wherever he went and his voice carried powerful weight. Gone forever were the days of small diplomacy and secret dialogues. A new way of carrying out papal diplomacy was established by now-Saint John Paul II, one that obliged the Roman Pontiff to be a loud mouthpiece for human rights and peace. John Paul II’s Holy See could never wield hard power or enforce international justice, but it contributed to radical changes in world politics.
Today, John Paul II’s legacy of bold diplomacy is alive and well in the current Pope Francis. Limited objectives seem to be, by this point, utterly alien to the Pope’s diplomatic strategy. He has taken on some of the biggest issues of the day, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the future of capitalism, seemingly unafraid of backlash. America’s relationship with Cuba, long regarded as a more-or-less intractable stalemate, is the latest evidence of productive papal influence. Pope Francis worked for months to bring the two sides together, writing personal letters to both Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro and arranging a meeting in the Vatican to hammer out a deal. Though a similar tactic in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship has not yet born fruit, strategies like these are unique to the Vatican. Independent and neutral brokers are very hard to find in international disputes, but the Pope seems to fit the role well as he is seen as both politically unaffiliated and spiritually motivated. Francis’ so-called liberal leanings are much discussed, but it is his crusades for peace that will forge his legacy. He cannot and will not change the doctrine of the Catholic Church, but can and will change the world’s status quo. The New Popes are no longer content to only build small bridges, they use their own unique position and the opportunities of the global media age to direct global attention, influence public opinion, and pressure for political change.