The crusader of good will

While no longer a state power, the Catholic Church remains a powerful political force in modern diplomacy.

Pope Francis with his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, in 2018. Credit: Massimo Wallichia / Getty Images.
Pope Francis with his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City, in 2018. Credit: Massimo Wallichia / Getty Images.

I am not the evangeliser of democracy, I am the evangeliser of the Gospel. To the Gospel message, of course, belongs all the problems of human rights and, if democracy means human rights, then it also belongs to the message of the Church.

Pope John Paul II to journalists on board a plane to Pinochet’s Chile, 1987

The Holy See is a unique actor in international affairs in more ways than one. A legal entity on a par with states, with an equal number of embassies accredited to the Holy See in Rome, it is a state-like entity, but not a state in the normal sense. This actor is unique because its history is unique: the seat of the Pope and the Catholic Church was for centuries both the spiritual and the temporal centre of power in Europe. Now its power is purely spiritual, but its mandate is no less impressive: the Church that Christ founded with Peter as the first Pope continues its mission. For believers, the Church speaks the truth about the human being and his salvation; for unbelievers, the Pope and his foreign service play an important role in world politics as a moral corrective to expedient power politics. Even for those who intensely disagree with what the Pope says, his contribution is understood to be a morally motivated one in a world where such voices are rare.

The mandate of the Church and the Pope is by its very nature extremely controversial. First, it is claimed that there is a moral truth about human life and ethics, which should guide politics. Second, it is claimed that the full truth about the human person is to be found in the mystery of Christ – and only there. To unbelievers, this is a folly and a cause for consternation in an age which fundamentally questions concepts of truth and human nature. Never did politics seem to have less of a sure moral footing than today. And finally, the Pope and his government are not democratically elected. How can this entity called the Holy See be an international actor of considerable influence today?

To answer, it is necessary to look at the role of the Holy See in international affairs with an emphasis on conflict resolution and peacemaking, broadly conceived. Peace to the Catholic is not only absence of war – as it can scarcely be for anyone – it is the just peace: a peace permeating the whole of society, based on a just distribution of goods, a just civil life, where human rights are respected, and a process of justice for revealing the truth about atrocities that have happened. As will be discussed below, the basis for the Pope’s actions and statements in international affairs are moral and ethical considerations of what is just and accords with human dignity.

These concepts are not subjective terms used for festive speeches. They form the very core of Catholic social teaching, on which the foreign policy of the Holy See is based. The key importance of justice can be seen in such important traditions as the set of criteria for war – the ‘just war’ tradition – where Thomas Aquinas is still the major theorist. The criteria for when it is justified to launch an attack are relevant in the discussion about humanitarian intervention, which has become the key debate in security policy. Likewise, the debate about when it is justified to take a human life not only pertains to war, but also to civil society and debate over abortion and euthanasia.

The Holy See was an international actor prior to the formation of states in the Westphalian system, being the see of the Catholic Church and the government of the Pope. The famous Roman curia simply means court – the court of the Pope. Today there are nine departments in this government, called dicasteries, and 11 pontifical councils, composed of expert clergy and laymen from around the world. The secretariat of state is the core of the curia and is divided into two sections; one of which is called the ‘section for relations with states’ – corresponding to a ministry of foreign affairs. The diplomatic academy of the Holy See, the Accademia, is considered the most eminent school in the world for diplomacy. One does not apply there, one is called to join. It is a well-known fact among career diplomats that the Holy See has perhaps the best practitioners in this ancient craft, not surprising in view of the long history of this institution. Much of modern diplomacy was developed by its diplomats several centuries ago.

There is usually great confusion about the terms ‘Vatican’ and ‘Holy See’. The Vatican refers to the physical territory – 1045m long, 850m wide – where the Holy See is located in Rome, the result of the 1929 Lateran Pact with the Italian state. The Vatican city state has only about 500 citizens and is thus not much to speak of as an actor in international affairs. At a UN conference on population and development in 1994, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland spoke about ‘the state with no natural inhabitants’. The adversaries of the Holy See therefore usually talk about the Vatican instead of the Holy See, alleging that a little plot of land with only 500 inhabitants should have no role in world politics. However, it is not the Vatican that is the international actor recognised by most states in the world as their equal, but the Holy See.

The Holy See – or Saint-Siège, or Santa Sede – is the government of the Catholic Church and recognised as a subject of international law. It is thus the Holy See that receives and sends ambassadors, not the Vatican. It represents 1.2 billion Catholics around the world and is, as such, the only remaining actor that represents not a territory, but a religion.

Functional representation in world politics disappeared naturally with the Westphalian state system, codified in the treaties of Westphalia of 1648 which laid down that sovereignty is tied to territory. The Holy See represents the continuation of functional representation, crossing all territorial borders in its competence as sole agent for Catholics and for ‘all people of good will’. It is understandable that such an actor is both misunderstood and rejected in a world where territorial states not only dominate completely, but also where religious and spiritual values seem to lose influence.

However, the Holy See is far from marginalised: on the contrary, rarely have we seen so much press attention given to a Pope and so much interest taken in his statements. There is thus a paradox in the fact that, on the one hand, the Holy See and all that it stands for seems antiquated and irrelevant yet, at the same time, there is a tremendous interest in an actor at the centre of world affairs who speaks about human dignity and the human condition as being of essential importance to politics. Pope Francis, like his predecessors, is a world leader of importance.


Looking for ‘national interests’ of a traditional kind, one finds none. The Holy See has no economic or military capacity, nor vested interests, although it has views on both themes. But there is no export interest to promote, nor military alliance to keep. As such, the Holy See is unique, as it does not have to observe the customary consequences of taking controversial positions. There are plenty of big and smaller power pressures on the Holy See, of course, and arm-twisting is not an unknown factor. But the interesting fact is that one does not have to yield to pressure. The consequences of not yielding are not fatal. There may be attacks in the press, criticism and attempts at marginalisation, but there is no leverage that any other actor has over the Holy See.

The interests of the Holy See are different from the conventional national interests of a state which has to take care of its military and economic interests before it can turn to questions of value. The powers of the Holy See are also different from those of a state: no military or economic power at all, only moral authority. Stalin’s famous question – ‘how many divisions does the Pope have?’ – was unmistakably condescending, but Stalin turned out to be wrong then and would have been even more wrong today. Pope John Paul II, for instance, had considerable power in terms of realpolitik; so much so that the Soviet Politburo contemplated a plot against him in the first year of his pontificate, as Mikhail Gorbachev later confirmed. A classified document from the central committee of the CPSU, dated November 13, 1979, ordered the KGB to study ‘ultimate actions’, according to the Pope’s biographer George Weigel.

The statements of a pope are naturally received differently by Catholics and non-Catholics. From a political perspective, however, it is the non-Catholics who are the most interesting. While the Holy See and the Pope act on their particular mandate and raison d’être, which is Christianity, their political statements and actions are intended for all people of ‘good will, regardless of faith’. Many will, of course, contest the conviction by Christians that there is no opposition between Christian ethics and the moral principles that should guide world politics, but this is an unimportant issue so long as these principles are accepted as valid. My point is simply that the Pope speaks to all, regardless of belief, and that his arguments must be judged on their own merits. The tradition of ‘natural law’ simply asserts that we can all discern what is right and wrong most of the time and that you need not be Christian to be able to do this. The ethical principles that guide the political work of the Holy See and the Pope – outlined below – are just such natural law principles.


The Holy See and the Pope work on a different logic to the interest-based one and have other goals. These naturally derive from Christianity and from the mandate of the Church. Seen with secular eyes, one is dealing with an actor: the Pope and his government, the Holy See, which act on a mandate they claim derives from Christ himself and which contains the truth about humans, about what it means to be a human being, about human rights and duties and, specifically, about the relation between the human being and the state. The human being’s relation with God is the domain of theology; whereas the human being’s relation to society and the state is the domain of what is technically known as the ‘social teaching’ of the Church.

This is an application of Christian ethics to political realities, developed over the last 100 years or so in a number of papal writings, known as encyclicals. Social teaching forms the basis for the positions taken by the Holy See on various international problems and is eminently practical, albeit rich in deep analysis. It is the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in the Vatican and the Social Science Academy (where I am a member) that are charged with working on social teaching, on developing it as well as applying it to new areas.

In a sense, social teaching has always been part of the politics of Christianity. For instance, the ‘preferential option for the poor’, a dictum of the political engagement of the Holy See, stems from Christ himself; born poor, choosing his disciples from among the poor and making statements reminding them that the poor would always be with them, having need for their care. But, as a specific policy, social teaching refers to the body of papal encyclicals that emerged in response to major political issues in the 19th and 20th centuries, starting with the debate over workers’ rights in the 1880s. It is not possible here to provide a complete account of the ideas of social teaching; suffice to say that the dignity of the human – as both a material and, primarily, a spiritual being – lies at the core of these principles. They all derive from this dignity and demand that the individual is free from interference and suppression by the state, that he is free to form a family, which is the basic cell of society and the place where human beings learn to love and are loved for their own sake. The state has obligations towards the citizen, which include the duty to provide work – and social benefits, when there is no work. The state is to act to support its citizens when they need it, but not to interfere in their lives or in their families, churches, or other ‘natural’ associations. This is the principle of subsidiarity.

The type of welfare state envisioned is not a socialist model. However, the principle of subsidiarity is to be balanced by the principle of solidarity, which means a radical solidarity with the poor and with the Third World. The human rights approach has become a key feature of the way the Holy See defines political themes – and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 sums up the most important issues of social teaching: the right to life, to liberty, to security of person; the right to form a family and to raise one’s children, to religious freedom, to work, to a just wage on which a family can be raised; the right to form trade unions, to be active politically and to choose one’s form of government; the right to rule of law and a fair trial and so on. In fact, the Holy See has become a major promoter of human rights, which is logical, because human nature is the same everywhere – as is human dignity. Human rights as such are therefore apolitical, pre-political and unchangeable; they are universal, regardless of borders and powers.

Yet human rights were embraced by the Church in 1963. When the newly sanctified Pope John XXIII published his famous encyclical Pacem in Terris that year, the international situation was very grave: the Cuban missile crisis was just over, having brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, the Cold War was at its height and nuclear weapons made the prospect of war between states Armageddon.

This important encyclical is a good example of social teaching. It defines peace as the perfect metaphysical condition for man: when all human rights are fulfilled, but also when there is the right relationship between man and his creator. In the first paragraph, we read: ‘Peace on earth […] can never be established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order.’ The ‘order in the universe’ that is created by God results in the possibility of order in man and, therefore, order in society. This order can be known through natural law, or reason, ‘inscribed in men’s hearts’. The ‘order that should prevail among men’ is premised on the recognition of one fundamental principle:

Each individual man is truly a person. His is a nature endowed with intelligence and free will. As such, he has rights and duties, which together flow as a direct consequence of his nature. These rights and duties are universal and inviolable and, therefore, altogether inalienable.

The concept of rights is derived from man’s nature, which is rational and moral. This is the classic teaching on natural law, applied to the modern concept of human rights. Man can reason about ethics when his conscience is rightly ordered. Thus, we see that the concept of order is a necessary precondition for the concept of human rights. Rights here are not man-made, but natural – which is to say, made by God.

A just society must be based on true order – i.e. the natural order in men – and on justice, charity and freedom. ‘There is nothing human about a society that is welded together by force’, John XXIII stated in Pacem in Terris. Thus, stability in a dictatorship can never qualify as peace, nor can stability in a world made up of states that do not respect human freedom and human rights. Justice requires the fulfilment of both rights and duties and, since men are rational (ethically able) and social, they should work to help each other. This is a tall order indeed:

Human society demands that men be guided by justice, respect the rights of others and do their duty. It demands, too, that they be animated by such love as will make them feel the needs of others as their own and induce them to share their goods with others […] we must think of human society as being primarily a spiritual reality.


The Pope is not a ‘normal’ foreign policymaker. He is a pastor, not a politician, despite all the political consequences of the Gospel. Imitating Christ, the Pope does not enter into the role of the secular ruler, but keeps to the message that can be derived from the Gospel message. The Pope’s efforts at promoting human rights and a just peace grow out of his pastoral responsibility and Francis has chosen a more active role in this endeavour than any other Pope before him. The uniqueness of the Pope and the Holy See notwithstanding, there are some general implications for international relations theory here: that small actors can matter much, that public diplomacy and soft power can matter much and that legitimacy and persuasion are key variables for wielding influence in modern politics.

Pope John XXIII wrote that only a society based on truth – i.e. on the natural rights and obligations of man – is a true society. In line with classical political thought, he underlined that only a just society is a real society: ‘Any human society that is established on relations of force must be considered inhuman […] human society is bound together by freedom, that is… in keeping with the dignity of its citizens, who accept the responsibility of their actions, precisely because they are by nature rational beings.’ These are very clear and strong words: repressive regimes are illegitimate.

When Pope Francis took office in 2013, he continued the strong engagement with politics that, in particular, Pope John Paul II had developed. Being the first non-European Pope as well as the first Jesuit one, Francis is particularly engaged in social causes of economic injustice and is a strong critic of modern capitalism – to the extent that money becomes the motive and not the means. He thus continues the tradition of social teaching in a radical sense and during his visit to Jordan and Israel in 2014, relaunched a diplomatic role for the Holy See in the Middle East. It is too early to say whether he will be a ‘travelling Pope’ like John Paul II, but he is certainly very active on the international stage, does things his own way, and is popular with the media.

The role of the Holy See is important in international affairs, but diplomacy is not its main task; rather it is a function of its mandate as Christ’s vicariate on earth. Everything it does in the realm of international relations rests on this basis. Thus, the ‘progress’ of the Church is not measured in material terms and it remains a ‘sign of contradiction’ in the world. Its secular diplomacy, based on natural law, is accessible to all men of ‘good will’. It is addressed to all men, but the premise of natural law is that our consciences must be rightly ordered. The divine order precedes the natural order. Hence the need to accept, at the very least, an Aristotelian view of man: that we are born with ethical reason and are, thus, ethical creatures.

The future of the Church will depend on more than the role of the Holy See in international diplomacy but, through its unique diplomatic status, the Catholic Church is the only actor among religions that has a globally institutionalised role and also a ‘head-quarters’ in the form of a tiny city state. It can thus avoid being put under pressure and it has a structure in which to preserve and develop its teaching. It was a global force before globalisation was invented, an asset that may prove to be very important in the time ahead.

This essay originally appeared under the title ‘The Catholic Church’s International Role: Waning or Growing’ in ‘Religion – in the Past, Present and Future’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2014.


Janne Haaland Matláry