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A brief historical overview of papal diplomacy.

In the history of the Roman Catholic Church, much has been written concerning the papacy, the sacraments and its laws. The history of the Church reflects a profound expanse and development in the human existence as it has unfolded from ancient times. The meaning of God witnessed through Christs message to His people has been a source of constant engagement. Our search as the People of God, outlined in the Second Vatican Council document "Lumen Gentium" (Christ is the Light of Nations), * addresses our understanding of the relationship between mankind and God. (1) The leaders of our Church have had to grapple with this connection. Political and sacred realities remain a part of our existence no matter the century. One must consider Pope Leo Is successful defense of Rome against Attila in AD452, St. Bernard of Clairvaux's stance regarding Islam during the Crusades of the 12th century, along with St. Francis of Assisi's efforts at establishing good relations with the Muslim Sultan beginning in AD 1219 in order to understand that interactions between the papacy and the outside world have very deep historical roots.


Furthermore, in the 16th century, St. Thomas More declared before his accusers at his trial in 1535 that our only link to God on earth remains with the Bishop of Rome. This touchstone connects us with an understanding of the papacy's role in the modern world and that its relationship with the modern world through diplomacy remains an interaction of souls. What is apparent in papal diplomacy is not just the Vatican's relations with other states but the inherent link that follows Church teaching in fulfilling the work of God. As a result of the Vatican's unique status as both a temporal state and the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, as defined by the Lateran Treaty of 1929, the pope is able to perform his duties on a global scale not only through the ministry of local bishops, but by accredited diplomats to countries throughout the world. (2) The purpose of this discussion is to present a brief overview of the origins of papal diplomacy and its workings that have developed into our modern age.

As noted in Ernest Satow's A Guide to Diplomatic Practice: Diplomacy is the application of intelligence and tact to the conduct of official relations between the governments of independent states, extending sometimes also to their relations with vassal states; or, more briefly still, the conduct of business between states by peaceful means. (3)

It is necessary to outline and to define the terminology used when describing papal diplomacy as found now in the 21st century. Vatican ambassadors are referred to as nuncios and a Vatican embassy is known as a nunziatura apostolica or apostolic nunciature. Pope Paul VI sought to define more clearly the functions and purposes of Vatican diplomacy in his motu proprio (meaning "on his own impulse") from 1969 "Sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum" (The Care of All the Churches). (4) In this document, papal representatives are described as follows:

1) Apostolic Nuncio--an archbishop with the rank of ambassador who represents the Holy Father to the local Catholic Church and to the State or to the government.

2) Apostolic Pro-Nuncio--same functions and rank as a nuncio, but not the dean of the diplomatic corps.

3) Apostolic Delegate--an archbishop representing the Pope only to the local Church because the particular country and the Holy See do not have diplomatic relations.

4) Charge d'affaires--a diplomat who heads the nunciature in the absence of a nuncio or apostolic delegate and usually holds the rank of Monsignor. (5)

The development of papal diplomacy has been a long and complicated one. Prior to the 15th century, papal legates had been sent as special emissaries to attend councils, form alliances and negotiate peace treaties from the earliest centuries of the Church's existence. One such example is the Council of Nicea of A.D.325 in which the Holy See had been represented by a papal legate. (6) It should be emphasized that the purpose of these early interactions from the Vatican were more of a spiritual character. The aspect would change over the course of time. Local rulers would welcome the assistance of the Church in order to bring about stability in their respective lands. However, the Church came into conflict with these leaders, such as the Holy Roman Emperors during the period from roughly 1056 to 1125, and English monarchs beginning with King Henry I (1100-1135), who challenged papal supremacy in the appointment of local bishops. The struggle was considered subversive by successive popes, beginning with Pope Gregory VII (1523-1534), the noted ecclesiastical reformer. (7)

Historians generally agree that the birth of modern diplomacy occurred roughly in the late 15th century. For Rome, the first Spanish permanent mission to the Holy See occurred during the reign of Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492), and Venice established relations with the Vatican in 1500. (8) Other countries would eventually follow suit, such as France and England in 1504 and Abyssinia in 1533. It should be noted that relations of various forms with Rome, although not necessarily formal in nature, had existed with states as they converted to Christianity. For example, contacts with Poland dated back to the time of Poland's conversion to Christianity in A.D.966 when Poland's first baptized ruler, Mieszko I (A.D.962-992), placed the country "... under the Pope's special protection." (9)

The Protestant Reformation, beginning in 1518, would test the ties many countries had with Rome. In particular, the German States, England, Scotland, Switzerland and the Netherlands would all face difficult situations vis-a-vis their relations with the Holy See. This was a time of maneuvering for political independence by these Christian States, including France, with its so-called Gallican movement by the 18th century. Vienna was also not abject to flexing its political independence from Rome, as indicated by the visit of Pope Pius VI to the Habsburg capital in 1782. The convulsions stemming from the French Revolution on 1789 only exacerbated relations between the Church and its eldest daughter.


It should also be noted that an actual Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy (Pontificia Accademia Ecclesiastica) was established by Pope Clement XI in 1704 to train priests for work in the Vatican's diplomatic corps and Secretariat of State, making it one of the oldest diplomatic schools in the world. (10) Notable alumni of this academy were as follows: Carlo Rezzonico who would become Pope Clement XIII (1758-1769); Cardinal Ercole Consalvi who skillfully represented Pope Pius VII at the Congress of Vienna in 1815; Annibale Della Genga, later Pope Leo XII (1823-1829); Gioacchino Pecci, the future Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903); Cardinal Merry Del Val, who would serve as Secretary of State under Pope St. Pius X (1903-1914); Cardinal Giacomo della Chiesa, who would become Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922), and Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI (1963-1978). (11)

The 19th century would see a resurgence in papal diplomacy with the concordat signed between the Pius VII and Napoleon in 1801. It should be noted that a concordat refers to a treaty negotiated between the Holy See and a temporal government, which, among other matters, secures the rights of the Church in a particular country. (12) Diplomatic relations would be established between Rome and various countries as the 19th and 20th centuries progressed. Some were controversial, as in the cases of Italy (1929) and Hitler's Germany (1933). With Italy, the Vatican saw an opportunity to finally settle the so-called "Roman Question" that had been a problem since the unification of Italy under the House of Savoy in 1860. As for Nazi Germany, the papal nunzio at the time of the concordat negotiations had been Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, later to become Pius XII (1939-1958). Pacelli had grown to understand the German temperament as nuncio to Bavaria from 1917 to 1920, and he remained as the Vatican's top diplomat in Germany until 1929. He also saw a great threat emanating from the Soviet Union with its atheistic Bolshevism. This is not to say that Pacelli, as the Vatican's Secretary of State from 1929-1939, had sympathized with the Nazis. On the contrary, Nuncio Pacelli, was acting on the directions of the Holy Father at the time, Pope Pius XI (1922-1939), who remained a staunch opponent of fascism in all its forms as indicated in his encyclical of 1937 "Mit brennender sorge" (with burning anxiety). Pius XI had been placed in a very precarious situation diplomatically with the rise of Hitler in Germany and further diplomatic complications would arise under his papacy with Spain and Mexico.

The Vatican managed to negotiate concordats with many states over the centuries that had been renewed or dissolved and then renewed as situations would arise. For example, Portugal negotiated relations with the Vatican in 1481 with the most recent renewal occurring in 2004. (13) France established ties with Rome in 1530, only to be broken with the French Revolution and re-established by the aforementioned concordat of 1801. Poland opened relations with the Holy See in 1563, which were renewed after the First World War era when Achille Ratti, later Pope Pius XI, was named Nuncio to Warsaw in 1919.

We should also remember that relations had begun with the Holy See and countries of the Americas, albeit not initially, as full diplomatic ties. The Vatican's mission to the United States was established as a Diplomatic Mission in 1893, but full ties were only created in 1984 when the mission was elevated to full ambassadorial status as a nunciature. (14) In Canada, an Apostolic Delegation was created including the jurisdiction of Newfoundland in 1899, then in 1949 becoming an Apostolic Delegation solely to Canada after Newfoundland joined Confederation, only to be elevated to full diplomatic status between Ottawa and the Vatican in 1969. Other countries in the Americas would also eventually establish relations , such as Mexico in 1851, Costa Rica and Guatemala in 1853, and Ecuador in 1862, while Honduras and Salvador did not begin ties until 1933. The Vatican also established a mission as Permanent Observer to the United Nations in 1964. (15) Indicative of the Holy See's involvement in current international affairs is the fact that the Vatican's representative at the United Nations, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, passed on congratulations from the Holy Father Benedict XVI on the occasion of the creation of the state of South Sudan. The Vatican had been actively involved as a mediator in the negotiation process between Sudan and South Sudan. (16)


There have also been countries that established relations with the Holy See for the first time in history. In Central Asia, a region exposed to decades of atheism under communist rule, relations never existed with the Vatican until the 1990's. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan established diplomatic ties in 1994. Tajikistan created relations with the Holy See in 1996. (17) It must also be pointed out that concordats currently negotiated by the Holy See are based upon the 1983 Code of Canon Law for countries belonging primarily to the Latin Rite. The Eastern Code of Canon Law of 1990 addresses the needs of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. (18)

It becomes clear upon considering this brief overview of the history of Vatican diplomacy that it is a very rich and complex one. The French statesman Georges Clemenceau once observed that it would be a mistake "to omit the Catholic fact" in international affairs. (19) Papal diplomacy is a chapter in the Church's history that we should be aware of as the Church continues its journey in the second millennium and its ramifications upon international relations, whereby the Church shows its active involvement, both in spiritual and temporal matters.


* Titles of papal documents are translated for the purposes of this article into English in parentheses, For the purposes of this article, dates provided in parentheses after the names of monarchs and pontiffs refer to reigning years.

(1) documents/vat-ii_ const_19641121_lumengentium_en.html

(2) Coppa, Frank J., Mussolini and the Concordat of 1929, in Coppa, F. J. Controversial Concordats. Washington D.C., The Catholic University of America Press, 1999, p. 95.

(3) Satow, E., A Guide to Diplomatic Practice. ed. Sir Neville Bland. Glasgow: The University Press, 1961, p. 1.

(4) Vatican Information Service, "Vatican Diplomacy", Vatican City: April 11, 1997, www.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Coppa, Frank J., Controversial Concordats. Washington D.C., The Catholic University of America Press, 1999, pp. 2-3.

(8) Graham, Robert J., Vatican Diplomacy: A Study of Church and State on the International Plane. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959, p. 100.

(9) Wolff, L., The Vatican and Poland in the Age of the Partitions. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, p. 1

(10) Pontificia Accademia Ecclesiastica, Terzo Centenario (1701-2001). Roma: Tipografica Vaticana, 2003. p. 9.

(11) Ibid, pp. 255-272.

(12) Coppa, pp. 11-12.

(13), 2011.

(14) Ibid.

(15), 2011.

(16) Ibid., "Pope Benedict XVI invokes peace and prosperity on the newly born South Sudan". July 14, 2011.


(18) Ragazzi, Maurizio, "Concordats Today: From the Second Vatican Council to John Paul II", in Journal of Markets and Morality, Volume 12, Number 1 (Spring 2009).

(19) Graham, Vatican Diplomacy: A Study ... p. 15.

Alexander J. Opalinski, Ph.D.

Dr. Opalinski received his Ph.D. from the School of Graduate Studies, University of Toronto in 2006. His specialization is in diplomatic history and international relations.
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Author:Opalinski, Alexander J.
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Geographic Code:4EXVA
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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