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Vatican diplomacy at home and abroad Vatican diplomacy at home and abroad

Vatican diplomats have the dual role of representing the Holy See to the nation where they are posted and of keeping an eye on the local Catholic Church. Vatican City is a hub for diplomats with accreditation limited, when possible, to conservative Catholics who may have a double allegiance: to their own country and to the Church. At the start of 2017 the Vatican had diplomatic relations with 182 states.

Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican's "Foreign Minister" (Secretary for Relations with States) has said that there are two aims of Vatican diplomacy: first, to maintain the cohesion of the worldwide Church and second, to deal with civil authorities. The inner-Church dealings are conducted out of sight and are of no concern to others. However, the Vatican's dealings with civil society can affect everyone and are a legitimate topic of public concern. [1]

Vatican diplomacy as it affects civil society is conducted by three principal means: through a diplomatic corps, an independent micro-state and reciprocal “state visits”.

♦  The pope’s ambassador, called a “nuncio” has far more power than other diplomats because he has an important say in the nation's Catholic Church. “The key to episcopal appointments lies in the hands of the nuncio, the pope’s representative to a country, whose role it is to make recommendations based on papal priorities.” [2] 

♦  These Vatican diplomats operate worldwide, reporting and receiving encrypted messages. [3] During World War II both sides intercepted Vatican diplomatic messages and tried to crack the codes. However, the British and Americans only succeeded in deciphering a couple of the easiest ones. That is how they found out that in 1940 the Vatican warned its nuncios in Belgium and the Netherlands of an impending German invasion. [4]

♦  Almost all the nations on the planet have diplomatic relations with the Holy See. [5] (By the end of Benedict XVI's reign in 2013 there were ties with 180 countries). And not just with individual states: the Holy See is an observer at the United Nations. Moreover, it is a member of seven organizations and agencies of the U.N. system, an observer in eight others. It is also a member or observer in five regional organizations, including the European Union.

♦  Thanks to the Vatican's mini-state, the diplomatic relations work both ways. The Church plays host to representatives from all these countries in the diplomatic “beehive” of the Vatican State. It also receives visiting heads of state and for those who wish to avoid the scrutiny of the press in their own countries there is even a Vatican “Treaty Room” where they can discreetly sign a concordat (as did the Presidents of Portugal and Brazil).

♦  Among the  foreign ambassadors at the Vatican is one from the US, which gives this microstate direct access to the government of a superpower. The Soviets knew this and bugged the residence of the Vatican's Secretary of State. The Vatican has used its diplomatic link to the US valuable to try to influence American policy. Normally this remains hidden, but a leak shows how the pope's right-hand man, his acting Secretary of State, told Washington that reports of massacres by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet were merely “Communist propaganda”. [6]

♦  And finally, papal “state visits” can help whenever the Church wishes to put public pressure on a government, either to refrain from passing liberal legislation or to conclude a concordat. Increasingly these are embedded in “World Youth Days”.

Dedicated and well-informed Vatican diplomats

The UK ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Campbell, describes the Vatican’s diplomats as having “sharp eyes and ears” worldwide. 

It is far closer to the ground than any ordinary diplomatic corps through its network of bishops in each region and clergy in each locality. The Holy See knows what is going on in the world at governmental and grass roots level, has extraordinary access at the highest political level in most Catholic countries.... [7] 

On occasion the Vatican’s representatives may even granted secret information by their hosts. Joseph P. Hurley, the first American to serve as an official of the Vatican Secretariat of State and as papal nuncio, corresponded confidentially with three US presidents. He was even sent state secrets by Sumner Welles, Undersecretary of State, prior to World War II to help him win over Catholic public opinion which tended to be isolationist. [8]

Vatican diplomats can also help the Pope to keep tabs on the local Church hierarchy. In 2011 the papal nuncio or ambassador to Australia was caught making secret enquiries about possible Catholic bishops. He had sent a questionnaire to trusted clergy and a few laypeople which 

asks about the candidate’s personal qualities, orthodoxy, loyalty to the Pope, commitment to celibacy and opposition to women priests, and his public image. It asks about predisposition to hereditary illness and the family’s “condition”. [9]

This direct line to the Vatican can serve the papal ambassadors well in their careers. Many popes have been former nuncios who have worked for the Church in foreign countries before returning to the Vatican. The most notable of these was Pius XII who spent more than a decade as papal nuncio before returning to Rome to become Vatican Secretary of State.

John XXIII also took the diplomatic route to the papacy. During World War II he worked with Marshal Pétain’s war-time regime to erode French separation of church and state. His quiet and effective efforts were modelled on the discreet St. Joseph. [10] Like the Saint, the papal nuncio (ambassador) should be “always obedient and silent...always self-effaced and remain in the shadow”.

To know how to obey, to know how to be quiet, to speak when necessary, with measured words and with reserve, that is the role of the diplomat of the Holy See, and it is also that of Saint Joseph. [11]

Vatican diplomats need this intense dedication, as there are rarely more than two of them in each mission. They also have a double workload, since they must not only represent the Holy See to the local government but also keep a vigilant eye on national churches. “We are priests,” says one veteran. “We have no family. We work 24 hours a day if necessary. It’s the key to understanding why we are so few, and so efficient.” [12]

Currently, the Holy See has diplomatic relations with [now 178] countries, with resident ambassadors — or nuncios — in 110 nations. All individuals who become nuncios are automatically promoted to the rank of archbishop. Diplomats for the Holy See are selected from priests undertaking studies at Vatican universities in Rome, or they are chosen upon recommendation from their bishops. [...] Unlike some diplomats from other countries, those from the Vatican don’t have the luxury of choosing where they want to be posted to. [13] 

Their postings are longer than those of other diplomats, so that they get to know the country very well. Eugenio Pacelli (the later Pius XII) spent twelve years in Germany (1917-1929) before becoming Vatican Secretary of State and negotiating concordats with Austria and Germany.

Even when they leave active service the skill and experience of these envoys can help the Church. Retired Vatican diplomats have recently been given a new role — as trouble-shooters. After a number foreign policy blunders at the beginning of Benedict XVI’s reign, he has now installed several former Vatican diplomats in key positions, including the retired Vatican “foreign minister”, Cardinal Tauran. [14]

Diplomatic buzz in the Vatican City and beyond

Much international information gathering and power brokering is carried on within the walls of the Vatican itself. Thanks to its status as a country it can offer foreign diplomats the chance to make their own quiet contacts — under its supervision.

 ♦  In 1848 the American senator Edward Hannegan called Vatican City “the emporium of intelligence in Europe.

♦  In the 1970s Henry Cabot Lodge, Special Presidential Envoy to the Vatican, asked a Muslim diplomat at the Holy See why his government thought it was worthwhile to maintain such a big mission at “a place which did not seem to concern him very much.” The diplomat replied, “We don’t want to miss anything.” [15]

♦  In 2001 James Nicholson, US Ambassador to the Holy See, called it “a beehive of ideas, information, conspiracies, collaboration and diplomatic manoeuvres. [16]

♦  A former ambassador to the Vatican, Miguel H. Díaz, noted that the Vatican also serves as a good forum to engage countries the U.S. doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with, such as Cuba and Iran. [17] The same goes for Taiwan which is only recognised by the Vatican and 22 other countries. [18]

Even outside the Vatican City good contacts with the Church can pay off, as it has “a branch in every village”. [19] The leaked US Embassy cables showed the Church “to be deeply involved in local politics worldwide and a useful source of information for American diplomats, especially in places like Cuba and Venezuela. One cable from 2006 said that a Venezuelan priest might be a good source on President Hugo Chávez”. [20

Backroom deals may not match the pope's public stance

Another leak came from the American ambassador to the Vatican himself. At the start of 2005, Ambassador Jim Nicholson told the Associated Press in an interview that Vatican officials wanted the US to remain in Iraq and pacify the country. He also acknowledged that when President Bush met the Pope and other Vatican officials in June of the previous year he asked their help in getting American bishops to support his programmes. [This story by the respected Associated Press has now disappeared from the net, but is reproduced in full below, after the footnotes.]

Vatican diplomacy's expensive status games

However, diplomatic relations with the Vatican come at a price. Israel has always avoided the expensive duplication by housing its embassies to both Italy and the Vatican in the same grounds. However, in 2006 when the British Government, concerned about both security and costs, attempted to do likewise, it faced a storm. In the face of coordinated Church protests it eventually compromised and moved its embassy to the Holy See to converted stables in the compound of Britain’s embassy to Italy. After Britain’s move, the Netherlands did the same. [21]

In 2012 when Ireland, in the wake of the clerical abuse scandal, announced that it would follow suit, the Vatican dug in its heels. Ireland's Foreign Minister ran up against “the insistence by the Vatican that we had to have two separate ambassadors, two separate embassies, two separate buildings”. Those are the “rules”. [22] The Vatican jealously guards its diplomatic status by refusing accreditation to any ambassador who is also accredited by Italy.

This obliges those countries that have non-resident ambassadors to the Vatican to use their ambassadors to countries other than Italy. The Armenian representative to the Vatican is also resident ambassador to France; the Ethiopian one, resident ambassador to Israel; the Fijian one, High Commissioner to the UK; and the Malaysian one, resident ambassador to Switzerland. When these non-resident ambassadors to the Vatican present their credentials, they do not receive a private audience with the pope, as do resident ambassadors. Thus it was in the company of these four gentlemen that the new Irish ambassador presented his credentials. [23] He is a senior civil servant who works in a government ministry in Ireland. The Irish Foreign Minister said, “we can service the Vatican from Dublin”. [24] 

The deal was clear. Ireland refused to pay for two embassies in Rome and the Vatican refused to give accreditation to the Irish ambassador to Italy, as that could set a precedent. The compromise was a non-resident ambassador in Dublin — and no private audience with the Pope. You get what you pay for.

After the change in papacy, and in recognition of Pope Francis’s focus on overseas aid, the Irish relented somewhat. They re-established a smaller embassy, with only one diplomat, to deal primarily with development aid. [25]

The next in line to downsize is the US which is planning to combine locate both embassies on the same compound as a security measure in the wake of a lethal 2012 assault on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. [26]

The Vatican determines who represents other countries

“Often the Holy See embassies are far more aligned with the Vatican than they are with their own countries’ policies.” [27] This is a calculated result of the Vatican's insistence on screening the religious beliefs of  proposed ambassadors. Britain  tried to resist this pressure, but in the end capitulated.

During the Protestant Reformation British ties were cut with the Vatican. The pope excommunicated King Henry VIII in 1533 and withdrew the papal nuncio who would not return permanently until 1982, the year of the papal visit to Britain. Only in 1914 were diplomatic relations cautiously resumed by the UK. Three years later the Foreign Office issued a memorandum saying that Britain’s representative at the Vatican “should not be filled with unreasoning awe of the Pope,” and the post was filled by a non-Catholic. [28] In 2005 this practice was reversed by Prime Minister Blair, a secret convert to Catholicism. [29]

Diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the US were established even later than those with Britain, on the eve of World War II. They were pushed through by subterfuge, following a trip by Pacelli, the “concordat cardinal” and consummate diplomat. Congress would have had to vote on any move to send a US ambassador to the Vatican, so in order to bypass it, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a “personal representative”.

For this new and unprecedented post he chose the multi-millionaire Myron Taylor, former president of the finance committee of the United States Steel Corporation. Since Taylor was not to be an ambassador proper, there was no need to get Senate approval of his appointment. And since the envoy could easily pay his own expenses, there was no need to ask Congress for an appropriation. [30]

Once relations with the Vatican have been established — one way or another —  the pope can then help determine who will represent the country. Under the Benedict XVI the Vatican has been accrediting only those foreign diplomats who also have allegiance to the Church. Even liberal Catholics are not tolerated. And there is sometimes a further reason for rejecting nominated ambassadors and delivering a diplomatic snub. According to an official of that Vatican department, “the Secretary of State privileges the relationship with nations with which it has concordats.” [31]

It may come as no surprise, then, that Argentina, which in 2005 cancelled a concordat, had trouble getting an ambassador accredited by the Vatican. In February 2008 the Argentine Government named a Catholic who had been divorced and then remarried as ambassador to the Holy See. The Vatican, citing this, refused to accept his diplomatic credentials. [32]

France, too, which cancelled its concordat back in 1905, also ran into difficulties. It took the better part of a year and three tries before in September 2008 France managed to get an ambassador accepted. Although all were practising Catholics, the first candidate was divorced and the second was gay and living in a civil partnership. [33]

As a reader remarked in the comments section for this story,

Is the ambassador supposed to represent France to the Vatican, or the Vatican to France? France should say, this is who we pick as our representative, if you don’t like it, we end diplomatic relations.  

However, that’s not what happens. A few years later the struggle began again. In 2016, after a nine-month standoff, France dropped its bid to get the Vatican to accept another candidate, a senior diplomat of "exceptional culture" who happened to be gay. [34]

And being gay or divorced are not the only grounds for rejection, as the Americans discovered in 2009. The Vatican turned down all three of the ambassadors proposed by the US, even before they were officially put forward. They were Catholics who supported women's reproductive choice. [35] A few years later the Vatican showed that it scrutinised not only potential ambassadors' private lives and personal opinions, but even any fiction written by them. In 2012 a potential Bulgarian ambassador who was married to an Italian was turned away because his novel which contained a gay sex scene. [36] Apparently it was consensual and between adults — unlike the actions of all the priests who have raped little boys with impunity.

For the Church version see “Vatican Diplomacy” (Vatican Information Service, 11 April 1997).

For a shrewd analysis (though speculative and dated) see Avro Manhattan on Vatican diplomacy (from The Vatican in World Politics, 1949).


1. “Cardinal Bertone: Vatican secretary of state has pastoral task”, CNA, 2013-11-14.

2. “See change: UK pro-lifers rejoice at Humanae Vitae-supporting bishop appointmen”, Life Site News, 2012-08-02. 

3. “Trial reveals papal butler's interest in Masonry, Church scandals”, Catholic News Agency, 2012-10-03.

4. David Kahn, How I Discovered World War II's Greatest Spy and Other Stories of Intelligence and Code, 2014. Ch. 13, “Nothing Sacred: the Allied solution of Vatican codes in World War II”.

5. “Diplomatic Posts of the Holy See”, The Hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

6. “WikiLeaks publishes 1.7 million US diplomatic cables - USA”, AFP, 08 April 2013. 

The leaked diplomatic cable of 18 October 1973, sent to Washington by the US embassy to the Holy See, relayed a conversation with the Vatican's then deputy Secretary of State, Giovanni Benelli, (who carried out its functions because the aged Cicognani no longer could). 

7. Francis Campbell, “The UK, the Holy See, and diplomacy”, Cardinal Hume Memorial Lecture, St Mary's Cathedral, Newcastle, 2010-10-14. 

8. John Hoffman, “The Vatican’s Secret Diplomat”, Contemporary Review, Autumn, 2009.

This is a review of Charles R. Gallagher, S.J., Vatican Secret Diplomacy: Joseph P. Hurley and Pope Pius XII, Yale University Press, 2008. It can be downloaded here: 

9. “Vatican survey to select bishops ‘could be illegal’”, Sydney Morning Herald, 2011-03-12.

10. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, [then Nuncio, later Pope John XXIII], “Spiritual Testament”, December, 1947, p. 3, (last sentence).

11. Roncalli quoted in Dom Antoine Marie OSB, Letter, 2000-08-15, Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval, 21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, France. 

12.  “God's ambassadors”, The Economist, 2007-07-19.

13. Brian Adeba, “Vatican Diplomat Called to Duty in Iraq”, Embassy (“Canada's Foreign Policy Newsweekly”), 2007-07-18. 

14. “Italian diplomat to become new head of Vatican's social communications office”, 28 June 2007. 
“Pope appoints diplomats to key roles in Vatican after policy slip-ups”, 2007-06-29. 

15. Jim Nicholson, citing "Report from Henry Cabot Lodge to unknown recipient. Embassy Vatican files", The United States and the Holy See: The Long Road, 2002. 

16. Ibid

17. “Obama's Pope Francis Challenge: Appoint a New Ambassador to the Vatican”, National Journal, 13 March 2013. 

18. Didi Kirsten Tatlow, “The Vatican and the Other China”, New York Times, 2013-03-18.

19. Johann Neumann, “The German churches before and after 1945” (1995) Concordat Watch.

20. Rachel Donadio, “Leaked Cables Show Vatican Tensions and Diplomacy With U.S.”, New York Times, 2010-12-10. 

21. Edward Pentin, “Apprehension Over Plans to Relocate U.S. Embassy, National Catholic Register, 2013-11-21.

22. Mary Fitzgerald, “Vatican in talks over embassy”, Irish Times, 2012-04-28. 

23. Willie Kealy, “Gilmore is adamant -- embassy in Vatican will not reopen”, Irish Independent, 2012-04-22. 

24. “Benedict XVI welcomes Ireland's new ambassador to the Holy See”, La Stampa, 2012-05-05.

25. “Government to reopen ‘modest’ Vatican Embassy”, Irish Times, 2014-01-21.

26. Edward Pentin, “Apprehension Over Plans to Relocate U.S. Embassy, National Catholic Register, 2013-11-21.

27. Barbie Latza Nadeau, “U.S. Pulls Embassy Out of the Vatican”, Daily Beast, 2013-11-24.

28. Martin O'Brien, “Blair lifted Catholic ban for ‘Our Man In The Vatican’”, BBC, 2010-02-15. 

29. Andrew Woodcock, “Blair feared ‘palaver’ over Catholicism conversion”, Press Association, 2008-12-13. 

30. Li Fu-jen, “The Vatican in World Affairs”, Fourth International, Vol.7 No.10, October 1946, pp. 296-301.

31. “Why Kmiec will not become the new Vatican Ambassador”, Catholic News Agency, 2008-11-25. 

32. John L Allen Jr, “Vatican nixes Argentina’s ambassador on grounds of divorce”, National Catholic Reporter, 2008-01-31. 

33. Francis X. Rocca, “Vatican rejects France’s new gay ambassador”, National Catholic Reporter, 2008-10-02. 

34. “Vatican suspected of rejecting gay French ambassador”, Guardian, 2015-04-10.

“France drops bid to appoint gay Vatican ambassador, reports say”, Guardian, 2015-10-12.

35. Chris McGreal, “Vatican vetoes Barack Obama’s nominees for US ambassador”, Guardian, 2009-04-14. 

36. Michael Day, “Vatican blocks Bulgaria's papal envoy in row over gay sex in book: Holy See 'upset' at homosexuality and prostitution in lawyer's popular novel”, Independent, 2012-08-07.

January 11, 2005

Vatican Wants U.S. to Finish Job in Iraq


Filed at 3:30 p.m. ET

Rome (AP) — The U.S. ambassador to the Vatican said Tuesday that officials of the Holy See want the United States to remain in the Iraq and pacify the country despite Pope John Paul II's oppopsition to the war.

John Paul strongly opposed what the United States called a "preventive war" in Iraq, urging instead that U.N. weapons inspections be allowed to continue.

"We had an honest disagreement between two great leaders and what happened, happened," Ambassador Jim Nicholson, recently nominated by President Bush to be secretary of veteran affairs, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Since then, most Vatican officials have been "forward looking", he said.

"I will say that virtually everyone I talk to at the Vatican do not want the United States to pull out of Iraq. They want us to stay there, pacify and solidify Iraq and help it become a free, stable and democratic country," Nicholson said.

On Monday, an Italian cardinal sent to the White House in March 2003 in a last-hour bid to dissuade Bush from invading Iraq said the president promised the American intervention would be wrapped up quickly.

Cardinal Pio Laghi said, "Don't worry, your eminence. We'll be quick and do well in Iraq.

Nicholson said he was present at that meeting and did not recall Bush saying that, although he said he would not dispute Laghi's statement.

Differences over the war aside, Bush's  positions are in line with many of the Vatican's — certainly more than his Democratic opponent in the November elections, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic who supports a woman's right to have an abortion.

Nicholson acknowledged that when Bush met the pope and other Vatican officials in June, he asked their help in getting American bishops to support his programs.

The ambassador said the pope and others praised Bush and thanked him for his "courageous stand" on such issues as human cloning, the family and marriage that were "so congruent with the Vatican."

"The president thanked him for that affirmation and said it would be helpful if he could receive more of that from senior members of the church community," said Nicholson, a Vietnam veteran and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

In a Monday speech to diplomats the pope put lobbying against gay marriage at the top of the Vatican's agenda for 2005. Bush supports a constituional ammendment banning gay marriage and 11 states adopted constituional bans on gay marriage during the November election.



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