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date: 04 July 2022

The Catholic Church and International Relation

Abstract and Keywords

The Catholic Church is the oldest and largest transgovernmental organization in the world; in particular, Pope Francis’s reign reveals interesting puzzles for international relations. In the social sciences it remains an underestimated and unexplored actor. In terms of social theory, it is difficult to grasp “the Church” (e.g., the body of believers, norm entrepreneur, state of Vatican City). This article places the Catholic Church and its international political activities in a theoretical framework of international relations, making observations that will help students of world politics understand and explain this multifaceted actor beyond a mere description. Displaying the levels of analysis leads to approaching the Catholic Church from different theoretical angles. The article provides an understanding of the Church on the individual (its members and their agency), unit (the institution), and international levels (the Holy See participating in the international system and society).

Keywords: Catholic Church, realism, English school, diplomacy, norms

The Church as a Political Actor

At the end of The Anarchical Society, Hedley Bull (2002, 245) stated that it is conceivable that the sovereign state will eventually disappear and be replaced by a modern, secular counterpart of the political system that characterized Western Christendom in the Middle Ages; he imagined a new medievalism. It would be “a system of overlapping authority and multiple loyalty” in which “no ruler or state was sovereign in the sense of being supreme over a given territory and a given segment of the Christian population; each had to share authority with vassals beneath, and with the Pope and … the Holy Roman Emperor above.” The Catholic Church (“the Church”)1 always has been engaged in politics, in various forms of political and social organizations and divisions, fragmentation, and defragmentation. Out of this long-term political experience, the Church perceived the rise of the modern state and the Westphalian settlement as what it remains to this day: a particular solution (a state) to a particular problem (a political organization in a fragmented society) in a particular period of history. The Church itself, via one of its secessionists, Protestantism, extensively contributed to the evolution of the modern state (Philpott 2000, 2001). Because of its own experience and institutional memory, the Church displays a relaxed outlook on the future of international politics in an era of globalization and a changing political landscape. The very fact that the Church adapted itself to the international system (of states) and its international society is the reason for the interest of international relations (IR) in this actor. Three recent political events, all linked to the papacy of Pope Francis, warrant this observation: his interest in and use of the Holy See’s diplomatic service, which contributed to the thaw in US-Cuban relations; the formal accord between the Holy See and the state of Palestine; and his reference to the massacre of Armenians in 1915 as “genocide.”

In placing the Church in an IR framework, this article makes observations that will help students of world politics understand and explain this multifaceted actor. These are based, first, on the Church’s structural framework, and second, on its agency and foreign policy engagement. Although the Church is the oldest and largest transgovernmental organization in the world, in the social sciences it remains an underestimated and unexplored actor. In terms of social theory, particularly in empirical IR, it is difficult to grasp “the Church” as such (e.g., as a body of believers, norm entrepreneur, state of Vatican City, the Holy See, the pope). What complicates the matter is that the Church—in the appearance of the Holy See, with its physical territorial base in Vatican City—is also a legally (i.e., established by international law) recognized member of international society. This also makes it profoundly, formally, different from other, nonstate religious actors.

Unfolding the different levels of analysis leads to approaching the Church from different theoretical angles, such as constructivism/liberalism, realism, and the English school. In doing so, this article provides an understanding of the Church on the individual (its members and the power of their agency), the unit (the institution and its bureaucracy), and the international levels (the Holy See participating in the international system and society). Thus this article sheds light on the questions of what the Church wants in international politics, what its actual role is, and how this role is practiced. Unlike most theoretical attempts to address those questions (e.g., theological, philosophical, international law), this article does so in terms of IR in the sense of the social sciences, humanism, and the primacy of politics over relations.2

The lack of IR engagement with the Church is captured in the dualism of the following well-known anecdote. Joseph Stalin answered a question from the French secretary of state, Pierre Laval, concerning the situation of Catholics in Russia as follows: “The Pope! How many divisions has he?” Indeed, for quite some time the pope has had no military divisions, that is, no hard, material power. This is nonetheless what international politics is said to be about: material power equals influence and political power. This anecdote, documented by Winston Churchill ([1948] 1985, 121), has a second, unknown part, Churchill’s own comment on it: “Laval’s answer was not reported to me but he might certainly have mentioned a number of legions not always visible on parade.” Churchill was aware that there are other forms of power, like those represented by the sheer mass of people calling themselves Catholics. Those numbers, committed to the Catholic faith (i.e., identity), paired with normative claims of the Church, are the basis for the Church’s soft power, the ability to get others to want what it wants (Haynes 2007, 31–62; Nye 1990, 166; Sommeregger 2011; Troy 2010).

Since September 11, 2001, we have witnessed academic interest in “religious” topics and actors. Nevertheless, the Church remains underrepresented in IR studies. There certainly is significant engagement when it comes to the Church and ethics (e.g., sex scandals, child abuse, unequal treatment of men and woman) (D’Antonio 2013; O’Reilly 2012), economics (e.g., the scandals revolving around the Vatican bank, the bankruptcy of dioceses) (Berry 2011; Pollard 2008), and scandals and conspiracies in general.3 All are in one or another way related to international affairs but not genuinely IR. International politics, the subject of IR, “is the attempt of certain groups of individuals to solve the tensions between the needs of their own people and the social facts of others and the world” (Isaak 1975, 256). It is in this vein that this article contributes to IR: after describing the actor and its actorness, it locates the Church within international political theory.

Before beginning an analytical examination, this article outlines a literature review, then turns to a historical overview of the Church in international politics, mainly about but not limited to papal history. Thereafter it describes the Church’s internal structure (the various entities) and its agency (decision-making processes). The discussion then turns to the formal link—diplomacy—between the actor and international society. The next section categorizes the Church in theoretical terms, examining “Catholic” IR’s assumed agenda and providing an overview of how mainstream international theory deals with the Church. The article then outlines the international society approach and its take on the Church. What follows are engagements with fields of policy and politics: war and peace, such as the Church’s engagement in international disputes; the Church’s engagement in international organizations; and its policy and challenges in various geographical areas of the world. The article concludes with a look at future trends affecting the Church.

The Catholic Church in International Relations Literature

While there is a solid body of academic engagement with Catholicism and politics (i.e., in political philosophy) (Heyer, Rozell, and Genovese 2008; Linden 2009; Schall 2004), IR’s engagement with the Church can be divided into five subfields: (1) frameworks of agency and structure, (2) area studies, (3) development and democracy, (4) war and peace and social justice, and (5) diplomacy. Few studies explain the Church and its internal system within the international sphere. This is true of studies that locate the Church within the “third image”—the international system—but also of studies dealing with the structure and agency of the Church. There is a growing body of journalistic accounts and memoirs of ambassadors (most often assigned to and not from the Holy See), as well as pieces in IR textbooks and journal articles.4 Studies on the Church’s activities are often tied to research on democratization processes. A well-known study is Samuel Huntington’s (1993) The Third Wave, which illustrates the positive impact of Catholicism on democratization in the twentieth century. Other research challenges Huntington’s Protestant-minded claim that the Second Vatican Council, bringing about a change in a set of beliefs, consequently caused a change in action in countries with significant Catholic majorities. South America in particular has been a battleground for studies on the impact of the Church and Catholicism, either in terms of democratization or in the form of challenges from other Christian denominations (Cox [1995] 2001; Martin 1993). The Church’s role in the democratization processes of the former Communist block is yet another prominent example due to the role played by the Polish pope, John Paul II.5

Research on war, peace, social justice, and the Church is predominant in political science. The Church has engaged with these issues since its beginnings (e.g., Augustine’s engagement with world order, Thomas Aquinas on just war) (Augustine of Hippo 2002; Aquinas 2002). The most visible example of this tradition has become the pope himself. Criticized for doing too little and being too silent about Hitler’s aggression and the Holocaust,6 the popes, in their speeches and encyclicals in recent times, have become among the world’s foremost recognized advocates for peace, social justice, and religious freedom (Coleman and Ryan 2005; Grasso and Hunt 2007). Research on diplomacy focuses on two topics: the pope and the traditional diplomatic engagement of the Holy See. This diplomatic agenda is obvious, because the pope is the Holy See’s first diplomat. Since the Holy See is significantly engaged in international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU), this is a field of study in which the actorness of the Church, its internal structure, and the world’s political structure meet.7

Principled Agency in a Worldly Structure: The Constitution of the Church

The gatherings of early Christians were known as ekklesia (public gatherings of people), which was translated as “church.” St. Peter was their first bishop, and based on the Gospels, his primacy has been defended ever since.8 What followed was the development of an organization according to the structural constitution of the Roman Empire. Disputes about the legitimacy of the pope (and at times, various popes simultaneously), the primacy of the pope over secular rulers or vice versa, and an accumulation of earthly power of the pope resulted over time. Indeed, there were times when “the Church … survived in spite of its popes, and at times it is the people who have safeguarded the faith more than the higher clergy” (Riccards 1998, 314). It was theology and diplomacy, as Francis Rooney (2013, 18) asserts, that kept the Church alive over the centuries. When Napoleon III withdrew from Italy, the remainder of the Church’s center of authority within Rome was incorporated into Italy. In 1929 Pope Pius XI and Benito Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty, part of a larger package of treaties, granting the Church parcels of land in Rome (Rowe 2012, 30–35). Today this area is known as Vatican City,9 whose foundation was a solution to the need for a territorial base for the Church’s administrative center (Martens 2006, 740).

The Structure of the Church

In terms of international law, there are two distinct entities within the body of the Church: the state of Vatican City (the actual “Vatican” and its territory) and the Holy See. Only the latter, the Holy See, acts in international relations, such as entering into treaties. Both are intermingled by the pope, who as a monarch is the head of the state of Vatican City and the head of the Holy See simultaneously. The Vatican provides the physical base, administrative location, and so forth for the Church.10 This base and the actual tasks of most of the Church’s administrative members are largely “inside” oriented, that is, related to internal ecclesiastical matters. It is therefore astonishing that this organization participates actively in external, that is, international, affairs. “The Church” is simultaneously a religious body and a sovereign state. As such it “functions as a global network of territorial jurisdictions (dioceses) which serve the spiritual and material need of the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Catholics” (Marshall 2013, 60).

The Roman Curia is the bureaucratic body of the Church’s administration. It consists of congregations, tribunals, pontifical councils, the synod of bishops, offices, pontifical commissions, and so forth (Reese 1998, 106–139).11 One is tempted to see the congregations of the Curia as religious counterparts of secular governmental ministries. Yet the secretary of state “is one of the least understood and yet one of the most important offices in the curia” (since 2013 Pietro Parolin), “closer to being a prime minister than a foreign minister, and the Vatican Secretariat of State is like a combination of the U.S. State Department and the White House staff. It coordinates the work of other Vatican offices and handles any issue that does not fall into some other office’s jurisdiction” (Reese 1998, 174–175).12 Although the Secretariat of State is within the Church the most important political office, the administration and bureaucracy of the Vatican and Holy See spend most of their time on internal matters (Shelledy 2004, 151). Nevertheless, those internal matters, such as the appointment of bishops around the world, have external consequences, as is the case in the People’s Republic of China (Wee 2014). The Church, based on this structure, often displays progressive behavior in external political matters and conservative behavior in internal religious and political matters (Hertzke 2009, 48). The Vatican City state is the last remaining absolute monarchy in Europe and one of the few left worldwide. As its website states, “Vatican City State is governed as an absolute monarchy. The Head of State is the Pope who holds full legislative, executive and judicial powers.”13

For a better understanding and categorization of the Church’s different policy and politics areas, they can be divided into (1) internal-political (e.g., the Curia and its structure), (2) external-political (e.g., represented by nuncios, the papal ambassadors), (3) external-religious (e.g., missionaries), and (4) internal-religious (e.g., the work of residential bishops) (Vallier 1971, 482). The first domain has already been covered. The next section discusses the second domain, the external-political one. Before turning to the instruments and variations of those domains, we must first discuss the grounds of the Church’s foreign policy (decision) making, necessary background for engaging with its external-political relations. David Ryall (1998, 24) suggests that a modified oligarchic-bureaucratic model “best seems to fit the Vatican’s own mixture of curial administration and monarchical government.” Ryall uses Arnold Wolfers’s (1962, 67–80) distinction between two goals of foreign policy: possession and milieu. Possession goals aim at the enhancement or preservation of something that the actor values. Milieu goals aim to shape the conditions beyond the actor’s natural (i.e., territorial) boundaries (Ryall 1998, 24–25). Many of the Church’s goals are milieu goals, because it aims for a universal salvic mission. In the words of Pope Francis, the “principal mission of the Church is evangelization, bringing the Good News to everyone.”14 The Church’s agency, its potential and actual power to act, is arguably influenced by religious principles. Those are reflected in the—quite this-worldly—structural administrative framework. This becomes even more obvious when looking at the Church’s diplomacy.

Agency: Diplomacy

The pope himself is the chief agent of the Church’s diplomacy. Early popes relied on delegates for this task. An awakening of genuine papal diplomacy began in the nineteenth century (Kent and Pollard 1994a). The pope carried more weight in speaking to the world in times of political crises. John Paul II (1978–2005)15 was the master of personalized and centralized diplomatic conduct. Arguably popes can and indeed did have influence in their diplomatic missions,16 not unlike the UN Secretaries General. One example of their many diplomatic activities is Benedict’s successful plea to Iran to free British naval personnel in 2007. Due to the almost nonexistent official diplomatic ties between the United Kingdom and Iran, the British government asked the pope for help. By writing a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, the pope eventually succeeded in freeing the imprisoned sailors (Rooney 2013, 208–209). More recently, Pope Francis’s interest in and use of the diplomatic service have contributed to the thaw in US-Cuban relations, the formal accord between the Holy See and the state of Palestine, and his reference to the massacre of Armenians in 1915 as “genocide” (Gibson 2014; Jones and Mackenzie 2015). Overall, other than in the Cold War era, “in an increasingly fractured geopolitical world, his [the pope’s] diplomacy is less obviously aligned to one side in the global standoff between competing blocks” (Jones and Mackenzie 2015).

Despite its small geographical size and limited office space in Vatican City and its inward-oriented processual engagement, the Church supports a large foreign policy apparatus.17 This becomes particularly obvious in the raw numbers of countries with which the Holy See currently has diplomatic relations: 179.18 The nuncios (also known as apostolic or papal nuncios; literally “envoys” or “messengers”) are the pope’s representatives. They fulfill two major tasks: supervising the local Church and serving as a liaison between the Holy See and the host nation. In the internal-political domain, the formal external-political relations are governed by canon law, canon 362 of which states: “The Roman Pontiff has the innate and independent right to appoint, send, transfer, and recall his own legates either to particular churches in various nations or regions or to states and public authorities” and the “norms of international law are to be observed in what pertains to the mission and recall of legates appointed to states.”19 In formal external-jurisdictive domains, the Holy See’s diplomacy has been regulated by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.20

Although the attempt to give ecclesiastical diplomatic functions (such as the nuncios’) a theological basis was rejected by most theological authorities within the Church for most of its history (Murphy 1974, 547), they are nevertheless expansive. The engagement of the Holy See in formal diplomatic relations points toward its empirical impact (e.g., the desire of other, new, nations to be diplomatically recognized by the Holy See as well as vice versa, such as with the state of Palestine). Theorizing on this issue makes sense to understand this actor in terms of conventional IR theories.

International Relations Theory and the Church

Norms, Normative and Liberal Approaches

For normative, liberal, and constructivist theorists alike, the Church is a norm entrepreneur, pushing norms based on its principal constitutional framework (e.g., fundamental texts like the Bible, internal rules like canon law, or theological principles like dogmas). In external-political domains, there are conservative calls for “Catholic” international relations, liberal critics as well as supporters of Catholic IR, and opportunistic supporters of Catholic IR. Conservative supporters of a “Catholic” approach to international politics (Weigel 2004, 2001) are backed by a tradition of Catholic thinking on politics, from Augustine’s realism, to Thomas Aquinas’s just war theory, to the mentors of modern international law such as Francisco Suárez, to early Catholic critics of political liberalism such as Juan Donoso Cortés. Due to the breadth of this spectrum, there are conservative calls to engage more in “culture wars.” Such comments tend to defend the pope’s critical remarks about other religions, such as Benedict’s public relations debacle at the so-called Regensburg lectur (Neuhaus 2006; Schall 2007).21 Liberal critics are quick to point out that the Holy See occupies an exceptional position in international politics compared to other religious groups—its bilateral diplomatic relations, particularly the permanent observer status of the Holy See in the UN—or that the Church largely bases its foreign policy on genuinely nonliberal values. A classic example is the Holy See’s engagement at the UN 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (Neale 1998)22 and subsequent conferences (Abdullah 1996). There the Holy See made the case for more family-friendly policies, opposed abortion, and sided with countries such as Sudan and Libya.

The largest research area cannot properly be categorized within the political spectrum; it focuses on how normative approaches displayed by the Church (e.g., justice, peace, or religious freedom) can or should influence international politics (Cullen and Bernard Hoose 2007; Coleman and Ryan 2005; Gremillion 1976). These approaches are guided by a liberal and constructivist framework, focusing on the changes the Second Vatican Council brought about for the Church in a globalized world (Linden 2009). One stream of theorizing on this issue is classical realism.

Power and Realist Approaches

At first glance, realism does not come in handy as a lens to frame the Church in international politics, let alone to view it theoretically in IR. Neorealism’s focus on the distribution of power and (material) capabilities among actors hinders its taking this actor seriously, other than for its sheer accumulation of at least nominal followers. What is more, realism’s focus on international politics as geopolitics is often associated with coercive power (Agnew 2010, 2006; Dijkink 2006), “Numbers” matter, and that the Church is good in “numbers” (i.e., its nominally affiliated members) was illustrated by the foregoing analysis of its diplomacy, underpinned by simple demographic facts: currently the worldwide Catholic population is 1.228 billion, with that number expected to increase (Glatz 2014). “God” has indeed become “globalized” (Thomas 2010). Furthermore, Catholicism has shifted toward the Global South (discussed below). What even strong-minded structuralists can agree on is the contribution of the Church, and particularly Pope John Paul II, to the peaceful outcome of the Eastern bloc and the end of the Cold War (Rooney 2013; Weigel 1992).

Despite the shortcomings of the broad realist research agenda, classical realism does contribute to the understanding of the Church in international politics. Realists and English school scholars went beyond the structuralists’ paradigm in terms of theoretical analysis. This is due first of all to their focus on international politics as practice and agency (Brown 2012; Shapcott 2004), as reflected in Winston Churchill’s comment on the Stalin quote discussed previously. International politics is made by people, even though those people remain “not always visible on parade.” Seen from this agent-focused angle, it is also comprehensible that realist scholars did place emphasis on religious, if not always primarily on the Church’s, issues in international politics. One influential contribution in this mixed category is Samuel Huntington’s (1993) Third Wave of Democracy (Philpott 2004; Troy 2009). Huntington concluded that this wave of democratization in the 1970s and 1980s, starting in Europe and eventually spreading to South America, was accelerated by internal changes in the Church and indebted to the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965). The process of the Council led to a more liberal approach by the Church (cf. the buzzword characterizing this event, aggiornamento—“liberalization”). Consequently it called for an active engagement with democratization and freedom. As outlined, it is problematic to reduce the Church’s aspirations on the global political playground to theological foundations. Anthony Gill (1998) illustrated in the case of South America that the liberalization of the Church happened not only as a result of theological and doctrinal changes (i.e., the Second Vatican Council) and ecclesiastical practices (e.g., liberation theology). In many cases there was a causal connection between religious competition and liberalization of the Church. The chances for liberalization and promotion of democracy increased where the Church came under stress from religious competitors (Anderson 2007).

Another prominent role of the Church in international politics is so-called track-two diplomatic efforts, often referred to as faith-based diplomacy (Cox and Philpott 2003; Troy 2008). These initiatives reach from civil society engagement to the public sphere, to official governmental diplomatic initiatives. Civil society engagement is initiated and led by laypeople or communities, but it gains the support of Catholic clergy and thus “official” involvement of the Church. It is a bottom-up engagement, whereas official governmental diplomatic initiatives are by definition top-down ones. What both approaches have in common is, in the case of international politics, that they are mainly concerned with and for peace-building activities (Schreiter, Appleby, and Powers 2010). Well-known examples in the second half of the twentieth century of the Church’s involvement are

  • - Pope John XXIII’s engagement in a peaceful solution of the Cuban missile crisis (Flamini 1980);

  • - the Solidarnosc movement, which contributed to Poland’s democratization (Byrnes 2006);

  • - the Philippine people’s power revolution, which led to the ousting of dictator Ferdinand Marcos (Astorga 2006; Youngblood 1990);

  • - the Holy See’s mediation in the Beagle channel conflict between Argentina and Chile (Laudy 2000; Princen 1992);

  • - reconciliation efforts in new democracies or countries in transition, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa (Philpott 2006; Philpott 2012); and

  • - peace-building fieldwork during the civil war in Mozambique and elsewhere by the Catholic lay community of St. Egidio (Batlogg 2011).

The diplomatic participation of the Holy See in international bodies such as the EU and the UN is another area in which normative and realist analyses of the Holy See’s foreign policy fuse. On the one side are the raw numbers of the Church’s participation in the given “rules of the game” (e.g., participating in diplomacy and international organizations) in international politics. On the other side is the normative, that is, theological and doctrinal, underpinning of this engagement. Two obvious examples to which this policy of the Church and the respective theoretical research apply are the Holy See’s representation at and participation in discourses within the EU and the UN. The EU’s very idea and discourse of “solidarity” (Ross and Borgmann-Prebil 2010) are ripe for Catholic engagement (Jansen 2000; Leustean 2011, 2013). The involvement of the Church in European party politics thus comes as no surprise (Warner 2000). Along with the concept of subsidiarity, solidarity is one of the cornerstones of Catholic social teaching and doctrine (Curran 2002). The other, even more illustrative, example is the representation of the Holy See in the UN. The Holy See has taken an interest in the UN since its inception (Chong and Troy 2011; Melnyk 2009). In 1964 the Holy See was formally invited by Secretary General U Thant to send a permanent observer to the UN.23

Finally, the English school is inclined to address the Church’s engagement in international society. This approach chooses a middle way between realist (“Hobbesian”) power politics (the primacy of the international system) and revolutionary (“Kantian”) or constructivist tendencies of world society. A (“Grotian”) rationalist approach to how to see and understand international politics—from an international society—rests between those two extremes (Butterfield and Wight 1966; Wight 1991). Not surprisingly, this tradition is congenial to cultural and religious elements in international politics (Thomas 2000, 2001). What is important to note about the current research object, the Church, is that the English school scholars and their texts were, to paraphrase Max Weber, “religiously musical.” They did not make a clear distinction between normative and positive theory. Religious institutions such as the Church, the English school holds, are part of the international society (Thomas 2000; Troy 2012, 86–102). The lack of interest in religious issues in international politics from contemporary English school scholars is thus surprising and a sign of the prejudice of European secularism. Although “culture” is frequently mentioned and used as a concept, it lacks contextual (i.e., religious and historical) depth (Buzan 2004, 2010). The Church, ever since it took its first step toward becoming an institutionalized structure, has participated in traditional (i.e., secular) “primary” institutions (Bull 2002, pt. II) such as diplomacy. The English school pays attention to these institutions (diplomacy, balance of power, international law, sovereignty) and their respective “secondary” institutions (embassies, alliances, treaties, international governmental organizations, etc.) (Buzan 2004).

The most obvious example of the need to view the Church as a “part of the game” in international politics is the involvement of the Church when (re-)gaining a sovereign territorial base and sticking to norms and conventions that come with it. The embedding of the Holy See in international society is evidence of the possibility to let religion “back” into international politics (Sharp 2009, 262–263). Given the Church’s history in and with states, the English school is even more prone to be a sustainable guiding force for understanding the Church in international politics. The Holy See’s long diplomatic exchange with the United States (Franco 2010; Rooney 2013), its even more conflictual one with China (Leung 2005), its troubled relationships with Israel and Palestine (endorsed by the Holy See) (Flamini 2014, 25–26), as well as other states’ desire to become formally recognized by the Holy See, illustrate the enduring logic of the “rules of the game” and its practices (Navari 2011).

A major theoretical shortcoming in placing the Church in an IR context is making a causal connection (Rosato 2013) from normative principles (e.g., social teaching and doctrine) to actual agency within international politics (e.g., diplomatic representation). The above-outlined view of the Holy See as yet another actor in international politics reminds us that this may not always be the case. In terms of theoretical analysis, it often leads to a narrow view and analysis of the Church, resembling a fixation on a given set of “beliefs”: theology, dogmas, and so forth. While theology and doctrines are without doubt independent variables in understanding this actor, referring principally to them proves to be too thin for understanding. What the Church actually does, given this background, is even more interesting, and most of all, telling. This becomes obvious if we take a speculative look at the future of the Church, still led by its administrative Roman center.

Conclusion: The Future of the Global Church

Any look at the future of the Church must begin with its structure and agency. The most important internal variable for future change, after the person of the pope (Franco 2013b), is the Curia. Similar to the presidential appointing of Supreme Court judges in the United States, papal filling of curial posts offers a midrange evaluation of the Church’s orientation in theological as well as political terms (Maltzman, Schwartzberg, and Sigelman 2006). The key question about a theological revolution (i.e., becoming more liberal/progressive, as is often desired in the Global North), sparked and accelerated by Pope Francis (Tornielli 2014), is thus whether such a “revolution” will take hold in papal Rome (Franco 2013b, 119). Pope Francis is arguably the first true “global pope.” Though John Paul II was a globetrotter, he certainly was no “global” pope. Francis, however, is an outsider in the literal sense, exemplifying the end of the long history of Eurocentrism at the Holy See (Franco 2013a).

The Church’s hierarchy and structures (material structures such as the administrative body as well as nonmaterial ones such as theology) over time turned out to be quite resilient. This is particularly the case for the agency part of the Church’s external relations and papal diplomacy (Kent and Pollard 1994b). Recent initiatives to opt for a more intense use of the Holy See’s diplomats and diplomatic apparatus by Pope Francis reinforce this claim. Consider two examples: Holy See diplomats participated at the 2013 Geneva conference on Syria, and Pope Francis has called for a more intense dialogue with Islam, also “calling on church leaders to renew diplomatic discourse with countries that do not have official ties with the Holy See, like China” (Povoledo 2013). These examples illustrate the weight the Church places on statecraft and the institution of diplomacy. The Secretariat of State is constantly brokering between the curial structure and papal and diplomatic agency, at the same time following its own agenda. Pope Francis’s attempts to reform it will thus bring some unexpected changes in both structural and agency domains. The complex governmental structure of the Church (i.e., the Curia) is a product of history, which largely developed ad hoc and not according to management theory (Reese 1998, 109). Two variables, without question, have the power and ability to trump ecclesiastical structures: the agency of the pope within and the global spiritual and political landscape without.

Ever since its establishment, the papacy has been involved in “earthly” matters. “Papal interventionism” (Walsh 2000) therefore is nothing new. After the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century and the resulting liberal world order (Ikenberry 2012), followed by interventionism (Desch 2007), papal interventionism seems to view itself as a compensating and balancing element in international politics. This is so not least because the twentieth century saw the largest persecution of Christians in history. The Church sees itself as a bridge builder (hence the ancient title for the pope, Pontifex Maximus—“master bridge builder”). Francis sticks to a well-patterned papal and indeed Catholic political behavior—a conservative theological agenda—while at the same time advocating a liberal stand on political, social, and economic issues. The papacy itself will remain a “bargaining point” for the Church (Vallier 1971, 498). Like executive leadership in international organizations, a papacy with a clear vision and the power to attract and mobilize followers or convince and mobilize opposition is thus a vital aspect of any institutional change as well (Schroeder 2014).24

Changing spiritual and political global landscapes also affect the Church. What seem to be pressing issues in papal and curial Rome, such as shortages of priests, sexuality, and “hierachicalism” (Allen 2009, 414–416), are not trends to change the Church’s practices and priorities in international politics. Christianity has constantly moved south and away from Rome (Johnson, Grim, and Bellofatto 2013; Thomas 2010; Jenkins 2002). In a sense, then, the Church is returning to its roots, since from “the start, the Church had no single centre” (Duffy 1997, 3). If religious sociologists are right in asserting that we live in a spiritual age rather than in one of (formalized) beliefs (Cox 2009), the Church’s challenge is to adjust its structure toward charismatic leadership. This does not threaten its participation in international society via its instruments of traditional governmental statecraft ornongovernmental means, still bound and influenced by structural factors such as the international system. This is so not only because many conflicts around the world take place where either a Catholic majority or a significant Catholic minority is at home, but also because its principals require it to take an interest. Though structural and functional scopes may change, “the principle of a global apex of sacred authority and religious symbolism will be enhanced, rather than eclipsed, by future change” (Vallier 1971, 497).

Napoleon was perhaps closer than Stalin to summarizing the influence of the Church in international politics when he told his emissary to Rome to “‘deal with the pope as if he had two hundred thousand men at his command’” (Flamini 2014, 33). And Hobbes’ (Hobbes and Macpherson 1986, 712) characterization of the papacy is even more accurate: the “Papacy, is no other, than the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof: For so did the Papacy start up on a Sudden out of the Ruines of that Heathen Power.” Although the Church itself may resemble a deceased empire, its history and political engagement illustrate its and the Holy See’s importance in international politics and the need of IR to take this actor seriously.


Austrian Science Fund (FWF) project P 25198-G16, “Which Structure, Whose Virtue? Realism’s Premises on Men and Power.” I would like to express my thanks to the reviewer and Scott M. Thomas for commenting on earlier versions of this article.


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(1) The term “Catholic Church” subsumes the “Roman Catholic Church” (i.e., the Roman mass rite), which is a common reference when talking about the Catholic Church.

(2) The article challenges the common split between “broad” and “deep” approaches of religion in IR. “Broad” approaches frame religion on the international level, remain positivist in epistemology, and tend to essentialize religion. “Deep” approaches analyze particular religious phenomena on the domestic level or below it and refrain from generalizations. (Hassner 2011) This is, in other words, the functionalist-essentialist division of scientific approaches of religion taken to the subject of IR, distinguishing between what religions are in essence and what they do, that is, how they function (Sheikh 2012).

(3) Cf. the public interest in the church caused by the novel and movie The Da Vinci Code (Brown [2003] 2009).

(6) This critique of the “silence” of the Holy See during the Holocaust, based on strategic grounds between “morality and diplomacy” (Coppa 2008, 2013), has been relativized by archive openings (Wolf 2010).

(8) Cf. Matthew 16:18, 19.

(9) The Vatican City, officially neutral in terms of international law, is itself the object of research about small states (Chong 2010).

(10) I use the term “the Church,” meaning the Holy See, the Vatican City State, and “the church,” meaning the former two entities and the whole of the Catholic “population.” It will be pointed out where it is not the Holy See that is meant.

(14) Tweet of Pope Francis, October 30, 2014,

(15) When dates are provided with popes’ names, they refer to the span of their terms. Before Pope Benedict XVI’s “retirement,” it was a given that popes stay in office until their deaths.

(16) Consider the political ramifications of the 1998 visit of John Paul II for political liberties in Cuba (Johnston and Cox 2003, 22–23).

(17) There is not much literature on either the theoretical education or the actual work of papal diplomats. Moreover, there is no memoir tradition of retired diplomats. The exceptions are the memories of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII), former nuncio to France (1944–1953). However, these consist of reprints of official letters and addresses (John XXIII 1966) For a historical treatment of the diplomatic service, see Kracht (2011). Over the last few years WikiLeaks, via published cables from and to the Vatican embassy, has revealed a “clumsy” practice of the Holy See’s diplomats

(21) At a lecture in Regensburg, Germany, attempting to unite faith and reason, Benedict XVI quoted an Byzantine emperor: “‘Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached’” ( This lecture caused several angry reactions among the Muslim world.

(23) Its formal range and level of participation (“permanent observer”) has only been settled since 2004

(24) Paul Griffith (2001) characterized the ideal type of the pope (at the example of John Paul II) as one who “acts politically, but at the same time throws the politics of his acts into question.”