Return to site

’Moral Diplomacy’ of the Holy See: Multi-Level Diplomacy of a Transnational Actor

by Brice Didier, Postgraduate Student at the College of Europe, Department of EU International relations and Diplomacy studies

· Gouvernance mondiale

Instead of claiming to practise a form of inter-governmental diplomacy, [the Holy See] could renounce its special diplomatic status and call itself what it is — the biggest non-governmental organisation in the world1.

The Vatican is the smallest state in the world, yet it counts on more than a billion supporters worldwide. As such the Holy See appears in the 21st century as a paradox, at the centre of which stands the Pope: both a religious leader and a head of a state, his influence goes far beyond its temporal power. “[O]ldest surviving Western diplomatic actor actively using its right to legation since about the mid-4th century2, the Holy See refers “to the Roman Pontiff but also to the Secretariat of State and other institutions of the Roman Curia3. Relying since the Lateran Treaty (1929) on a territorial jurisdiction (the Vatican City State), it is itself an international legal entity with relations with nation-states (180, with the notable exception of China and, until 2009, Russia), international and regional organisations4. The Holy See representing both a cult and a state, the Catholic Church is the only religion endowed with a temporal basis and having access to interstate diplomatic relations.

Based on Hochstetler’s work on the role of ‘civil society’ actors in shaping diplomacy5, diplomacy being defined in a postpositivist perspective6 as “peaceful interactions among state actors” transformed into a “complex network of relationships7 by the rise of those non-state actors, I will see to what extent its “hybrid8 and “flexible9 nature as a transnational power determines the Holy See’s diplomacy. I will first address its specific transnational status, before looking at the multi-level and “double-hatted10 aspects of its ‘moral diplomacy’. Subsequently, I will discuss the extent and limit of the Holy See as an interstate mediator using the example of the 2014-2015 United States (US) and Cuba mediation, before concluding on its diplomacy’s coherence and stability.

A relevant transnational actor

Identified as a “permanent subject of general customary international law vis-à-vis all states11 by the Congress of Vienna (1815), the Holy See is not recognized as a nation-state by international law12. Thus, its diplomacy must not be reduced to temporality: “[lacking] the material capacity to compel respect for its interests13, with no will to coerce, its authority relies on its spiritual (soft-) power. Also, instead of being irrelevant, “the presence of the [Holy See] as an actor within the Westphalian diplomatic order has been significantly strengthened in recent decades14. In fact, anterior to nation-states, it has been “key […] in the formation of the modern Westphalian diplomatic order15 and would better be defined as a transnational actor beyond the interstate society.

As argued by Ferragu16, the Holy See first asserted itself as a ‘moral power’ when seeking to compensate its lack of territorial sovereignty at the time of the ‘Roman Question’ (1870-1929). During that period, having no territory, its international legal personality was “constituted by the ongoing reciprocity of diplomatic relationships17. Its diplomatic network developed to compensate for its territorial weakness, and the Vatican City State was essentially created with “a functional nature […] to ensure [its] full independence18. Still today, it is “the Holy See (spiritual entity) and not the Vatican City (temporal entity) [that] engages the international community and establishes diplomatic relations19, notably at the United Nations, where it was granted with a ‘permanent non-member state observer’ status20 in 1964.

Pope Francis in Rome.

A ‘moral’ and ‘multi-level’ diplomacy

The Pope granted with “the minimum [of temporal sovereignty] needed in order to be free to exercise his spiritual mission and to assure those who deal with him that he is independent of any sovereignty of this world21, the Holy See acts as a norm entrepreneur. It indeed tries to shape world politics through its conception of human rights and dignity, peace, justice, primacy and renewal of international law22, which brings it closer to civil-society actors participating to the normative agenda setting, as mentioned by Hochstetler23. The Holy See’s rhetoric is based on its historical and cultural influence, it balances “humanitarian concerns that transcend religion, and consciousness of an evangelical mission24, and transposes to the international level the ‘Social Doctrine’ of the Catholic Church25. Its diplomacy is supported by a network of humanitarian and social actors expanding its presence and playing a major role in implementing the diplomatic process. Holy See’s diplomatic relations thus go far beyond the ‘Catholic World’.

While its diplomats (nuncios) participated in the building of diplomatic relations in Europe, the Vatican was among the first states to establish formal diplomatic relations in Europe (back to the 16th century)26. Also, through Article 16(3) of the 1961 ‘Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations’27 the nuncio can be made “permanent doyen of the local corps diplomatique thereby making the papal foreign service a primus inter pares”28. Plus, due to the Holy See’s double identity on the international stage, its diplomats are ‘double-hatted': they first represent an international legal entity and a government; then they are “a kind of go-between connecting the Vatican and local churches, but also […] with local non-Catholic communities” in their country of assignment29. As a consequence, Holy See’s diplomatic actorness is multi-level.

A mediator above the interstate society

According to the Lateran Treaty (Article 24), the Holy See is “outside of any temporal rivalries between other States and the international congresses called to settle such matters, unless the contending parties make a mutual appeal to its mission of peace”.30 In that perspective, it is a global “collective actor”31 beyond the interstate arena, a condition with its origins in the Crusades, when the Papacy managed to go beyond feudal rivalries in Europe in God’s name32. Still today, the Holy See intends to be “autonomous from blocks and alliances”.33 Having no significant armed force but an extensive global diplomatic network, its presence in the interstate society is more relevant in a cooperation perspective, meaning “to work discreetly but usefully in the temporal field34, making the Holy See a coveted peace mediator.

Half a century after John XXIII’s secret mediation in the 1962 Missile crisis35, the US-Cuba rapprochement is one of the Holy See’s most important diplomatic victories in this beginning of the 21st century. Its role as a peace mediator was based on a long-term approach. Serving as a mediator in the negotiations – Presidents Obama and Castro meeting first secretly in the Vatican – Pope Francis built the mediation’s success on both the Holy See’s presence within the Catholic Cuban communities and the “respect his personal integrity has earned him in the United States36, even if the process “was already on the way37. However, despite “promot[ing] human rights around the world, most notably in non-democratic regimes38, Pope Francis did not refer to the question of human rights infringement in Cuba, nor did he mention the excesses of capitalism when addressing the US Congress. In the end, it cannot always “get rid of the realpolitik contingencies39.

Both transnational and multi-level, the diplomacy of the Holy See as a ‘hybrid actor’ “provide[s] a bridge between states and transnational non-state actors40. A “borderless non-state” actor41, its diplomacy is characterized by stability through the continuity of its communication and its representation’s adaptability to a changing environment. While “[i]t is only through the uniformity of the message which comes from the Catholic Church that it remains such an influential transnational actor42, its soft power relies on a high degree of centrality. A unique model among religions but also in diplomacy, the Holy See might be a “fringe player43 of the Westphalian order, but a full member of the global diplomatic sphere.

1 “God’s Ambassadors”, The Economist, 19 July 2007, retrieved 16 November 2016,

2 J. Batora & N. Hynek, Fringe Players and the Diplomatic Order: The ‘New’ Heteronomy, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, p. 88.

3 R. J. Araujo & J. A. Lucal, Papal Diplomacy and the Quest for Peace. The Vatican and International Organizations from the Early Years to the League of Nations, Ann Arbor, MI, Sapientia Press, 1994, pp. 2-3.

4 Vatican City State, “Bilateral relations of the Holy See”,, retrieved 17 November 2016,

5 K. Hochstetler, “Civil Society”, in A. Cooper, J. Heine & R. Thakur, The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 176 – 191.

6 G. Pigman, “Debates about contemporary and future diplomacy”, in P. Kerr & G. Wiseman, Diplomacy in a Globalizing World: Theories and Practices, New York, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 68-84.

7 K. Hochstetler, Op. Cit., p. 176.

8 K. McLarren & B. Stahl, “ 'Hybrid Actors' – Religion and the Shift towards a World Society”, Paper for the ECPR General Conference – First draft, ECPR – Université de Montréal, 26-29 June 2015,

9 J. Batora & N. Hynek, Op. Cit.

10 Ibid., p. 87.

11 J. Kunz, “The Status of the Holy See in International Law”, American Journal of International Law, Vol. 46, no. 2, April 1952, pp. 308-314, p. 309, quoted in R. P. Stake, The Holy See and the Middle East: The Public Diplomacy Of Pope John Paul II, Thesis, Monterey, CA, Naval Postgraduate School, 2006, p. 12.

12 J. R. Morss, “The International Legal Status of the Vatican/Holy See Complex”, European Journal of International Law, Vol. 26, no. 4, pp. 927-946, p. 935.

13 R. P. Stake, Op. Cit., p. 5.

14 J. Batora & N. Hynek, Op. Cit., p. 88.

15 Ibid.

16 G. Ferragu, « Philosophie et diplomatie : le Saint-Siège et l’invention du concept de ‘puissance morale’ », Histoire, Economie & Société, Vol. 2, 2014, pp. 95-106.

17 J. R. Morss, Op. Cit., p. 932.

18 J.-L. Tauran, Cardinal, « Pourquoi une Diplomatie pontificale ? », Revue d’Ethique et de Théologie Morale, Vol. 2, no. 239, June 2006, p. 12,

19 R. P. Stake, Op. Cit., p. 6.

20 The Holy See has the right to participate in the meetings of the General Assembly and the Security Council, without the right to vote.

21 Pope Paul VI, “Address to the United Nations Organization”, New York, 4 October 1965,

22 J.-L. Tauran, Op. Cit., p. 17.

23 K. Hochstetler, Op. Cit., pp. 179-182.

24 J. Bradley, “The Political Rhetoric of the Vatican: Aims and Strategies of the Holy See as a Transnational Actor”, in L. Marsden & H. Savigny (eds.), Media, Religion and Conflict, Farnham and Burlington, VT, Ashgate, 2009, p. 125.

25 Vatican City State, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 2004,

26 J.-B. Noé, « Géopolitique du Vatican, la volonté de l’influence »,, 2 March 2014, retrieved 30 October 2016,

27 United Nations, Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 18 April 1961.

28 J. Batora& N. Hynek, Op. Cit., p. 88.

29 B. Vukicevic, ”Pope Francis and the Challenges of Inter-Civilization Diplomacy”, Revista Brasileira de Politica Internacional, Vol. 58, no. 2, July/December2015, p. 66.

31 K. Hochstetler, Op. Cit., p. 177.

32 R. B. Hall, “Moral Authority as a Power Resource”, International Organization, Vol. 51, no. 4, October 1997, pp. 605-609.

33 D. Giannakopoulos, “Vatican Diplomacy : Cardinal Parolin”, Modern Diplomacy, 22 February 2016, retrieved 16 November 2016,

34 G. Berlat, « François, un Pape diplomate : le Passé recomposé », Association des internationalistes, September 2014, retrieved 16 November 2016,

35 A. Colonna, « Pape François : les nouveaux habits d’une ancienne diplomatie », Le Monde des Religions, 11 May 2015, retrieved 16 November 2016,

36 E. Dwight, “Dissecting a Miracle: Pope Francis the Peacemaker”, Harvard International Review, Vol. 36, no. 3, retrieved 23 October 2016,

37 B. Vukicevic, Op. Cit., p. 76.

38 J. Batora & N. Hynek, Op. Cit. p. 95.

39 N. Kazarian, « Le Saint-Siège : Etat incontournable de la diplomatie mondiale ? », Institut des Relations Internationales et Stratégiques, 19 October 2015, retrieved 16 November 2016,

40 K. McLarren & B. Stahl, Op. Cit.

41 J. Batora & N. Hynek, Op. Cit., p. 98.

42 J. Bradley, Op. Cit., p.126.

43 J. Batora & N. Hynek, Op. Cit.

Image above: the Vatican city state.

This article has firstly been submitted as an essay paper at the College of Europe.

Les opinions et interprétations exprimées dans les publications engagent la seule responsabilité de leurs auteurs, dans le respect de l'article 3 des statuts de l'Institut Open Diplomacy et de sa charte des valeurs.

All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!

OKSubscriptions powered by Strikingly