St. Peter and the Minarets

St. Peter and the Minarets

Mini Teaser: The Catholic Church is under assault. A secularizing West, the encroachment of Islam into Europe, and the sexual-abuse scandal all threaten the Vatican's ability to influence the masses. The Church's response will be felt worldwide.

by Author(s): Harvey Cox

URBI ET Orbi (“for the city and for the world”) is the traditional blessing the pope offers on special occasions. Although he has at times pronounced it in other venues—St. John Lateran, the pope’s official ecclesiastical seat, or the Quirinale, now the Italian president’s residence—the pontiff usually intones the prayer from the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. The ancient ceremony reminds us that the pope holds office as head of the Church because he has been elected bishop of “the city,” Rome; that he is the leader of a global organization whose very name, “Catholic,” means universal (making the whole world his parish); and that he is the head of a miniscule but internationally recognized sovereign state.

Vatican City is in its own way a nation just like any other, with foreign-policy goals, global strategies, and potential allies and adversaries. Referred to officially as “the Holy See,” it is an active participant in a wide range of international institutions including the EU, the Organization of American States, the WTO and the International Labor Organization. It holds official observer status at the UN. And curiously, four decades ago the Vatican solemnly announced that it would adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It is also a state with which 178 nations now have diplomatic relations, and most maintain permanent embassies to service their connections with the Vatican. Since 1984, when President Ronald Reagan dispatched William Wilson to the post, this corps of diplomats includes one from the United States. It is presently Ambassador Miguel Díaz, a Cuban-American liberation theologian appointed by President Barack Obama.

For its part, the Vatican has at its disposal a retinue of diplomats, called “nuncios,” stationed in countries around the world, and each one receives extensive training at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, founded under Pope Clement XI in 1701. According to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of April 1961, ambassadors of the Holy See are recognized as deans of the diplomatic corps in the countries where they are stationed. This honor may derive from the fact that the first such nuncio—to Venice—was sent in 1500, considerably before nation-states began to emerge.

A retired American intelligence officer once told me that the Vatican probably has the world’s most effective intelligence-gathering operation. But other than being the eyes and ears of the Church, exactly what, one might ask, are all these people in fact doing? What specific policies do they advocate? Do they have any effect? And perhaps above all, just how much influence, if any, does the Vatican actually wield in world affairs?

The Church’s goals are deeply embedded in a centuries-old tension between its political ambitions and its religious aspirations, a tension which continues today. And as Islam begins to encroach upon more and more of Catholicism’s traditional “territory,” the Vatican must strive to balance its commitment to spreading its message with its official policy of fraternal relations with other faiths. Its success (or failure) will affect us all, for with its more than 1 billion adherents and vast array of media outlets, hospitals and universities, the Catholic Church will inevitably exert at least some degree of influence on a wide spectrum of issues.

GIVEN THE long history of the Catholic Church, it should not be surprising that its leaders want it to nurture both a spiritual and a secular persona, or that the two are not always clearly distinguishable. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Church became, for centuries, the de facto political authority for most of Europe. Some popes were strong, others weak. They were frequently challenged by kings and emperors, and sometimes banished from Rome (once in a while by the very citizenry of “the city”). But they continued to play a role, often a decisive one, in secular affairs. Not only did Leo III crown Charlemagne, but Pius VII enthroned Napoléon (who, however, famously placed the crown on his own head).

The Church has never been reluctant to wield secular power, including for centuries an army, or to enlist allies to advance its objectives. The alliance of the pope and the king of France defeated the Cathars of Provence in the thirteenth century to the decided advantage of both throne and altar. The pontiff got rid of a troublesome heresy, and the king added a vast new domain to his realm. Nearly three hundred years later, the Church looked upon the gory subjugation of “New Spain” as a “spiritual conquest.” Soon after, some Jesuits suggested a similar approach to China: namely that it should be militarily subdued so that its people could be brought into the true Church. But the popes, preoccupied with other matters at the time (such as the Protestant Reformation), never acted on this bold proposal. One cannot help imagining today what might have happened if this ambitious scheme had been successfully executed, and what a difference it might have made in the following centuries of world history.

Image: Pullquote: Perhaps at few times in recent Vatican history has its religious agenda so overlapped with its secular-political one as it now does in relations between the Holy See and Islam.Essay Types: Essay