Vatican's Vaunted Diplomacy a No-Show; Moral Absolutes Trip Pope's Negotiators at U.N. Meeting in Cairo

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So Pope John Paul II will not be addressing the United Nations Oct. 20. His broken hip has mended more slowly than anticipated. It would be wrong to suggest that this illness is diplomatic. John Paul does not flinch from a challenge. But after the fiasco of the Cairo, Egypt, conference on population and development, the cancellation of the U.N. visit is perhaps a wise move.

An old chestnut says Vatican diplomacy is "the finest in the world." It has also been called "a hardy legend in need of demolition." Before he fell into the arms of the charismatic movement, Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens held that the main function of Vatican diplomats was to act as spies on the local bishops.

Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, in a classic lecture to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy claimed in 1951 that the church "has excelled all secular states in its diplomatic training by creating this institute."

The Vatican school for diplomats, he said, "demonstrates a wisdom and an insight that others imitate today in seeking to rival her." Tell that to the Quai d'Orsay.

Msgr. Alberto Giovannetti, Vatican representative to the United Nations at the time of Paul VI's 1965 visit, made similar boasts. While secular diplomats rarely got out of the round of cocktail parties in the capital city, he told NCR, thanks to the network of parish priests Vatican diplomats knew what was happening at the grassroots.

Maybe. But after Cairo, such extravagant claims cut little ice. Yet the tradition was not wholly false and it lasted until the retirement of Cardinal Agostino Casaroli as secretary of state in December 1990. Pope John Paul, consciously or not, has broken with the ageold tradition of Vatican diplomacy. In this, as in other respects, he is untraditional.

The Vatican or -- to give it its proper title in this context -- the Holy See enters the international stage thanks to the 109 acres of territory it was conceded by the Lateran Pacts of 1929. This was all that was left of the Papal States, acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness in the fifth century and finally relinquished when Italy was united in 1870.

Even between 1870 and 1929, when the state came into being thanks to the Lateran Pacts, the Holy See continued to receive and send diplomatic representatives. This proves that its network of diplomatic relations does not depend on the existence of the minuscule Vatican City State.

True, it was the Vatican state's membership in the Universal Postal Union and the International Telecommunications Union that blazed the trail into the United Nations. But this is a technical juridical point.

In 1957, the UPU and the ITU were invited to conferences of the United Nations. If the papal delegates represented the Vatican state, their presence would have stressed the pope's temporal sovereignty.

This is the least important pontifical role. Indeed, compared with his role as spiritual leader of the Catholic church, as a temporal sovereign the pope is derisory.

The toy soldiers of the Swiss Guard -- ex-Italian cops do the real security work -- the railway station from which no passengers depart, the post office and stamps, museums and radio station broadcasting in 31 languages (including Esperanto) are all token memories of the Papal States.

The 1957 agreement between the Holy See and the United Nations stated that "the (Vatican) Secretariat of State wishes to make it clear that the said relations should be understood as being established between the United Nations and the Holy See." Further: "Similarly, it is the Holy See that is represented by the delegations accredited by the Secretariat of State to the different sessions of the various organs of the United Nations." Hence, The Tablet was not strictly accurate in saying in an editorial on Cairo that "the Vatican is inserted into the international community because it is a state; once there, it behaves like a church" (Sept. …