Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Church in World Politics

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Church in World Politics

Article excerpt

The Merton Lecture at Columbia University honors Thomas Merton, the monk-poet best remembered for The Seven Storey Mountain, the account of his discovery of Christ and the Church. This year the Merton Lecture was given by Archbishop Celestino Migliore, who is the Holy see's representative, or nuncio, to the United Nations. His lecture is titled "The Catholic Church and International Politics in the Twenty-First Century." Migliore noted that the Holy See currently has formally accredited diplomatic representation with 174 of the 191 member states of the UN, and underscored that such representation "personifies the government of the pope." Therein lies an interesting little story.

When the UN was formed after World War II, a number of states had the status of "permanent observer." One by one they became member states until only Switzerland and the Holy See were left. When Switzerland became a member state, there was fear in Rome that, as the only remaining permanent observer, the Holy See might be in a weakened position. Indeed, an unsuccessful effort was made, led by pro-abortion groups in the U.S., to terminate the Holy See's representation at the U.N. In Rome, consideration was given to changing the relationship by having the tiny Vatican City become a member state. After widespread consultation, that idea was rejected, and last July the Holy See and the UN refined and ratified the now unique status as permanent observer.

This arrangement, the Archbishop noted, is in continuity with the beginnings of the Holy See's diplomatic activity when, in the fourth century, the imperial government was moved to Constantinople and it was necessary for the pope to protect the interests of the Church by having a nuntius, or messenger, at the imperial court. So today the nuncios represent the Holy See, meaning the pope, and not Vatican City, which is, as Migliore says, simply "a base from which to exercise his sovereignty over the Catholic Church, independent and autonomous of any earthly authority." The diplomatic activity has been growing. When John Paul II became pope in 1978, the Holy See was accredited to only eighty states. The purpose of such diplomacy is, of course, to represent the interests of the Catholic Church in various countries, but also, increasingly, to be an advocate for human rights-most particularly, for religious freedom for all believers, Rome being rightly convinced that religious freedom is the most important foundation of all human, civil, and political rights.

Ambitious Goals

Although lacking economic or military power, Migliore notes, the Holy See is energetically engaged in helping to resolve problems among nations and working for international "solidarity." He recalled Stalin's scornful question, "How many divisions does the Pope have?" The answer was given decades later when, beginning with Poland, the moral authority of John Paul II was crucial to the dismantling of what Ronald Reagan called "the evil empire." Today, Migliore said, stealing a phrase from George W. Bush, "faith-based" diplomacy is more and more important in a world in which religion and morality are increasingly assertive in politics among nations. He also describes this as "track-two diplomacy," in which the Holy See seeks to guide the development of globalization and work against the resort to war.

Market economics and globalization are facts of life; the question is what this means for the peoples of the world, and especially the millions upon millions who are poor. Migliore said: "In the early 1990s, the Pope affirmed in his encyclical Centesimus Annus that, after the fall of communism, it was not enough to say that the opposite system, capitalism, had won and had proven itself to be a better system. Instead, John Paul expressed the hope that capitalism could reform itself and urged that it be remodeled into a socio-economic market based on an ethical-political synthesis of human rights and duties. He proposed a new, universal social contract based on a strong ethic of solidarity. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.