BONO, THE ROCK STAR of the Irish band U2, is known for storytelling in his lyrics. Through his charities, he works with the Catholic Church and others to reduce global poverty and debt. He also offers a recurring critique of the Church: you folks do good work, yet you’re terrible at telling your story.
He’s right, and Victor Gaetan’s book, God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon, explains why: Vatican diplomats commit to humility and discretion. Being humble about the work, not bragging about successes, is not just pious religious claptrap, it’s a shrewd operating principle. In zones of war and poverty, people’s agency has been ripped from them. Restoring peace and rebuilding communities depend on restoring agency and respect. Establishing the right relationships, with processes driven by the local actors, builds a more just and sustainable peace over the long haul. Pope Francis and Catholic peacebuilders can get a lot done if they do not “claim the credit.”
Gaetan’s book tells the story that Pope Francis and Holy See diplomats themselves do not in a combination of accessible, novel-like prose and meticulous research (including 117 pages of endnotes). The award-winning journalist has reported on Vatican diplomacy for over 20 years, and in God’s Diplomats he tells all. The book reads at points like a thriller, whether the author is recounting Pope Francis’s foray into an active war zone in the Central African Republic or the visit of Archbishop Caccia, a seasoned diplomat of the Holy See, to pay respects to wounded Muslim victims of Daesh (ISIS) terrorist attacks in Lebanon.
Most books on this topic are written by “the other team” — former government officials who have represented the United States as ambassadors to the Holy See. No matter the administration or political party they represent, their memoirs follow a common arc: claim the successes, explain away the losses, sometimes settle scores, and often paint the Holy See and the Catholic Church somewhat less favorably than the sharp US government official, who is, after all, the hero of the story. From this US government’s point of view, the Church talking with “rogue states,” like North Korea and Iran, is naïve or misguided. But as the world’s oldest diplomatic corps, with over 2,000 years of experience as a global network, the Vatican and its officials prefer a different approach. They engage with everyone, on all sides, and do not write memoirs.
Pope Francis represents both one of the world’s largest religions and its smallest sovereign state, with 1.3 billion Catholics spread across 193 countries as well as the 49-hectare territory of Vatican City State itself. The Holy See has no army or military might. Its budget comes largely from tourist revenue. Yet without guns and money, Holy See diplomats achieve successes against great odds, and sometimes bucking against the world’s superpower, the United States. Why?
Gaetan takes us through Vatican Diplomacy 101 in part one, explaining how diplomats are educated and how they operate. Vatican diplomats are pastors first, trained in listening and engaging with even the worst sinners and sworn to secrecy in the confessional. This gives them some useful skills for negotiating, as when Pope Francis helped to improve US relations with Cuba.
The book provides a great service in documenting how the Church has moved away from just war tradition to just peace: “Avoid creating winners and losers. Remain impartial in the face of conflict. Refrain from partisan politics. Pursue dialogue with everyone.” With Catholics living on all sides of conflicts, the Church does not seek short-term “winner takes all” solutions, but takes the long view, seeking common ground and practical, sustainable peace. That’s how Pope John XXIII was able to help de-escalate and defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis between Kennedy and Khrushchev, the closest the United States and the USSR ever came to nuclear war. The rule to walk the talk, showing faith through charity, is key to understanding how Church diplomats build trust and relationships around the world. For example, by providing medical assistance in North Korea and assistance to earthquake victims in Iran, the Church engages with what the US considers “pariah” regimes in order to assist the suffering people who happen to live under those inhospitable governments. The Catholic Church is the world’s largest non-governmental provider of education and health care; its charities operate around the world. What the diplomatic corps lacks in size it makes up for in flexibility, integrating and working alongside the vast networks of local churches, charities, religious orders, and missionaries.
This is how the Church operationalizes the rule to “incarnate diplomacy through a culture of encounter.” Taking the long view gives Vatican diplomats the freedom to “start processes (that God can finish)”: “Initiate encounters with humility and respect. Proceed through concrete steps and gestures. Allow mutual respect to grow step by step. Find common ground and build agreement from that point.”
In Argentina, Pope Francis had priests literally tend to sheep, using ancient monastic practices of self-sufficiency and farm work to ensure humility so that priests did not become “little princes,” but instead understood the toils of the people they served.
In part two, Gaetan shows how these rules are implemented in war zones from Ukraine to Kenya, the Middle East, South Sudan, and Colombia. A downside of this geographic approach is that it misses some of Pope Francis and the Holy See’s most effective diplomacy on cross-cutting global issues, from combating climate change, environmental degradation, and human trafficking, to advancing humanitarian arms control, including the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
The book is at its most compelling in describing the heroic work of local Church actors to build peace in Colombia’s decades-old civil conflict. When one Catholic human rights defender, Alma Rosa Jaramillo, was brutally murdered by violent paramilitary mercenaries and her body dismembered as a warning to deter others, it had the opposite effect. Another woman immediately volunteered to take her place, demonstrating the resilience of religious peacebuilding.
God’s Diplomats delivers on the first two parts of its subtitle, describing the Vatican diplomacy and the particular attributes Pope Francis brings to it. As a journalist, Gaetan also criticizes Church efforts, detailing failures in Kenya when the Church itself split along ethnic lines. He also paints disgraced former cardinal Theodore McCarrick (not a member of the diplomatic corps) as “an albatross,” a self-promoting global ambulance chaser, seeking to insert himself artificially into international crises.
Some of the book’s biggest bombshells come in addressing the last part of the subtitle (“America’s Armageddon”), about the conflicts between a war-making United States and a peace-building Vatican. Gaetan asks, for example: where did the well-coordinated smear campaign against Pope Francis come from? He traces the source of the false stories (for instance, those claiming that the young Jorge Bergoglio was cozy with the Argentine military regime during Argentina’s Dirty War) to Horacio Verbitsky, a double agent paid by the CIA, and who was himself a supporter of the Argentine military regime. Within one hour of Pope Francis’s election, Verbitsky’s “big lie” was in the headlines.
Gaetan also questions why Nagasaki, the center of Catholicism in Asia, was targeted for the atomic bomb in 1945. The city was not on the original target list, but added to the list at the last minute, without President Truman’s knowledge or consent. Few in the United States realize this, but Gaetan is on solid historical ground here. However, he then conjectures beyond the historical evidence, wondering why the Catholic Church in Nagasaki was hit during the atomic attack despite not being a military target. Was that not, he speculates, a form of payback for the Church establishing diplomatic relations with Japan in 1941, against US objections? In a volume filled with citations, he does not cite any source here.
Gaetan is on firmer ground in describing Pope John Paul II’s unsuccessful efforts to urge President George W. Bush not to invade Iraq. Pope John Paul II warned that a US invasion would destabilize the region, incite extremists, and generate even worse violence, which would harm civilians and lead to the decimation of ancient Christian communities in the lands where Christianity first began. President Bush rebuffed him, and, tragically, all those warnings came true.
Pope Francis and Vatican diplomacy are not always successful. But, as Gaetan reports, they are not deterred. God works on long timelines.