Vatican Embassy must not be extension of Church-State relations

Govt. must decide what it wants of ties with the Vatican

The Irish Embassy to the Vatican will re-open shortly. It will, according to the Government, be a modest one-person diplomatic mission with a smaller residence and embassy. Speaking with Vatican officials in Rome last week there is quiet satisfaction that the Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore reversed his original ill-judged decision. There is also a realisation that the Government will have to think seriously about what it wants from diplomatic relations with the Vatican is the relationship is to be fruitful. The person chosen to represent Ireland at the Holy See will also be crucial. All the indications are that the Government will tap a career diplomat from the Department of Foreign Affairs. This is wise: Britain contemplated making a political appointment to the Vatican a few years ago (people like former Conservative ministers Ann Widdecombe and Chris Patten were mentioned) but later decided against this course of action.

Personal lenses

There has been talk here that former President Mary McAleese would be a good ambassador to the Vatican. The problem with a political appointment is that relations between the Holy See and the other state are always filtered through personal political and ideological lenses. A diplomatic appointee ensures that diplomacy remains central.

Almost 180 countries have full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. This is not a diplomatic relationship with the Catholic Church, as critics of the Vatican frequently characterise the relations, but with a sovereign entity with a base in every corner of the globe and.

Following Irish independence there was a fervent desire among Free State politicians to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See (the bishops of the day were much less enthusiastic worrying it would undermine their influence). The problem was that from day one the relationship was never thought through. Ireland established relations with the Vatican largely based on sentiment and tradition. Little changed during the years as the Embassy to the Vatican was often viewed as an appropriate pre-retirement posting for a diplomat who had served his or her country well.

Soft power

The danger is that the reopened Embassy to the Holy See is seen merely as an extension of Church-State relations. The Holy See is an influential global centre of what is known diplomatically as ‘soft power’. The Holy See doesn’t have an army nor does it have selfish strategic interests in issues like trade. When it comes to issues like overseas development, human rights and interreligious/cultural dialogue the Irish Government shares many values in common with the Holy See. The reopened embassy can help give focus to this cooperation.

The Holy See increasingly emerges as a global voice for peace and dialogue in the midst of war in Syria and other troubled parts of the world and rising tensions in Eastern Europe. Also, on the need to build a fairer world and create a more equal distribution of resources, the Holy See stands as a voice for some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

Global impact

Britain’s Ambassador to the Holy See Nigel Baker recently observed that the Vatican’s “global impact is extensive, its voice respected, and its influence real”.

This should be the focus for the incoming Irish ambassador to the Vatican. The relationship between Ireland and the Holy See is doomed to failure if it becomes an extension of Church-State relations at home, nor should it fluctuate based on tensions or disputes at home on controversial issues like abortion and gay marriage.

A Vatican ambassador has to manage a complex web of relation which span his or her own Government, the Holy See and the Church in his or her home country. Ultimately, however, he or she must keep to the fore the fact that it is a relationship between two states that he is engaged in and avoid the temptation to see his or her role as negotiating a complex Church-State dialogue.