2016-05-11 14:43:00

Card. Parolin defines diplomatic relations of the Holy See

(Vatican Radio) Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has just wrapped up a two day visit to Estonia, highlighting the value of bilateral relations between States. He is the highest ranking official from the Holy See to visit the region since Saint Pope John Paul II in 1993.

The Vatican Secretary of State on Wednesday addressed the University of Tartu on the precise meaning of the definition of the Holy See and the State’s  international relations.  

The Cardinal is taking part in an official visit to Estonia from 10 to 11 May in order to discuss bilateral relations, the migration crisis and the current situation in the Mediterranean. His visit also marks the 25th anniversary of the reintroduction of diplomatic relations between Estonia and the Holy See.  

During his lecture, the Cardinal touched on the significance of canon law as well as the international and diplomatic activities of the Holy See. He also spoke about the value of bilateral diplomatic activity and roles of diplomats to the Holy See.

Please find below the full text of Cardinal Parolin’s address:

The Holy See and International Relations

Address of His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin,

Secretary of State

University of Tartu, Estonia, 11 May 2016

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to be with you this afternoon in this prestigious University. Ever since its foundation as the Academia Dorpatensis in 1632 by King Gustavus Adolphus, it has been reputed for its high academic standards and achievements, and is today both a custodian of the culture of the Estonian people and one of the world’s leading research universities.

I have been invited to address you on the theme of the Holy See and international relations. In order to clarify matters, I propose to begin in a traditional way with a definitio terminorum. The term “Holy See” has a precise meaning in the Church’s canon law. In the strict sense, the Holy See or “Apostolic See” refers to the See of Peter and thus to the Pope, who is the Successor of Peter in that See. However, the term is more often used in a broader sense to refer not only to the Pope but also to the Secretariat of State and the other departments of the Roman Curia, which assist the Pope in the government of the Catholic Church (cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 361). The Holy See is considered a sovereign entity in international law. That said, its sovereignty is related not to a territory but to a person, namely the person of the Roman Pontiff, the Pope.

As a subject of international law, the Holy See engages in diplomatic activity. We often use the expression “Vatican diplomacy” or “Papal diplomacy” as useful short-hand expressions. It should, however, be noted that Vatican City State, which is a small independent territory around the Vatican hill in Rome, does not itself send and receive ambassadors and does not directly engage in diplomatic activity. Such activity is conducted by the Holy See, not Vatican City State, even though the latter is sovereign in its own right. Even when the Holy See was completely deprived of its own territory in the years between 1870 and 1929, it continued to send and receive ambassadors, sign international treaties and engage in international mediation, all of which are activities pertaining to sovereign entities. Thus, Vatican City State was set up by the Lateran treaty of 1929 not to establish the sovereignty of the Holy See but simply in order better to manifest and guarantee it.

Of course, it is true to say that the Holy See’s international activity, whether diplomatic or non-diplomatic, is ultimately the activity of the Pope himself. The Pope is the principal diplomatic actor of the Holy See. This is evident, for example, in the personal action of Pope John Paul II, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, and in the various initiatives of Pope Francis, which have heightened awareness about issues of concern to all humanity, such as care for the environment, the plight of refugees and migrants, and the overcoming of civil strife and warfare.

The Pope is assisted in his diplomatic activity by various structures of the Holy See, in particular, the Secretariat of State, Apostolic Nunciatures and Delegations in various countries and Permanent or Observer Missions to various international organizations. Naturally, he also relies on the cooperation and assistance of local episcopates, the Catholic faithful and people of good will of different faiths and none.

The Holy See engages in diplomatic activity at bilateral and multilateral levels. At bilateral level, the Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with no less than 180 States. In Europe, it has diplomatic relations with every State, without exception, and with the European Union. In these States, the Holy See is represented by an Apostolic Nuncio. As you know, the Holy See is represented in your country by His Excellency Archbishop Pedro López Quintana, who is also accredited to Lithuania and Latvia, and resides in Vilnius.

The Apostolic Nuncio has a dual role. On the one hand, he is the Pope’s representative to the local Church in a given country or in a number of countries simultaneously. As such, he has the duty of strengthening the bonds of unity and communion between the See of Peter and the local Catholic Church (cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 364). On the other hand, he represents the Pope to States and public authorities in accord with the norms of international law. In accordance with the Vienna Convention of 1961, the Apostolic Nuncio is considered to be the equivalent of an Ambassador. In various countries, he is also automatically the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps. He has the task of promoting and fostering relations between the Holy See and the authorities of the State or States to which he is accredited. In collaboration with the local Church, he also deals with questions concerning the relations between the Church and the State, including the drafting and implementation of concordats and other agreements of this type. For example, the Holy See and Estonia reached an Agreement on the juridical status of the Catholic Church in this country, which came into effect in 1999. This Agreement recognizes the Catholic Church in Estonia and gives her the freedom to carry out her mission in this country.

States which have established diplomatic relations with the Holy See are represented by an Ambassador, who may be resident in Rome, or in another country, where he may also be accredited as an Ambassador. Next week, I shall have the pleasure of meeting Estonia’s new Ambassador to the Holy See, His Excellency Mr Väino Reinert, who will present his credentials to Pope Francis on 19 May.

There are a number of States with which the Holy See does not yet have diplomatic relations; in these cases, the Holy See is represented, where possible, by an Apostolic Delegate, who, while having an essentially ecclesial mission, also maintains contacts with the civil authorities, although he is not an Ambassador in the strict sense.

While conducted in accordance with international law and practice, the Holy See’s diplomacy is atypical and sui generis. Bilateral relations between the Holy See and a given State differ from those between two States in a number of important respects. Unlike States, the Holy See does not pursue any political, commercial or military aims, and it is neutral in disputes between States. Unlike two States or countries, one of which is always foreign with respect to the other, the Catholic Church is never really foreign anywhere. Practically everywhere there are citizens of a given country who are also members of the Church. This is why the department of the Holy See which deals with relations with States is not referred to as a Ministry of Foreign or External Affairs. Furthermore, since both Church and State, in their respective spheres, work for the common good of the same people and the same community, they are not opposed to each other, at least in principle. This very fact naturally implies that in order to foster mutual understanding and cooperation there should be dialogue between the two sides, not only at local or national level, but also at the diplomatic level of institutional contacts between the Holy See, which includes the central organs of government of the Church, and individual States.

The Holy See has always taken to heart the great questions affecting humanity as a whole. For this reason, from the outset, it has been involved in the various international and regional multilateral organizations which came into being in the wake of the devastating impact of the Second World War. This involvement takes on various forms. In some cases, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Holy See is a full member and has a Permanent Representative, while in others, such as the United Nations Organization and the Council of Europe, it has observer status and is represented by a Permanent Observer. It also takes part regularly in the summits, conferences and other meetings of these organizations.

Every year, the Secretariat of State issues a publication entitled Le Saint-Siège et les Organisations internationales, which contains a list of all the international meetings and conferences in which the Holy See has taken part during the previous year. A perusal of this publication shows that the Holy See interests itself in a wide variety of questions, such as the promotion of peace, respect for humanitarian law in the case of conflict, disarmament, the peaceful use of nuclear energy, human rights, including the right to life and religious freedom, the care of migrants and refugees, integral human development, environmental protection, the protection of the cultural and artistic heritage of humanity, the provision of sufficient food resources, adequate health-care, education, and so on.

Regarding these questions, the Holy See does not offer a purely political, commercial or technical contribution. Instead, it approaches them from a moral and spiritual point of view, offering perspectives and insights which would otherwise not always be heard or taken into account, in the hope of overcoming inadequate or partial positions so as to promote the genuine good of all. In its contributions, the Holy See is guided, among other things, by the social teaching of the Church, which is based on four fundamental principles: the dignity of the human person, the common good, solidarity and subsidiarity. In his programmatic Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis synthesizes this approach: “In her dialogue with the State and with society, the Church does not have solutions for every particular issue. Together with the various sectors of society, she supports those programmes which best respond to the dignity of each person and the common good. In doing this, she proposes in a clear way the fundamental values of human life and convictions which can then find expression in political activity” (No. 241).

In the light of what I have stated up to now, I would like to consider some examples of the Holy See’s diplomatic engagement in Europe. Since the limited time available does not allow me to discuss the various issues in an exhaustive manner, I shall speak briefly about three issues which are of particular concern to the Holy See at this time: the future of the continent in the midst of the present crisis of values, the migration crisis and the situation in Ukraine.

Pope Francis has on various occasions addressed the question of the future of Europe amid the crisis of values currently afflicting it. On his visit to Strasbourg on 25 November 2014, he addressed both the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In his address to the latter, he emphasized that the pursuit of unity and peace through the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, which is the approach taken by the Council of Europe, requires constant reference to Europe’s rich patrimony of reflection on these matters.

To illustrate the point the Pope uses a striking image drawn from the twentieth-century Italian poet Clemente Robora, namely that of a poplar tree, “its branches reaching up to the sky, buffeted by the wind, while its trunk remains firmly planted on deep roots sinking into the earth”. The Pope continues: “Throughout its history, Europe has always reached for the heights, aiming at new and ambitious goals, driven by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, development, progress, peace and unity. But the advance of thought, culture, and scientific discovery is entirely due to the solidity of the trunk and the depth of the roots which nourish it. Once those roots are lost, the trunk slowly withers from within and the branches – once flourishing and erect – bow to the earth and fall. This is perhaps among the most baffling paradoxes for a narrowly scientific mentality: in order to progress towards the future we need the past, we need profound roots. We also need the courage not to flee from the present and its challenges. We need memory, courage, a sound and humane utopian vision.”

Robora notes that “the trunk sinks its roots where it is most true”. As the Pope explains, “the roots are nourished by truth, which is the sustenance, the vital lymph, of any society which would be truly free, human and fraternal”. Truth appeals to conscience, which is not to be confused with subjective arbitrariness or a form of conditioning. Rather, “conscience is capable of recognizing its own dignity and being open to the absolute; it thus gives rise to fundamental decisions guided by the pursuit of the good, for others and for one’s self; it is itself the locus of responsible freedom”.

Commitment to the pursuit of truth is necessary in order to arrive at an adequate conception of human rights, which cannot be reduced to expressions of merely individualist and subjectivist desires, but are derived from a correct understanding of the human person and human dignity, and are objective and universal. The Pope warns that an individualist conception of rights ultimately “leads to an effective lack of concern for others and favours that globalization of indifference born of selfishness, the result of a conception of man incapable of embracing the truth and living an authentic social dimension”. Europe needs to overcome this kind of individualism, which is cut off from “the nourishing roots on which the tree grows” and thus lead to “human impoverishment and cultural aridity”. As the Pope says, “we have a surfeit of unnecessary things, but we no longer have the capacity to build authentic human relationships marked by truth and mutual respect”.

Rather than surrender to pessimism, Pope Francis encourages Europe to recover its vigour, its idealism, its spirit of curiosity and enterprise, and above all its thirst for truth. Since the future of the continent depends on whether it does so, “Europe should reflect on whether its immense human, artistic, technical, social, political, economic and religious patrimony is simply an artefact of the past, or whether it is still capable of inspiring culture and displaying its treasures to mankind as a whole”.

Serious reflection on these issues should also assist Europe in dealing with the migration crisis currently facing it. This is the second issue I would like to discuss. Pope Francis, as you are well aware, has a deep concern for the plight of migrants and refugees forced to leave their homelands because of conflict, persecution and poverty, in order to find a better future in Europe. The Pope’s recent visit to the island of Lesvos was intended as a gesture of solidarity with those who have undertaken dangerous journeys towards the European mainland and as an appeal to the world to respond in a manner worthy of our common humanity.

Pope Francis is well aware of the complex nature of this crisis, as he clearly demonstrated in his address to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See on 11 January last. Recognizing that the migration crisis affects the whole world, not only Europe, the Pope addressed both its causes and possible solutions, while drawing attention to its human face. Among other things, he believes that much could be done to address the causes of migration by “rethinking entrenched habits and practices, beginning with issues involving the arms trade, the provision of raw materials and energy, investment, policies of financing and sustainable development, and even the grave scourge of corruption”. While acknowledging the concerns about Europe’s capacity to absorb the immense influx of migrants, the social and cultural consequences, the reshaping of certain regional geopolitical balances and security, exacerbated by the growing threat of international terrorism, His Holiness urges a humanitarian response, in keeping with Europe’s “humanistic spirit” and its great cultural and religious heritage, so as to find “the right balance between its twofold moral responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens and to ensure assistance and acceptance to migrants”. More broadly, there must be a fresh commitment to frank and respectful dialogue between countries of origin, transit and final destination, so as to identify new and sustainable solutions, bearing in mind that “migrations, more than ever before, will play a pivotal role in the future of our world, and our response can only be the fruit of a common effort respectful of human dignity and the rights of persons”.

My third and final example refers to the current situation in Ukraine. Recently, at the Regina Coeli on 3 April last, Pope Francis, who continues to be deeply concerned about the tragedy of those suffering from the consequences of violence in that country, announced a special collection, which was held in all churches throughout Europe on 24 April. This act of charity, he explained, was intended, in addition to alleviating material suffering, as an expression of the Pope’s “personal closeness and solidarity” and that of the entire Church, in the hope that it might help “to promote, without further delay, peace and respect for law in that land so afflicted”. 

Two days before the collection the Holy See’s Press Office released some information about the situation in Ukraine. The Holy See is particularly apprehensive about the worsening humanitarian outlook, because of the ongoing conflict and the extreme inflation that has drastically reduced purchasing power and has left over half a million people urgently in need of food. In addition, there are over one and a half million displaced persons within the country. In the areas most directly affected by the conflict, the most urgent needs are in the health care sector. Many children are unable to attend school, many are affected by grave forms of psychological trauma, due to the violence they have witnessed or experienced; some have even lost the ability to read and write.

The Catholic Church, though a minority in that country, is very active in responding to the needs of the population, although its resources are inadequate to meet the enormity of the task. To satisfy the humanitarian needs, especially in the most critical areas, the Holy See is preparing specific interventions for the benefit of all, without discriminating on the basis of religion or confession. Furthermore, through its diplomatic network, the Holy See continues to emphasize the importance of respecting international and humanitarian law and, in particular, the terms of the Minsk agreements, while encouraging all concerned to engage in a process of dialogue to overcome present difficulties and alleviate the suffering of the people. Given the gravity of the present situation, I myself shall travel to Ukraine next month in order to express the Holy Father’s solidarity with those who are suffering.

As you can see from the examples I have mentioned, the Holy See’s diplomatic activity has at its centre the human person, whose inalienable and transcendent dignity is ultimately based on the fact that, being created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-27), he or she is open to the transcendent. With this awareness, the Holy See is deeply interested in the good of humankind as a whole. To quote the memorable words used by Pope Paul VI to describe the mission of the Roman Pontiff at the United Nations General Assembly on 4 October 1965, the Holy See and the whole Catholic Church, inspired by the message of the Gospel, aim to serve humanity “with disinterestedness, humility and love”.

I thank you for your attention.


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