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God’s Secretary Of State

Pope Francis meets Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. The Vatican described the 40-minute meeting at Castro's residence as informal and familial, with an exchange of books. (Alex Castro/ AP)
Pope Francis meets Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. The Vatican described the 40-minute meeting at Castro's residence as informal and familial, with an exchange of books. (Alex Castro/ AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Told that the pope should be consulted on European affairs, Josef Stalin reportedly sneered, “How many divisions does the pope have?” Years later, papal military impotence doubtless cheered Protestant Americans who feared that, even sans divisions, the Vatican would push around the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy.

This week, long since mollified by JFK’s secular governance and hosting a pontiff who’s a global rock star, most Americans will warmly welcome Pope Francis as one of the world’s most important religious leaders. Fewer realize that, without armies or puppeteer strings on our president, Francis is also one of the globe’s most formidable diplomats, flexing the Vatican’s foreign policy muscle in a way unseen for at least a generation. “The New Roman Empire,” Time terms this holy diplomacy. It’s one imperial outreach even democracy lovers (and non-Catholics) should applaud.

Francis is also one of the globe’s most formidable diplomats, flexing the Vatican’s foreign policy muscle in a way unseen for at least a generation.

“The Pope is making the Holy See a player in the most pressing global issues in a way unseen since the early days of Pope John Paul II,” Time reports. (John Paul, of course, supported the anti-communist movement in his native Poland in the late 1970s and early 1980s, contributing to the ultimate extinction of the Soviet bloc.) The magazine corroborates its assertion with a litany of initiatives, starting with Francis’ well-reported nurturing of last year’s U.S.-Cuba rapprochement. Four months before the announcement of that thaw, the pope dispatched Havana’s cardinal to both President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, offering mediation to end the two nations’ standoff. The presidents in turn sent envoys to the Vatican, where the deal establishing diplomatic relations was worked out.

Of course, Francis also weighed in on the climate change debate with an encyclical calling for greenhouse gas curbs. The warming planet is a foreign policy issue as well as an environmental one; a U.N. conference later this year will seek international agreement on mitigation measures.

Elsewhere, the pontiff endorsed the Iran nuclear deal. (Indeed, the White House reportedly has asked for papal help in negotiating the freedom of three Americans jailed by Iranian authorities.) Francis called on Catholic institutions, the Vatican included, to help shelter the human avalanche of Middle East and Asian migrants pouring into Europe. In a matter of obvious concern to the church, he has made persecution of Christians in places like the Mideast a papacy policy motif.

Not all of Francis’ efforts succeed. Time reported that Vatican mediation of talks between Venezuela’s government and its opponents foundered last year. Still, the policies of the New Roman Empire beat those of the old one for siding with the angels. Anti-Christian violence in Muslim countries is a longstanding human rights problem. Climate change deniers sat on their hands when the pope wrote that greenhouse gases are “released mainly as a result of human activity,” but as Francis was echoing the general scientific consensus, many others welcomed his encyclical.

If Reagan could make nice with the Soviet Union, we can afford a change of tack off the Florida coast.

Foreign policy hawks, including Israel’s leadership, weren’t happy with his support for the Iran deal, while politicians like Sen. Marco Rubio cried sellout when Obama embraced the Castros. But the pro case for the Iran deal is stronger than the con, and it’s no secret that a half century-plus of stiff-arming Cuba has achieved nothing beyond indulging our dudgeon with its repressive regime. If Reagan could make nice with the Soviet Union, we can afford a change of tack off the Florida coast.

It may not always be so rosy. The Boston Globe’s John Allen reminds us of the frequent foreign policy strife between the U.S. and Vatican in the 1990s. For now, though, this pope is doing a hell, er, heck of a job as God’s diplomat.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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