Pope Francis and the Challenges of Inter-Civilization Diplomacy – an interview with Boris Vukićević, by Leonardo C. Bandarra

The Roman Catholic Church is regarded as one of the eldest still-operational institutions worldwide, as well as one of the most relevant ones, for it guides the faith of a flock of more than one billion believers. It heralds a rich history of endurance over time and over the jeopardy posed by powerful empires, such as Napoleonic France and the Soviet Union. In recent years, this institution has been required to face a major transformation of its public image, in order to adapt itself to an ever-more hectic international environment, which requires religious behemoths to engage themselves in inter-civilization and inter-religious dialogue.

Since 2013, this process of renovation has been conducted by Pope Francis, who is not only the first Latin-American and Jesuit bishop to sit in the throne of Saint Peter, but also a truly charismatic world-class leader. The foremost challenges to be overcome by Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s pontifical diplomacy is the subject of the article Pope Francis and the Challenges of Inter-Civilization Diplomacy, which was written by professor Boris Vukićević, of the University of Montenegro, and which is available in the issue 2/2015 of the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional – RBPI .

About his analysis and his own perspectives about this subject, professor Vukićević has kindly conceded an interview to Leonardo C. L. A. Bandarra, who is a member of the editorial team of the RBPI.

1.      In your article, you describe the Holy See as being both a domestic and an international player, especially since the second half of the 20th century, when its cardinalate became more diversified. In your own opinion, what are the most significant impacts of this unique characteristic when analyzing the modus operandi of the Church’s diplomacy?

Boris Vukićević: One of the facts that make the Holy See a unique subject of international relations is that in other countries it is both a domestic and a foreign player. It is emphasized by naming of the Holy See’s foreign office the Section for Relations with the States, without using terms such as ‘foreign’ or ‘external’. That way, the Holy See underlines that it belongs to all countries – whole mankind – and, at the same time, that it doesn’t belong to a single one of them. Not only that the Holy See has very well developed diplomatic service, but it is helped by its priesthood and by many laymen attached to them in different ways. That makes the Holy See’s diplomacy much better positioned and informed than most of the other foreign services. It also gives it a legitimate role in decision making of other countries – people who represent the Catholic Church are also citizens of their own countries, sometimes very well positioned in their societies, and that creates a voice for the Holy See in decision making regarding some issues it finds important.

While other players have their influence in other subjects’ affairs, it is rarely channeled in such a functional way as in the case of the Holy See. Of course, it may backfire, as sometimes problem regarding Church may influence diplomacy, as it was the case with Ireland few years ago. Position of foreign diplomats to the Holy See, who are spared from most of consular affairs, and from dealing with most of the financial and military issues, is also special because Vatican is a forum of plentitude of valuable information on global affairs – that is the result of that special role of the papal diplomacy.

2.      You concisely reaccess the legacy of Benedict XVI, who, by resigning, has become an unexpectedly reformist pope, even though his pontificate was branded by many specialists as an epitome of conservatism. In your opinion, what are the most relevant and the thorniest heritage he leaves to his successor?

While seen as the most conservative pope since Pius XII, Benedict XVI’s last move as a pope, his resignation, became something that may paradoxically define his papacy. I believe that he was fully aware of importance of that move and it certainly helped his successor to make courageous and resolute decisions from the very beginning of his own pontificate. Apart from it, Benedict XVI left a mixed bag legacy to Francis. The problems actually amounted even before his election in 2005, but the public became finally aware of variety of scandals only during Benedict’s papacy. Although he adopted transparency in abuse matters, there was a sense that he lacked strength to cope the amounting problems. That brings us to the core of the problem – the labyrinthine way of functioning of Vatican that made not only the sexual abuse scandals concealed for a long time, but also many others – like corruption in the financial dealings of the Holy See.

While it is systematic problem that did not come out of nowhere during Benedict’s eight year on the seat of Saint Peter, it was emphasized and taken out of control during his reign, thus making it a burning issue for his successor. On the other hand, Benedict XVI improved relations with the Orthodox Church (e.g. Ravenna Declaration of 2007) and made easier for Francis to continue the process of rapprochement between the Western and Eastern Church. He was sensitive in regard to Jews because of his German origin but basically continued more tolerant policy of his post-Vatican II predecessors. Finally, in regard to Islam, he made the infamous Regensburg address but also had the first, very important meeting with Saudi King. Overall, Benedict XVI’s pontificate seems to confirm that intellectualism is less needed in our age than popularity. While Benedict is probably one of the greatest intellectuals on the papal throne in modern era, his persona was not up to era of mass media. That is something I believe both the College of Cardinals and Cardinal Bergoglio understood. He is continuing the mission of Benedict where it is needed, while pushing with much needed transparency and openness that lacked in the previous decades.

3.      As you emphasized, unlike Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Francis is a charismatic leader. In your article, you even aptly compare him with the erstwhile Bishops of Rome John XXIII and John Paul I. Which impacts do you believe this charisma may have on the Vatican’s approach towards other religions?

Having a charismatic leader is important, particularly today in the era of mass communications and social networks. As I said, Vatican needed a pope who would be less intellectually oriented and more oriented towards ordinary people. In that sense, Cardinal Bergoglio is a perfect choice. His charisma may help the inter-religious dialogue in two ways. First, his popularity gave new, much needed, breath of fresh air to the Catholic Church, and makes him less prone to the critique – he can make bolder decisions, and it actually became expected from him to make unaccepted and brave decisions.

Thus, he can move the dialogue further while using popularity and authority supported by his charisma which would make it more acceptable to his followers. Also, his mega-star status makes him more respected and acceptable to followers of other faiths, somewhat in the same way, for example, Pope John XXIII was respected by the Soviets. Pope Francis is seen by many, disregarding of their religion, as a voice of the poor, someone who became a world leader who stands for a better and more equitable world, not only a one-faith promoter. That certainly helps in his approach towards other religions, although many other factors and unexpected events may limit the range of his interfaith approach.

4.      Among the utmost challenges you allude in your paper, you pessimistically highlight the Church’s policy for the Middle East and the dialogue with the Muslim world. Besides being the location of the Holy Land, why is this region so pivotal for the pontifical diplomacy?

Besides, as you said, the fact that the Holy Land is in the Middle East, which is something that makes it always highly positioned on the agenda of the Holy See’s foreign policy, this very complex region is important for other reasons as well. It is hard to discuss the inter-religious dialogue of the Holy See without having in mind its relations with the Middle Eastern countries – dialogue with Jews is inseparable from relations with the State of Israel, as the only Jewish state in the world, and some of the leading countries of Muslim world, each one in their own way – Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia – are situated in the wider MENA ( Middle East and North Africa) region. Among the first visits of Pope Frances were visits to Israel and Palestinian territories and to Turkey, proving the region’s high importance in papal diplomacy. On the other hand, the countries in the region see the Holy See as an important player – Iran, for example, has one of the largest embassies to the Holy See.

One more important reason is the fact that Christians do not represent majority in any country of the Middle East, and the major test of inter-religious tolerance is solving the issue of their status, particularly in some of the war-torn countries. Pope Francis called attention on different occasions to the fate of persecuted Christians, particularly in the region of the Middle East. Status of Christians in the region, maybe their very survival, would be present for years to come, and would remain important test for papal diplomacy.

Read the article:

VUKIĆEVIĆ, BORIS. (2015). Pope Francis and the challenges of inter-civilization diplomacy. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 58(2), 65-79.

BORIS VUKIĆEVIĆ is a professor at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Montenegro, Podgorica, Montenegro (obala@t-com.me);
Leonardo Carvalho L. A. Bandarra, member of the editorial team of Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional – RBPI, is a graduate student at the Institute of International Relations of the University of Brasilia- UnB.
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Mundorama. "Pope Francis and the Challenges of Inter-Civilization Diplomacy – an interview with Boris Vukićević, by Leonardo C. Bandarra". Mundorama - Revista de Divulgação Científica em Relações Internacionais, [acessado em 18/01/2016]. Disponível em: <http://www.mundorama.net/2016/01/18/pope-francis-and-the-challenges-of-inter-civilization-diplomacy-an-interview-with-boris-vukicevic-by-leonardo-c-bandarra/>.

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