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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVIII, No. 4
Christmastide 2013-2014

In Pursuit of Peace: Diplomacy and the Holy See

by Ronald J. Rychlak

Following is Dr. Rychlak’s address to the Thomas More Society in St. Louis given September 9, 2013. It appears here with his kind permission.

Thank you for inviting me here today. I am happy to be here to discuss the role of lawyers, lawmakers, and the diplomacy of the Holy See in the quest for peace.

According to Pope Paul VI, diplomacy is “the art of creating and maintaining international order, that is to say peace, not by means of force or the balancing of material interests, but by way of open and responsible settlements.”

Robert Frost said “A diplomat always remembers your birthday, but never remembers your age.”

All attorneys — at least all good ones — engage in diplomacy on one scale or another.  Have you ever had someone say to you: “young Suzy is going to be a great lawyer; she argues so well!”?  That’s a common misconception.  The ability to argue is not the marker of a good attorney; the best lawyers negotiate. They help parties reach accord. That is the ability most important to lawyers, and that is also a form of diplomacy. 

Whether it is a matter of international disagreement or more common domestic dispute, we’re not talking about a football or basketball game. The best victories are those where all parties feel that they have gained something — where everyone is happy.

Of course, the threat of litigation often lies behind the negotiations in which attorneys commonly take part. A serious threat — the threat of war — sometimes lies behind diplomatic work. Please rest assured that your peace and security has never relied upon my limited diplomatic skills. The Holy See has, however, often played a very important role in preserving world peace.

Perhaps I should first explain that “The Holy See” is the universal government of the Catholic Church. It operates from the Vatican City State, a sovereign, independent territory, but the Holy See acts and speaks for the whole Catholic Church. 

The Catholic Church has over 1.1 billion adherents (17.5% of the world’s population).  The Vatican — or the Vatican City State — is much smaller. It covers only about 108 acres.  The Vatican’s population consists primarily of employees of the Holy See.  Once, Pope John XXIII was asked how many people work in the Vatican. He said “about half of them.”

If you think about it, when the president speaks, the world may listen, but he is really speaking to American citizens. When the pope speaks, everyone may listen, but he is not addressing the relative handful of people who live and work in Vatican City.  He is addressing Catholics worldwide, and that entity — the Holy See — is the one that has a Permanent Observer at the United Nations.

The Holy See is the oldest continuing international organization in the world today. The Holy See’s Secretary of State office was established in 1486, and that is also when the first permanent representatives were established — in Venice, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and France. Today, the Holy See has a highly respected diplomatic corps, and a well-established diplomatic viewpoint. If you doubt the importance of the Holy See to international relations, Pope John Paul II’s funeral brought together the single largest gathering of heads of state in world history.

The Holy See’s diplomatic prowess was tested severely during the 20th century. In 1917, Pope Benedict XV sent the future Pope Pius XII to Germany in an effort to bring the First World War to an end. The future pope presented a peace plan to the leaders of Germany. He then settled in Munich (later Berlin) as the papal representative. He was soon a common fixture about town, distributing food and other necessities to those who were suffering.  He also helped tens of thousands of prisoners of war and other displaced persons return home.

Pope Pius XI believed in assuring human rights and protecting the Church with diplomatic agreements (concordats) instead of political parties that were sometimes corrupted by local influence. As such, during his papacy the Holy See reached agreements with dozens of nations, including France, Italy, and Germany. 

World War II obviously presented great difficulties to the Church. Not only were there terrible human rights abuses all around, but the Church itself was a victim.  If we take generally accepted numbers, about three million Catholics died in the Holocaust. Twenty-five hundred Catholic priests died at Dachau alone. Churches were closed, and church property was confiscated not only by the Nazis but also by the Soviets.  Across the continent, those in pain and those in harm’s way looked to the Vatican for aid, and the Catholic Church responded in a multi-layered way, with diplomacy as a cornerstone.

Just recently I was asked to write a foreword to a book about Catholic bishops in Europe during WWII. Reading over the manuscript, I was struck by how often these religious leaders carried out diplomatic missions.  They arranged for safe passage of Jews and others; obtained visas from sometimes reluctant nations; shipped food to those in hiding; negotiated with occupying forces, sometimes obtaining a level of relief; provided baptismal certificates that Jews would show to the Nazis to avoid persecution (future John XXIII was particularly known for doing this as a papal representative in Turkey); and more.

Pius himself was involved in some particularly difficult negotiations. Early in the war, disgruntled Germans decided to oust Hitler, but the reaction by other nations was a serious concern. If the conspirators were to stage a revolt the British and French might take military advantage of it, occupy Germany, and mete out harsh justice to the German people even though they had deposed Hitler.  It was therefore necessary to reach an understanding with the Allies.

Pope Pius XII was the only leader of a neutral government who was trusted by the German resistance.  They recruited Dr. Josef Müller, a leading Munich lawyer and a devout Catholic, to travel to the Vatican to ask the pope to broker a peace agreement between Britain and the anti-Nazi Germans.  Although he was concerned about breaching neutrality, Pius said that “the German opposition must be heard in Britain,” and the voice would be his.  According to Müller, Pius said “his conscience not only allows but obliged him to offer his life and the Church for peace.” 

Over the course of several months, the pope relayed messages between Müller and the British Minister to the Holy See. On several occasions Müller also brought messages to Pius concerning German military plans and movements. Pius forwarded these warnings to the threatened governments. As others have noted, “Never in all history had a pope engaged so delicately in a conspiracy to overthrow a tyrant by force.” 

In his autobiography, Müller wrote that it was obvious “how dearly the Holy Father wished to restore a Germany of law, order and peace, which ceased to be the nightmare of its neighbors — a Germany without Hitler.” 

When Pius sent open telegrams to leaders of nations that had been recently overrun by the Germans, not only was Hitler outraged, but also Mussolini and Stalin too.  Learning of the pope’s cooperation with the Allies, Stalin (who at that time had a working arrangement with Hitler) reportedly said: “How many battalions does the pope have?” When word got to him, the pope reportedly replied: “Tell my brother Joseph that he will meet our troops in heaven.”

In July 1943 the Italians overthrew Mussolini.  Hitler heard of this over the radio. He was furious with the pope, whom he thought had a hand in it.  Rome was not stormed by Panzer divisions, and the Vatican was never invaded, but Hitler did send his troops into Rome.  They took the city after just two days of fighting.

Upwards of 60,000 German soldiers entered Rome.  A white line on the ground separated occupied Rome from neutral Vatican City. On one side of that line, German soldiers carried their machine guns. On the other side, the Vatican’s Swiss Guards stood at attention with their largely decorative pikes. 

On September 27, S.S. officials summoned representatives of Rome’s Jewish community and demanded 50 kilograms of gold (or the equivalent in dollars or sterling) within 36 hours. Israel Zolli, the chief rabbi of Rome, went to the Vatican to ask for a loan of gold so that the ransom could be paid.  Pius XII promised as much as was needed for as long as it was needed.  Following the war, Rabbi Zolli converted to Catholicism, and he adopted the Christian name Eugenio to honor the man who had done so much to protect others during the war.

Unfortunately, the ransom paid to the Germans merely bought a bit of time. On Saturday October 16, the Gestapo rounded up about 2,000 Jews (having received an order from Berlin to get 8,000). Pius used three different routes to make diplomatic protests, including having the Cardinal Secretary of State demand of the German Ambassador that the Germans “stop these arrests at once.”  He was successful in obtaining release of about half of those arrested.  Unfortunately, of the rest only a relative handful survived the war. 

At the post-war trials at Nuremberg, German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop testified that he had a “whole deskfull” of diplomatic protests that had been filed by the Holy See. Many of them related to unjust treatment of Jews.

Was this approach effective? Pinchas E. Lapide, the Israeli consul in Italy, spent six months studying the archives at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust authority.  He concluded that “The Catholic Church saved more Jewish lives during the war than all other churches, religious institutions and rescue organizations put together.”

The Chief Rabbi of Denmark said that if the pope had been more confrontational — less of a diplomat — “Hitler would have probably massacred more than six million Jews and perhaps ten times ten million Catholics.”

One of my favorite stories about this era involves US Undersecretary of State Robert Murphy.  He had been a diplomat in Germany during the mid-1920s, at the same time that Pius XII had been there as a papal representative.  When they met after the war, Murphy reminisced about how they both had reported to their governments that Hitler would never amount to anything.  In response, the pope smiled, raised a finger, and joked: “Remember, back then I was not infallible.”

During the Cold War, the Holy See and the Soviet Union had a very difficult time. Catholic leaders in the new areas of Soviet control were suppressed. Bishops and cardinals were given show trials and sent to prisons in Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Eventually, the Soviets engaged in covert activities to undermine the papacy itself by promoting the slander of Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope.”  That outrageous lie continues today as one of the most significant weapons against the Catholic Church. 

Despite the slings and arrows directed against it, the Vatican continued to play a crucial role in assuring peace. In October 1962 American spy planes discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba, only minutes away from the United States. President John F. Kennedy insisted they be removed. When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev ignored his ultimatum, JFK set up a blockade. Millions watched the showdown on TV — the Russian ships approaching Cuba, the US blockade standing firm and ready.

Behind the scenes, Vatican diplomacy was at work. On October 23, JFK sent a message to Rome.  The next day, Pope John XXIII sent a message to the Kremlin. In part it read, “I beg heads of state not to remain insensitive to the cry of humanity: peace, peace. Let them do all that is in their power to save peace; in this way they will avoid the horrors of a war, the appalling consequences of which no one could predict. Let them continue to negotiate….”

This created a path to peace.  John’s message appeared on October 26 in Pravda, the official Communist newspaper, under the headline: “We beg all rulers not to be deaf to the cry of humanity.” The pope had given Khrushchev a way out. By withdrawing he would be known as a man of peace. Two days later, Khrushchev, an atheist who was in the middle of a propaganda war with the Vatican, agreed to withdraw the missiles.

Of course, Blessed Pope John Paul II used the power of his office and played a very significant role in bringing down the Soviet Union. George Weigel has written an amazing account of John Paul’s first trip back to Poland. It was 1979 — nine days that changed the world.

The pope never uttered a word that might lead directly to a confrontation between Church and state, between the party and Christian believers. But through him the Church demanded respect for human rights as well as for Christian values. Poland’s puppet leader trembled in the presence of the late pope.  It was not due to any kind of fear of military action; it was about moral authority and the strength of the truth. It was Vatican diplomacy.

Pope Benedict XVI recently said:

Those who know how to kneel before the Eucharist, those who receive the body of Christ, cannot fail to be attentive, in the unfolding of the day, to situations unworthy of man and know firsthand how to bend over the needy, how to break bread with the hungry, how to share water with the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned.

That is why the Holy See engages in diplomacy.

As you know, Pope Francis called for a day of prayer and fasting to avoid war in Syria. Like his predecessors, our new pope is using the moral authority of his office, and he is doing it without taking sides or issuing condemnations. He is calling for peace.

Today, the Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with 176 states. My work has primarily been with its mission at the United Nations.  I’ve worked with them since 2000. The pay’s not great, but they tell me the benefits are out of this world.

Currently, the Holy See is one of only two Permanent Observer States at the UN. It also participates in various UN organizations. The Holy See is neutral, but not silent. Common concerns include: protection of life (the unborn), prevention of hostilities, just treatment for all (especially women and the handicapped), euthanasia, modern slavery, religious liberty, and education.

The United Nations is a man-made institution; as such it is far from perfect.  It has failed to assure peace, it has been misused to advance espionage, and it has been at the center of a great deal of scandal.  In fact, the Church has criticized the UN on numerous occasions, particularly on family-related themes. Still, The UN seeks international peace and security; friendly relations among nations; and cooperation among nations on economic, social, cultural, and human rights issues. That is completely consistent with spiritual and moral mission of the Holy See

Today, the United Nations needs the Holy See’s presence perhaps more than at any other time in history. At the beginning of the 20th century, a bare majority of the world’s population (50%) were Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or Hindu. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, nearly 64% of the world’s people belonged to one of those four religious groups. Moreover, many of today’s most important political and international issues at least surround issues of religion.

In 2005 I went to Israel as part of a program studying counterterrorism. Also on that trip were many professors who taught counterterrorism courses. They told me that too many American diplomats did not understand religion. Moreover, even if they did understand, they were constrained in what they could say due to our separation of Church and State. (Can you imagine an American diplomat trying to explain that someone else has the incorrect interpretation of Holy Scripture?) One author of a textbook was told by his publisher he could not mention Islam or the book would not be printed.

The Holy See can and does talk to these issues. In 2006, at Regensburg University, Pope Benedict spoke about the spread of Islam by the sword.  Many people thought he made a mistake or that he did not know what he was getting into. Those people were wrong.  The pope well understood that someone had to put these issues out on the table. He was perhaps the only world leader who could do so, and he did it in the context of inviting a dialogue. That is another reflection of why the Holy See is so important in peace negotiations — it can help us develop shared values.

In the United States, we have the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. These reflect values that Americans all share. What similar thing do we have in the world? Judeo-Christian values? The UN Charter? The Uni-versal Declaration of Human Rights?

Consider this: In 2004, the US Department of State asked me to go to Paris to address a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on the importance of free speech on the internet.  I spoke about the American idea of a “marketplace of ideas,” and competition leading to truth. The other nations there also said they agreed with the concept of free speech, but their understanding is very different from our own. They criminally outlaw hate speech.

A delegate from a non-governmental organization, for instance, professed a belief in free speech but said that Evangelical Christian sites that reach out to Jews are anti-Semitic and must be removed from the internet. Even more stunning was when the Russian delegate argued that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hare Krishnas had to be removed from the internet because they profess to know “the truth” and anyone who claims to know the truth must, ipso facto, be engaged in hate speech.  Not many religions would remain online if that were the test. Of course, the whole time, this delegate insisted that he supported free speech.

In 2006, I was part of another delegation that met in Rome with Iranian Ayatollahs. My job was to talk about free speech in context of the riots that had recently been inspired by cartoons that were published in Denmark.  I noted that this was not a campaign against Islam. The television show South Park is far more offensive to Christians than most of those political cartoons were to Islam.  The result of my presentation was an Ayatollah shaking a finger in my face and saying (in a raised voice) that Islam would never tolerate insults to the Prophet Muhammad.

So, do we have shared values? Maybe the best thing we have is the United Nations. We need to talk. We need to develop shared values, and the Holy See has a crucial role to play in that development.

There have been some interesting moments at the UN. We sit alphabetically, so the Holy See is right by Iran, Iraq, and Israel. You might wonder about the neighborhood, but everyone there is very diplomatic.

A few years ago, my wife brought my two oldest daughters up to New York to watch their daddy work at the United Nations.  That particular day, we were working on the International Criminal Court, and we were talking about buying trash cans for the new court building. My wife always says that the representative from France sounded quite impressive when (in French) he said: “Can’t we just go over to Office Depot where trash cans cost five Euros?”

So it goes from the ridiculous to the sublime — because we are all in this human condition together. But as lawyers and lawmakers, we do have a special calling: Luke 12:48 says “to whom much has been given, much will be required.” 

Lawyers have special training and status. We must use those talents to work for justice, for what is right. Thomas More, the patron saint of lawyers, politicians, and statesmen explained that we cannot create a utopia, but we can and must work for a just society.  

As Blessed Pope John Paul II said in 1995:

We must not be afraid of the future.  We must not be afraid of man.  It is no accident that we are here.  Each and every human person has been created in the “image and likeness” of the One who is the origin of all that is.  We have within us the capacities for wisdom and virtue.  With these gifts, and with the help of God’s grace, we can build … a civilization worthy of the human person, a true culture of freedom.  We can and must do so!

Thank you and God bless you.


Ronald J. Rychlak is professor of law and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is an advisor to the Vatican’s delegation to the United Nations and has received papal medals for his diplomatic service to the Holy See. Professor Rychlak is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope, and has written for many legal, political, and historical journals. The Rychlaks live in Oxford, Mississippi.



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