John Paul II's Diplomacy

Interview With J. Coulet, of French Edition of L’Osservatore Romano

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 18, 2005 ( In his recent address to the members of the diplomatic corps accredited by the Holy See, John Paul II highlighted humanity’s four main challenges today: life, food, peace and freedom.

To better understand the characteristics of the Pope’s diplomacy, ZENIT interviewed Jean-Michel Coulet, editor of the French edition of L’Osservatore Romano. Coulet is co-author with, among others, Cardinals Angelo Sodano and Jean-Louis Tauran, of «The Diplomacy of Jean Paul II,» published by Cerf.

Q: Are the four challenges highlighted by the Pope in his address constants of John Paul II’s diplomacy?

Coulet: Indeed, the four challenges highlighted by John Paul II are constants; one might even say they are the pillars of papal diplomacy today, and also of his magisterium since his election.

One finds these leitmotifs in the great encyclicals that have marked his pontificate, «Evangelium Vitae,» «Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,» «Redemptor Hominis,» but also in all his addresses at the Vatican or during his trips. These key words are at the basis of all the actions of the Holy See’s diplomats in the world.

In regard to papal diplomacy, it has confidence in international law, which is constantly evolving, and participates in its elaboration — for example, the new concepts of the right of humanitarian intervention, or the rights of minorities.

One must admit that the Pope fights on all fronts: the defense of life and the struggle against hunger — notably within international but also within regional organizations; peace and freedom, in bilateral relations with states. We must not forget that John Paul II maintains diplomatic relations with 178 states.

He is convinced that a rigorous application of the law will make it possible to avoid the weakest being victims of violence of the strongest. «The force of the law, he says, must prevail over the law of force.»

Q: In his address the Pope said that to promote peace he has frequently intervened personally and by the means of Vatican diplomacy. According to you, which are the greatest successes, and failures, of the Holy See in this area?

Coulet: Without question, John Paul II’s greatest «success» is the result of his Ostpolitik, or his state diplomacy, in the ’80s. The end of the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall was John Paul II’s great warhorse. For him, the foundation of the rights of man rests on the recognition by sovereign states of religious liberty understood as the basis of all rights.

One can also mention the success of papal mediation in resolving the differences that opposed Argentina and Chile on the subject of the southern zone.

Nevertheless, a war that breaks out despite the repeated appeals of the Pope is always perceived as a failure; but he never admits defeat and repeats tirelessly, whether the moment is opportune or inopportune, as he did for the Gulf conflict in ’91 that «War is an adventure with no return,» or in Kosovo «That it is never too late to negotiate.»

John Paul II uses all the diplomatic channels, whether through bilateral relations, or within international organizations, such as the U.N. or its specialized institutions. He knows no respite! One will recall that on the eve of the conflict in Iraq, he played his cards one last time by sending two emissaries to both sides.

Q: Do you feel that the Pope’s appeals are heard by heads of government throughout the world?

Coulet: His appeals never remain a dead letter because they challenge not only politicians, but also the press which serves as a relay with public opinion.

Basically a strategist, John Paul II has always known how to make use of the means of communication to transmit messages or launch appeals. He knows that governments are extremely attentive to public opinion, which is often spontaneous. He makes use of democracy, which according to the social teaching of the Church, means the participation of citizens in society’s choices, the possibility to sanction governments, and solidarity.

Certainly no head of state or government is indifferent to the Pope’s word and to the positions he takes. Proofs of this are the many audiences that the Pope grants to politicians, of all persuasions, who come to the Vatican, or whom he meets during his trips.

Among the politicians who come to see him, one notes several categories: those who are animated by true good will and who come to seek advice; the latter are far more numerous than one thinks and they don’t always profess the Catholic religion; over time they have become «close» friends of the Pope, which makes it possible to have frank conversations outside the barriers imposed by diplomacy.

There are also those who come to the Vatican to explain the situation of their countries and seek support from the Pope and from Catholics.

And, finally, there are those that assure themselves of media coverage which, according to them, will have positive repercussions in their countries. Of course, no one is fooled! In the case of all personalities, the Pope always welcomes the person who has expressed the wish to meet him, without restrictions. We do not know the degree of warmth of conversations in private, but we know that John Paul II has never minced his words with his interlocutors.

If the Pope’s word does not find immediate application, what is important is that he intervenes.

The apostolic trips also serve this end. To meet with peoples is an important aspect of the magisterium, but the Pope’s word is addressed also to political authorities who always draw a teaching from the guidelines proposed. One thinks immediately of the trips to Poland at the beginning of his pontificate or to certain countries of Africa and the Latin American continent.

Q: Does the Pope have a concept of the rights of man that is different from that of societies in general? The first challenge mentioned in his address was that of life, which is not always that of governments.

Coulet: Since his accession to the Chair of Peter, John Paul II has made the defense of the rights of man the program of his pontificate. It was the subject of his first encyclical, «Redemptor Hominis.» There are, nevertheless, different ways of making rights respected, of promoting and safeguarding them.

There is a hierarchy of rights. If the Pope opened his address to the diplomatic corps by recalling the challenges of life, it was because he considers that in numerous societies it is attacked, endangered, and his role as spiritual leader is to remind us that life does not belong to us, that we cannot dispose of it at will. Of course he is thinking of abortion, euthanasia, scientific research. In brief, he sounds the alarm.

He says it himself, coming from a country where freedom is limited, he knows the price of the latter and has a precise idea of the value of respect for the rights of man.

For him, when such a condition is fulfilled within a country, one can pass to another stage — that of the search for peace, in the broad sense of disarmament. When the rights of man are respected, it is easier to attain peace.

Once peace is established, all the conditions are fulfilled to work for development, of which the priority is to curb hunger. The rights of man, disarmament and development, the three D’s [in French] that inspire papal diplomacy under John Paul II.

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