Gospel Diplomacy; an Inescapable Dimension

Roman Course Gathers Latin American Ambassadors

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, MAY 13, 2010 (Zenit.org).- A popular course to help diplomats better understand the «humanizing action» of the Holy See in international affairs, and how it is able to offer a true and proper «diplomacy of the Gospel,» is currently under way in Rome.

The fourth of its kind, organized principally by the Gregorian Foundation and the Jacques Maritain International Institute, this year’s course is dedicated to diplomats from Latin America (previous ones were given for envoys from the Middle East, Africa and Asia).

Taking place over 12 days, first in Rome and then in Turin, it will teach about the Church’s religious and diplomatic commitments, as well as its social and humanitarian commitments to foster peace, protect creation and promote human rights. 

Diplomats have taken enthusiastically to the course since it began in 2006, seeing it as filling an important gap. In many chancelleries of the world, they say, knowledge of the Holy See’s diplomatic activity tends to be poor, restricted to awareness of multilateral diplomacy carried out in forums such as the United Nations in New York and Geneva.

«The phenomenon of interaction between religion and international politics is one the greatest realities of today,» explained Brazil’s ambassador to the Holy See, Luiz Felipe de Seixas Corrêa. “But it has not been perceived well by the government chancelleries in Latin America. It is a relationship that is perhaps less evident [now] in respect to the times in which it was also the cause of conflict, but it remains relevant.”

Like many of his colleagues, he believes that as many countries put a premium on ethical values that are tied to religious beliefs and practices, so it is “very important” that diplomats are sensitive to these issues when they are formulated into state policy. It all helps, he said, to fulfill the true objective of a diplomat’s work: to find “convergence” on policy issues. 

Many Latin American nations will begin to celebrate their bicentennial anniversaries of independence this year, so some of this 2010 course is devoted to considering the development of Catholicism in Latin America, whether it be the birth of Christian democratic parties, respect for liberty, or the importance of human rights. 

And in spite of some anti-clericalist elements in leftist regimes, most of Latin America still holds the Church in high esteem. «Today Latin America expects that the Church be present in a continual role as a moral authority,” said Héctor Federico Ling Altamirano, Mexico’s ambassador to the Holy See. “In fact, [Latin America] perceives moral authority as the formal cause of society and as the first motivator for the service of the common good.” 

As is well known, the Catholic Church is having to confront a surge in popularity among Latin American’s evangelical churches, especially in Brazil. But Ambassador Seixas Corrêa believes these communities are captivating many, especially the youth, not because they offer something spiritually better but “because they hold positions that are more liberal when confronted with the problems linked to birth control.”

Latin American governments welcome Benedict XVI’s leaning toward social justice issues and the preferential option for the poor, which translates into an invitation for politicians to safeguard life and the family. Aware of his criticism of liberation theology, they also generally welcome the Pope’s emphasis on social topics, his appeal for ethics in economics, and care for creation – all given in his social encyclical «Caritas in Veritate» – and all of which resound with the continent’s culture and politics.

Jesuit Father Franco Imoda, president of the Gregorian Foundation, noted that in Latin America and elsewhere “enormous challenges” exist, requiring new leaders with vision. The course, he said, does not pretend to answer all these challenges, but the Church “as the bearer of a universal message of transcendence, which touches the centrality of the human person, ‘must’ have a message in this field.” 

“I believe that those who approach us recognize that we have this message,” he explained. “The Vatican and the Holy See do not have the famous ‘divisions’ mentioned by Stalin, but they present a message of hope for all humanity.”

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Ever-present questions

Addressing the first session of the course at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome on April 10, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran spoke eloquently of the importance of religion in politics and international affairs.

“We live in a paradoxical world,” the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue said in his opening words. “French society claims its secularization yet at the same time has never talked so much about religion.” Religion, he added, is “an inescapable dimension of human existence” and worship is as necessary to man as economic life. 

Quoting the historian Arnold Toynbee, he noted that “there has been no great civilization that was not religious”; records of myths, rituals, temples and statues throughout history testify that man is “religious” by nature. “It is he who asks others and himself the definitive questions, always searching for the ultimate reason of his existence,” he said.  

For these reasons, the French cardinal continued, to restrict religious freedom means underestimating man and ignoring history. “You can separate church and state,” he said, “but you cannot separate religion from society.” 

Cardinal Tauran, a former «Foreign Minister» of the Holy See who spent time as a Vatican diplomat in Lebanon, noted the good that the Church can draw from the contemporary world, but also stressed that politics and the Church are autonomous — an important concept of secularism that allows for a strict neutrality in religious matters, forcing no one to believe, nor hindering them from doing so. 

He listed three important areas in which religion contributes to the well-being of civil society: by relativizing politics, offering answers to the meaning of life that other institutions cannot, and shedding light and strength on the common good because religion has the power to shape community and thus contribute to social cohesion.

Yet too often, he went on, policies have become a kind of secular religion, leading to intolerance. Politics, he reminded the diplomats present, is a means not an end, essential only insofar as it makes other things possible. He recalled how Communism politicized every problem without seeing that values of truth, beauty, solidarity, work and love — each fostered by religion — provide “reference points to guide political action.” 

Some religions have a tendency to invade the public sphere, he said, but only Christianity “recognizes the secularity of society.” Neither the Gospel nor the Church’s social doctrine “propose prefabricated models of society” and there is “scope for a certain mediation,» he said, “but it’s clear that a Christian cannot collaborate in the making of laws that contradict divine revelation or human nature.” (He advised re-reading the 2003 document from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith on the participation of Catholics in political life). 

He concluded by asking the audience for forgiveness for quoting Napoleon, but recalled that, despite being an anti-clerical agnostic, even he recognized the importance of religion in a startling speech he gave to clergy in Milan on June 5, 1800.

«Nobody can pass for being just and virtuous if he does not know from where he comes and to where he goes,” Napoleon said. “Reason alone can not suffice for this purpose: Without religion, man advances in darkness and only the Catholic religion offers him some light and certainty regarding his beginning and ultimate end.»

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can
be reached at: epentin@zenit.org

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