The Papal Conclave and International Relations

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By Joe Dalessio

Starting today, March 12, 2013, the Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church will enter into conclave to elect the next pope and leader of the Roman Catholic Church. There has been much speculation surrounding the election of the next pope, and Catholics all around the world are submitting their two cents on who they think the successor of Saint Peter should be. This discussion has mostly revolved around matters of church, doctrine of the faith, or the direction of the church. Regardless of who Catholics think should be selected, the next pope will have a unique and profound opportunity to affect international relations.

It is simply outstanding to consider that a man, who as a cardinal has a responsibility for a number of dioceses but little international experience, will be catapulted on to the international stage and wield considerable influence over the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Now this is not the Church of the Middle Ages when monarchs followed the will of the Holy See, but the successor of Saint Peter does carry significant influence and is an actor within the international system.

Both of the last two popes, Blessed John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI,  have had sizable impacts on the international realm. John Paul II worked tirelessly against the communist Soviet Union and the occupation of his home, Poland. There are many factors that lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union but John Paul II was undoubtedly a tireless opponent of the Soviet Union. Later on in his papacy John Paul II made an unprecedented apology to those of the Islamic faith for the Crusades. John Paul II also had a profound impact on Jewish – Christian relations by promoting dialogue between the two faiths, and it was under John Paul II that Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic relations.

Benedict XVI was no different from John Paul II in that he sought to build diplomatic relations with other states and to positively affect the international relations. One of the more publicized and criticized moments of Benedict XVI was when he quoted a Byzantine emperor which seemed to imply that Islam was only spread through violence. However, this quote was taken out of context, and Benedict issued an apology for the tension it created. Despite this episode, Benedict has made great strides with the Vatican’s relations with Islamic states, most notably Saudi Arabia. Although most Catholics still practice in secret in Saudi Arabia, relations reached a high point when Saudi King Abdullah visited the Vatican in 2007; this visit continued to growth of interreligious understand of the two faiths.

Now the Vatican does not represent any of the Western states and diplomatic relations with the Vatican may not be all that significant in terms of foreign policy success. What it does represent and what it does affect is the relationship between the East and West; between the Western Christian Countries and the Islamic East or even states such as China. The pope will not hold great influence over what the heads of states decide, nor should he, but as the head of the largest international organization and the leader of one of the largest faiths, it is important for him to positively influence interreligious understanding. This will have an impact on the future relations between the East and West. So whether Catholics think the next pope should be a reformer or a conservative, one thing is certain; the next pope will impact international relations either positively or negatively.

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Joe is a blog writer for the Journal and a first year master’s candidate at the Whitehead School.

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