Pope Francis is part of the way through his much-anticipated visit to Cuba and the US, which he is visiting for the first time. He is following in the footsteps of his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who visited Cuba in 2012 and expressed his opposition to the US trade embargo.
Now Cuba and the US have dramatically thawed their relations, Francis’s visit to Cuba may well have included a behind-closed-doors push to edge the Castro regime toward greater political, economic and especially religious liberalisation.
The current pontiff has been credited as a central figure in the negotiations that ultimately restored US-Cuba relations. Pope John Paul II had called for the lifting of the embargo, but nothing was done at the time; other religious and humanitarian organisations pressed for the ending of the US embargo but to no avail.
It was probably Obama’s decision to accept the mediation of Pope Francis that allowed the Holy See to help broker the deal.
There were plenty of incentives for both sides to accept the Holy See’s mediation. Perhaps Obama thought he needed to piggyback on the pope’s popularity to break through; the president has mentioned Francis’s role twice, once in his December 2014 Cuba speech and again in his January 2015 State of the Union.
This is hefty stuff indeed, and a measure of the pope’s unique diplomatic position.
In both Cuba and the US, Francis will have been greeted by each country’s papal ambassadors, formally called apostolic nuncios. Unlike any other religious leader, the pope can send and receive ambassadors and sign international treaties. The nuncios, who are usually also archbishops, represent the pope to more than 180 countries and organisations.
Many would ask why the pope is allowed to send and receive ambassadors and sign international treaties at all. Part of the answer lies in the existence of the Vatican City State, the 108-acre site in central Rome, but this is not the whole story.
The church is a unique international entity; it has been accepted that, in the guise of the Holy See, it possesses non-territorial sovereignty. As the legendary UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld, said: “When I ask for an audience at the Vatican, I am not going to see the King of Vatican City, but the Head of the Catholic Church.”
When newly arrived ambassadors present their credentials to the pope, they are not accredited to the Vatican City State but to the Holy See. So even in the years between 1870 and 1929 when the pope had no territory, states such as Peru, Argentina and Germany all established diplomatic relations with the pope and exchanged ambassadors.
Papal relations with the US, meanwhile, are a special case, and their current rude health has its roots in the chillier years of the Cold War.
When President Ronald Reagan formally established diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1984, Jerry Falwell, the Baptist minister who founded the hugely powerful evangelical pressure group Moral Majority, was said to have responded: “I wonder what will happen when Mecca wants an ambassador. I told the White House that if they give one to the pope, I could ask for one myself.”
It was during this time that the supposed anti-Communist alliance between the Holy See and the US, especially during the Reagan administration, was said to have formed. Many Catholics and staunch anti-communists saw the US and Holy See as natural allies, So when the US re-established diplomatic relations, it was thought by many to be righting a historical wrong.
While the US was principally interested in the safety of American interests and citizens, the Holy See was concerned about Catholics not just in Western Europe but also in Poland, Ukraine and across the world in South and Central America, Africa and Asia.
The church was far more wary in its language than the US, but also had a very different mentality when it came to dealing with the USSR. It thought that the Soviet empire would survive for centuries, and took the view that it should not be too confrontational as the lives of Catholics living there could well be made harder.
Numerous popes before Francis opposed the US’s political-economic model and its rollout across the Americas, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. As John Paul II put it, “in many countries of America, a system known as ‘neoliberalism’ prevails; based on a purely economic conception of man, this system considers profit and the law of the market as its only parameters”.
The Holy See in fact spent much of the Cold War speaking out against what it deemed the excessive individualism of the US and the overreaching statism of the Soviet Union, explicitly trying to weigh in as a moral actor. That led to various diplomatic efforts targeting the church in return; during the Vietnam War, for instance, the Johnson administration sought to appease Pope Paul VI to keep him from publicly condemning the US’s actions.
That ability to use its moral heft as a diplomatic bridge between the US and its enemies shows just how unique the pope’s position is – and proves that Francis’s crucial role in Cuba was no exception.