The Role of the Vatican in the Modern World

Author: Eugene V. Rostow


Eugene V. Rostow

Mr. Eugene V. Rostow, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, addressed a conference on "The Vatican and Peace" at Boston College, March 27, 1968. The Hon. Paul Findley, Member of the House of Representatives from Illinois requested that the address, together with that, of the Very Rev. Archbishop H. E. Cardinale, Apostolic Delegate to the United Kingdom, be placed on the RECORD because of "the very timely contributions to the discussions of the Vatican's contribution to World Peace through diplomacy. "Archbishop Cardinale's Address will be published in our next issue [June 6, 1968].

My subject today is fascinating because the activities of the Church touch almost every country and nearly every aspect of human life. The Vatican is not only the focal point of a vast spiritual and cultural community, and the visible symbol of a living system of ideas and values; it is a coordinating secretariat for a far-flung multinational bureaucracy. Any discussion of the Church's international role needs to consider both its spiritual and temporal dimensions. In both the Vatican plays an important. role in international political life.

The Pope, in his primary role, is the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church with its 400 million communicants who regard him as the earthly vicar of Christ. For centuries the Church (Roman Catholic) has exerted a profound and incalculable spiritual and cultural influence in many parts of the world, helping to shape men's minds, and the motives which govern their actions. Our own Western culture is inextricably entwined with Catholicism.

The Pope is likewise a temporal leader—the head of a government—whose officials are spread throughout almost every country of the globe. The Pope's government is sovereign only in its tiny Vatican enclave. Indeed, in a modern nationalist sense, the Church hierarchy is not a government at all. Its whole existence dates back to an age that predates that narrow concept of national sovereignty which has so bemused our modern era. But perhaps the day will come when the logic of interdependence will make such international bodies, limited in their functions but independent within them, an increasingly prominent part of the process of government in the world.

At any rate, although the "sovereign" jurisdiction of the Papal government is minuscule, its direct political influence everywhere is considerable. It has unrivaled sources of information through church universities, schools, monasteries, convents, and other institutions. It deals directly with the most fundamental elements in the life of many communities: the protection of the clergy in their mission, and the faithful in their education and worship involve the Church in highly practical diplomatic matters throughout the world. The Vatican maintains formal relations with over 50 nations, and informal relations with many others, including our own.

As the oldest continuing international organization in the world today, the Vatican has a well-deserved reputation for diplomatic expertise. It possesses a knowledge of foreign countries and their government which cannot be matched, in many respects, by any national state. it derives its additional diplomatic force from its attitude of benevolent neutrality, which neutrality is an important aspect in the Vatican's diplomatic position and effectiveness. Although such a course sometimes arouses criticism, it does often allow the Vatican to play an important role in conciliation.

This is hardly a new role. It goes back to the civilizing mission of the Church in the Middle Ages. In today's world feudal violence has been replaced by nationalist and ideological violence, but the conciliation role of the Church continues. All through this warlike century, Popes have struggled to end the fighting and to bring reason and charity to the affairs of nations.

In addition to this age-old role of peacemaker, the Papacy has in recent years pursued a number of specific policies designed to encourage a more favorable climate for the peaceful diplomatic settlement of disputes. Recent encyclicals have severely limited the old concept of a just war. (Pacem in Terris: Pope John). Everyone remembers Pope Paul's dramatic address before the U.N. General Assembly; and the same strong support for "an effective world authority" continues in the recent encyclical "Populorum Progressio".

Another important theme in recent Papal teachings is the urgent need for disarmament. Pope John, again and again, argued that the balance of armaments could never be a secure basis for peace, that stability could come only from mutual trust, Pope Paul in Bombay in 1964 appealed to the world to divert the immense resources now devoted to armaments to a great fund for relief of suffering around the globe.

The Papacy, in short, has made itself a major spokesman of the universal yearning for peace. It has used its moral prestige to mobilize public opinion in behalf of peace and its diplomatic apparatus to encourage conciliation.

The Church, although it is a highly skilled international bureaucracy with impressive resources, derives its great influence, above all, from the great ideas which it embodies, shapes, and expresses—ideas which affect public opinion throughout the world.

Although in some quarters it is fashionable to denigrate the role of ideas in history (ideas, it is said, are rationalizations for the love and hunger that genuinely rule human affairs), the argument is really a misunderstanding of history, a misunderstanding of the nature of ideas. Ideas, the great ideas which are active forces in. history, are not simple logical propositions. Such ideas—as equality or the principle of self-determination—carry an inexhaustible fund of meaning. Love and hunger will doubtless always influence the human animal; but what men love and what they hunger for will always be determined by the ideas that shape their imaginations. Institutions depends for their vitality and direction upon the ideas that inform them. Without these informing ideas, the life sap of an institution disappears and the remaining structure stands condemned. This is essentially true of all organizations with essentially moral purposes: political parties, universities, systems of law. Above all, it is true of churches.

And so it is not surprising that the head of an institution with the immense spiritual vitality of the Catholic Church should exert his greatest influence as a teacher of the public conscience, as a mediator of the essential ideas which inform his Church. Thus the Pope, in today's world, has become a powerful voice in the conscience of the West, reminding us all of the humane aspirations which dominate our civilization and determine its direction. In our world the Pope is the champion of the suffering and the discouraged, constantly reminding us of the immense load of misery the majority of men carry through their lives.

In the recognition of the need for a stable world order, and for development as the necessary means of assuring this stability, the policy of the Vatican, and the foreign policy of the United States since the days of Point Four and the Marshall Plan, are ONE.

Great as is the role of the Pope in the in matters mentioned above, it is only a fraction of the real influence of the Roman Catholic Church in shaping the modern world. The Church is a living community, lay and ecclesiastical, dedicated to the moral and spiritual education of Catholics and indeed of modern Western society in general. The Roman Catholic Church has a special place in the education of the West. It is one of the great transmitters and mediators of the whole moral and spiritual wealth of our past into the present-day world, a mission which transcends sectarian divisions and particular formal moral and theological beliefs. The Church's teaching mission calls for not merely preserving the ideals and beauties of the past, but vigorously translating them into an idiom for the modern world.

Like any great institution that has spanned centuries, the Catholic Church has had its moments of weakness; yet with a vigor and capacity for renewal which must impress even the unbeliever, the Church has always found within itself the resources to carry on its mission in a changing and often hostile world.

Everyone who loves our Western past cannot but rejoice in the renewed vitality of the Catholic Church in recent years. It is not rejecting the old truths but adapting them to the intellectual and moral conditions of the modern world. The Ecumenical task is the great work of the Catholic Church today. Men of all faiths will profit from the process of renewal which is one of the dramas of a lifetime and will be, I am sure, a powerful force both in the realms of ideas and in that of social action during the generations before us.

As a historian, I have always found a majestic sanity in the Catholic tradition. The Catholic vision of reality is remarkably balanced. It is a church that believes not only in heaven but also in hell. It knows that there is evil in the world as well as good. It has seldom neglected to give the Devil his due. While the Church exhorts its children to act like angels, it knows that not many would or could do so for long. For the Church has never forgotten that we live in a fallen world, and that while human institutions cannot succeed in creating a good society without love and charity, neither can they function without law, justice and power. It accepts the great principle of rendering to Caesar the things of Caesar. Hence, Catholicism which is such a powerful voice of conscience in today's world, also continues to prepare men for fortitude in the face of adversity and courage in the face of evil. This is the sane and balanced need in our world today.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 May 1968, page 4

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