Ius Gentium

University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows discuss international and comparative legal issues

Pope Francis: The Diplomatic, Modern Catholic Reformer

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Suzanne De Deyne

The Catholic Church is a global entity with over a billion members and at the head of the Catholic Church is Pope Francis. The Catholic Church is arguably the world’s oldest diplomatic service and, due to its vast network of humanitarian aid organizations, it has a unique ability to shape foreign policy in a way no other institution can. This blog post seeks to describe how Pope Francis’ mission to change the world and the overall perception of the Catholic Church rises to a level of international significance.


Pope Francis is the sovereign leader of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church (‘Holy See’) is recognized as a Permanent Observer at the United Nations. It does not meet the required elements of statehood but has acquired an international legal personality. The mission of both the UN and the Catholic Church is to assist in the protection and promotion of peace, equality, and human rights.[1] As a Permanent Observer, the Catholic Church has the right to participate in the UN’s General Assembly debates and contribute to proposals, position papers, and draft resolutions and decisions.[2] If the Catholic Church acts as a promoter of peaceful transnational cooperation under the rule of law, there is an argument to be made that the Catholic Church’s input is merely a symbolic gesture that seeks to set an example, even if it is left unnoticed by others (i.e. the P5). This allows the Pope to guide world powers toward a particular vision of justice and peace.[3]

As head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis acts as a moral legislator and an ecclesiastical regulator where his influence extends to all countries. So how much power does Pope Francis have over religious souls? A few decades ago, the Catholic Church mandated a firm commitment to its positions and straying with the Church’s policies meant committing a moral sin, inflicting the fear of hell in its followers. Today, (American) Catholics are more educated and the Church has allowed Catholics to draw independent conclusions. This transition is particularly relevant on a political spectrum. When John F. Kennedy ran for President, Protestant leaders challenged that he would be a tool of the Vatican and concerns about Catholic leaders demanding political loyalty on issues involving church doctrine were widespread.[4] Today, the question is whether Catholic voters and Catholic politicians still give deference to Vatican views when it comes to pronouncements politicians make on key issues?[5]

During a morning homily, Pope Francis stated, “the church asks all of us to change certain things.”[6] Throughout his papacy, he has attacked the narrow-mindedness of the Catholic hierarchy for focusing too much on dogma and “spiritual worldliness,” and too little on ordinary people. Pope Francis frequently speaks deeply in personal terms on topics such as how people are discarded by the global economy, refugees who have drowned at sea, women forced into prostitution, and critiques of environmental destruction.[7] Recently, he publically alluded to a more welcoming attitude toward homosexual by saying, “Who am I to judge?”.[8] Pope Francis has also refuted capitalism as a false ideology that focuses on excess and is inadequate for fully addressing the needs of the poor. For Pope Francis, the answers are found with the Gospel, not with Adam Smith or Karl Marx.[9] Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Monsignor Sánchez Sorondo stated, “the pope, of course, doesn’t have a solution — the economic solution but the pope is like a light on the street to say: ‘This is not the way.”[10]


To be recognized as an exemplary and a transformative leader, one must model the way, encourage the heart, enable others to act, embody a shared vision, and challenge the process and the status quo.[11] Pope Francis has been immensely revolutionary and transformative in all of these regards.[12] He is remaking modern Catholicism by concentrating the church’s core competence on helping the poor, rebranding the church by changing the message communicated by prioritizing deeds over words, and restructuring the church across all levels of influence.[13] Pope Francis’ push to change the Catholic Church has created anxiety and hope. Guzmán Carriquiry Lecour, secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America and a longtime friend of the pope stated, “He is very critical of ideology because ideologies come from intellectuals and politicians who want to manipulate the hearts of the people. For him, ideologies hide and defame reality.”[14] Yet through gestures and words, Pope Francis has repeatedly challenged elites, both inside the church and out. His humble persona has made him immensely popular and his mission of helping the poor seems to exceed the religious limitations of the Catholic Church – Pope Francis wants to reach the people of the world.

Suzanne De Deyne is a third year student at the University of Baltimore School of Law (candidate for J.D., May 2016) concentrating in International Law. Suzanne graduated cum laude from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Economics. She also received a  Honor’s International Relations Certificate from Mount Holyoke College. Currently, Suzanne is the Managing Editor on the Journal of International Law and is President of the International Law Society. As a CICL Fellow, Suzanne has conducted legal research for International Rights Advocates on human rights and corporate accountability. She is also a member of the Women’s Bar Association and Phi Alpha Delta. This past summer Suzanne was a legal intern at Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher in the firm’s Brussels office, which is focused on Competition Law practice in Europe.

[1] Discover the Mission, The Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations (2015), http://www.holyseemission.org/contents//mission/discover-the-mission.php

[2] Id.

[3] Edward Pentin, The Pope as Diplomat, Foreign Affairs (Feb. 27, 2013), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2013-02-27/pope-diplomat

[4] Tom Gjelten, Modern Catholics Test the Pope’s Infallible Authority, NPR (Sept. 4, 2015), http://www.npr.org/2015/09/04/437597038/modern-catholics-test-the-popes-infallible-authority

[5] Id.

[6] Jim Yardley, A Humble Pope, Challenging the World, N.Y. Times, Sept. 18, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/19/world/europe/pope-francis.html?_r=1

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Stan Chu Ilo, Pope Francis and the Remaking of Modern Catholicism, Huffington Post (Mar. 12, 2015), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stan-chu-ilo/pope-francis-and-the-remaking-of-modern-catholicism_b_6852468.html

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Supra note 6.

Author: Ius Gentium

Ius Gentium is a legal forum for the University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows to write on and discuss international and comparative legal issues.

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