Australia, that most secular of nations, has just appointed a fulltime ambassador to The Vatican. The post had previously been filled by the dual appointment of the Australian ambassador to Ireland, resident - sensibly - in Dublin, as Australia’s Vatican envoy.
There’s nothing wrong with having diplomatic relations with The Vatican (and certainly if we must have a resident envoy, Tim Fischer, former National Party leader and deputy prime minister, is an inspired choice).
The Vatican is a state - albeit of the micro variety - and its reason for being a state, that it is the extant pimple on the venerable remains of the rump of the long-dead Papal States, carries as much validity as many. As San Marino, say; or Monaco; Andorra; Liechtenstein; or even Nauru: they are all miniaturised historical accidents too.
Yet there is something disquieting about the decision to significantly upgrade Australia’s relations with the Holy See. It is clearly one that was made by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. He’s not actually running for sainthood - well, we don’t think so - but he does seem to be carving out a prime ministership that may well win gold for meddlesomeness.
He now wants to go on a “faith offensive”, or so we are told by Dennis Shanahan in The Australian newspaper. According to Shanahan, Rudd seeks to create a global diplomatic environment in which the great cause of interfaith dialogue, and thus (he asserts) security and wellbeing, will be advanced. That is unproblematic. Let the people chat. But The Vatican is given an advantage here that is neither fair nor, arguably, in the end beneficial.
The Holy See is not just a state: it is a state of mind. Moreover, it is a religious state of mind; and it is only one - certainly the most powerful one - of a range of such religious states of mind within just one religion, Christianity.
It is of course a special one, and not only because history welded formal statehood onto its religious foundation. The Vatican is a Christian caliphate. It possesses a leader believed by the faithful to have been appointed by God through the medium of the College of Cardinals and whose pronouncements once in office are regarded as infallible. It has immense political power and great wealth to pursue temporal as well as religious aims. Its writ runs wider and its clout is far stronger than those of other Christian communions which seek to advance moral suasion and ritual among their adherents.
It is therefore in a hugely privileged position in advancing the Catholic cause when compared with the effort that can be made by other Christian sects and other religions.
If it is now Australian policy to bolster Catholic privilege and boost Catholicism’s political firepower, then the Prime Minister should say so. If it is not - and most Australians, Catholic or not, would surely hope this is the case - then he should explain why he believes it is necessary.
There exists no political means of housing a resident envoy at Lambeth Palace, the centre of the Anglican Communion, for example.
Nor can Australia - or any other country - formally engage the Copts in diplomatic communion. No infrastructure exists that would permit foreign envoys to represent their nations’ view to Orthodox Christians. For the same reason we must leave the Buddhists alone and the Hindus unmolested.
No central headquarters makes it possible to send ambassadors to the panoply of the Islamic religious. We cannot commune, diplomatically, with the Zoroastrians, the Baha’is, the Mormons, or the Jews.
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