On March 5, the elderly Pope Francis arrived in what was recently a war zone. Popes John Paul ii and Benedict xvi both tried to visit Iraq, and Francis had been trying for years. Despite the risk to his life, he traveled into what was once the core of the Islamic State.
Around the world, the pope is active in politics and international relations. A secret letter from him in 2014 to then United States President Barack Obama helped open U.S. relations with Communist Cuba. His officials were instrumental in a Nobel-prize winning peace agreement in Colombia. Many people applaud such efforts; after all, in a world full of war, injustice and persecution, surely we need a great moral force in international relations.
But when put in its historical context, the pope fulfilling this role gives pause for thought.
This is hardly the first time the Catholic Church has had a major role in international relations. For nearly a thousand years it was a genuine superpower and dominated the European international system. What was the result? That history teaches us where today’s renaissance of Vatican diplomacy is leading.
Holy Roman Empire: Force of Nature
“[N]ull, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time.” That was Pope Innocent x’s official and infallible verdict on the Peace of Westphalia.
What made the pope so wrathful against this series of peace agreements? Those agreements, though they put an end to some of the bloodiest warring in Europe’s history, also acknowledged the legitimacy of separate sovereign nation states. The system of international law created by the Peace of Westphalia forms the very foundation of modern international relations. The pope’s hostility reveals a lot about how Roman Catholics view their church’s role in the world.
Prior to the rise of Christianity, the idea of a unified world religion was alien. Different races and peoples had not only their own histories and characteristics but also their own local gods. But as the idea of a universal religion and church spread, it became natural for people to believe in a universal government.
“Because divinity was divided, humanity had been divided likewise; the doctrine of the unity of God now enforced the unity of man, who had been created in His image,” James Bryce wrote in The Holy Roman Empire. “The first lesson of Christianity was love, a love that was to join in one body those whom suspicion and prejudice and pride of race had hitherto kept apart. There was thus formed by the new religion a community of the faithful, a holy empire, designed to gather all men into its bosom, and standing opposed to the manifold polytheisms of the older world ….”
Bryce described a common theme that developed in Western theories of world government: that is, “a world-monarchy and a world-religion.” People came to believe that what the world needed was a single empire led by a world ruler who could referee disputes between rival kings, avoid war, and bring justice.
To the people of the Middle Ages, a world of competing states with no overarching authority is “null, void, invalid,” an aberration, a sign of something going horribly wrong.
Bryce wrote that throughout the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire was seen as “an institution divine and necessary, having its foundations in the very nature and order of things.” People “went on for centuries believing in the necessary existence of the Roman Empire, because they believed in its necessary union with the Catholic Church.”
He described the way that the Catholic Church of this period interpreted Bible history and prophecy to claim that a Holy Roman Empire, ruling over all other states, was God’s divine order for the world.
Pasadena City College philosophy professor Edward Feser wrote that under this worldview, it is not aberrant for the Mongol Empire or the nation of Yugoslavia, for example, to expire, but in this view, “there is something abnormal, and contrary to natural law and the supernatural order, that there is no longer a Holy Roman Empire. Indeed, on this view of things, given that the natural and supernatural orders require that there be such an empire, it is not quite correct to say that the Holy Roman Empire no longer exists. It is more accurate to say that it is dormant.”
Catholicism teaches that human beings have a soul and a body. Their theory of world politics taught that the Catholic Church was the soul, and the Holy Roman Empire was the body. Each had its own role, but the two could not separate any more than body and soul could separate.
This vision of universal church and empire never governed the entire globe. But in Europe, it was reality.
The Catholic Church’s role in regulating religious life is well known. When King Henry viii wanted a divorce, he first asked permission from the pope, for example. But the authority of the church extended even further.
In a very real sense, Catholic canon law was international law across Europe. It did not concern itself merely with religious disputes.
The one-empire-one-religion theory meant that it wasn’t up to states to negotiate disputes through diplomacy. Instead, they were to take them to the higher power: the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the pope.
That was the theory. In practice, this neat hierarchy wasn’t always followed—or even recognized. But often it was. “Popes served as arbiters, and papal legates served as peacemakers,” the Encyclopedia Britannica notes. “Papal ambassadors held status above those from mere states.”
How far did the pope’s power extend? When Spain and Portugal discovered the entire rest of the world and disputed who owned what, it was Pope Alexander vi who drew a line on a map that divided the territory between them.
No form of international relations was beyond the reach of the Catholic Church.
In business, the church also reigned supreme. For example, alum, a vital material for textile dyes, was heavily regulated by the church. The pope awarded himself a monopoly on it: No one was allowed to sell it but the papal states.
Granted, the church’s involvement in the alum trade was the exception, not the rule. But in that age, it was big business. It showed that any industry could find itself brought under papal regulation.
When Sir Thomas More fought King Henry viii’s attempts to break England away from the Catholic Church, he argued that this wasn’t simply a religious system. England, he said, was “but one member and small part of … the church. It could not make a particular law disagreeable with the general law of Christ’s Universal Catholic Church.” It was like London “being but one poor member in respect of the whole realm, might make a law against Parliament to bind the whole realm.” England was not a sovereign state, More asserted: It was part of a much larger hierarchy.
Thomas More was articulating orthodox Catholic doctrine, and the Vatican later made him a saint. As England continued to reject the church’s authority, Pius v declared that God had made the pope “ruler over all peoples and kingdoms, to pull up, destroy, scatter, disperse, plant and build,” and that Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth i, must be overthrown.
But before the Catholic Spanish Armada was dashed on the rocks in 1588, the pope’s vision of world government was already crumbling. England was not the only country to embrace a new religion and a new system.
This brings us back to the Peace of Westphalia. More than a century after the Protestant Reformation, Europe was hopelessly fractured. Persecutions and wars designed to put it back together had claimed 50 million lives. When more than 100 delegations arrived in Westphalia in 1648, they ended the Thirty Years’ War and established a new international system on a core principle familiar to anyone who has had an argument that nobody can win: Let’s agree to disagree.
But this idea completely contradicted Catholic doctrine. It rejected the principle of the Holy Roman Empire holding authority over lesser states and replaced it with a principle of legal equality between states. The Holy Roman Empire continued to exist, but as one of several major European powers, not as a body with any theoretical claim to overarching power.
The Catholic Church’s period of dominating international relations had been deemed a complete failure and comprehensively rejected. In time, the Peace of Westphalia became the standard for international relations around the world.
The 20th Century
Ideologically, it was the Protestant Reformation that sent the Catholic theory of world empire into remission. Yet the Catholic Church did not change its teachings on this until the Second Vatican Council in 1962, when it softened—but did not eliminate—the doctrine. Pope John Paul ii’s Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the church shows forth the kingship of Christ over all creation and in particular over human societies.” It states that societies that reject the church’s vision “arrogate to themselves an explicit or implicit totalitarian power over man and his destiny.”
Professor Feser noted that “the Catholic doctrinal principles still reflected in the Catechism are those that informed the theory of the empire.” In other words, the Middle Ages theory of Catholic supremacy in international relations is still alive and well within Catholicism.
But the rest of the world continues to reject that authority. So the pope has had to find for himself a new role. No foreign ministries or state departments will be waiting at his ornate Vatican doors to submit their international disputes to his supreme verdict any time soon.
Or will they?
One way the Catholic Church has been rebuilding its international role has been through mediation.
One early example was the 1978 conflict between Chile and Argentina over the Beagle Channel, a conflict that seemed headed for war. Pope John Paul ii stepped in and reconciled the two sides.
In a world split between capitalism and communism, the pope represented an ancient institution that was aligned with neither side. The two sides quickly accepted the pope’s mediation.
The Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the think tank for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, produced a paper in 2015 called “Microstate and Superpower—The Vatican in International Politics.” It described the Vatican’s role as being “involved in central decision-making and events of world politics for a long time, acting patiently behind the scenes, particularly since the middle of the 20th century.”
This effort has accelerated under Pope Francis. He deployed “forceful, confidential” letters and secret visits from high-ranking archbishops to pressure the United States to open up its relations with antagonistic, Communist Cuba. Negotiations took place in the Vatican, and the pope offered to act as guarantor to the agreement.
In 2014, Catholic bishops met with high-ranking ayatollahs in Iran to try to help then-President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. In 2016, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a peace deal with Marxist militant rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, probably the most powerful figure in the church besides the pope, personally attended the deal’s signing ceremony prior to the referendum. The Catholic Church attended the peace negotiations in Cuba, pushing both sides to reach a deal.
The current pope has also been active in the Middle East, traveling to Israel and hosting the Palestinian Authority in Rome. He stopped for a photo op at an Israel security barrier. The photo quickly became an iconic implication that the Israelis are the oppressors. In March he visited Iraq, attempting to solve a conflict America has spent trillions trying to bring to an end.
The Konrad Adenauer Foundation wrote that “there are clear indications of efforts being made under Pope Francis’s leadership to reach out beyond the faith by putting forward ethical-universal arguments rather than Catholic-moral ones. … Consequently, the Holy See is developing into an informal authority on moral standards reaching far beyond the boundaries of Catholicism.” The pope is now reaching out to the world, “not just as head of the church and head of state, but as a moral authority.”
The foundation noted that the Vatican “has the oldest diplomatic service in the world. Only few other actors of international politics take a similarly clear and consistent stance with respect to global challenges. Also, no other religious community or secular worldview has produced an institution that comes close to the Catholic Church in terms of durability, centralization, global presence and membership.”
Their conclusion: “At first glance, the Vatican is a microstate without massive resources,” the authors wrote. “Be that as it may, it does have a great deal of symbolic power, not least thanks to it partially sharing its identity with a world religion, which makes it a superpower after all, religiously, culturally and socially.”
A Prophesied Role
In a world full of war, injustice and persecution, a church wielding more moral authority seems like a good thing. No wonder many are welcoming the Catholic Church’s increased influence.
But if we consider the actions of a church, we should judge it by what the Bible says.
Christians are those who follow Jesus Christ. Christ described His Church as a “little flock” (Luke 12:32) with “few” followers (Matthew 7:14). God says that His followers would be “hated” and rejected by rulers of this world (John 15:17-20). He also said there would be many deceptive “Christian” churches and organizations (Matthew 7:22-23; 24:5).
In Revelation 17 and other places, the Bible specifically describes another church, symbolized by a woman. This church is not a little, persecuted flock, but a superpower. This church deals with “the kings of the earth” and wields great wealth and power, religiously, culturally and socially.
But God condemns this church’s behavior. A church should choose pure faith and obedience toward Him rather than intermeshing with world governments. He said this church has “committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication” (verse 2).
Revelation 17 describes this church riding and steering a beast, symbolizing an empire. This beast has seven heads, representing seven successive resurrections of the same. At times, it appears dormant, but then it rises up again.
Revelation 13 describes the same prophecy using different symbols. Here, this church appears like a lamb, which is a symbol of Christ (verse 11). Many people believe that it is God’s true Church. But it teaches the world to worship the Holy Roman Empire (see verses 11-12). Its form of government is actually patterned after the government of the Roman Empire. It teaches in its places of worship that this empire is part of God’s plan for man.
But this organization is not God’s Church!
That is why the period during which it dominated international relations in the Middle Ages was such a disaster.
But the Bible prophesies that the Catholic Church will return to power once more, in our time.
The Power to Unite Europe
The Holy Roman Empire will rise in Europe one more time, exactly the way Catholic doctrine says it must. The European Union has spent the last 60 years trying to form itself into this kind of Holy Roman Empire. But it has lacked a strong Catholic element. And it has struggled.
In the November 1965 Plain Truth, Herbert W. Armstrong wrote about one “hard, stern fact” that the nations of Europe must face. “That crucial fact is this: The nations of Europe are utterly unable to unite themselves by their own political maneuvering. …
“How, then, can they agree together and unite? For years the Plain Truth has said these nations are going to have to realize their inability to unite themselves politically—to choose a common political-military leader that all can trust. They are going to finally face the fact they must look to a supreme authority they can all trust! That supreme authority cannot be a politician, or a general …. The only possible answer is a religious leader! …
“Watch for developments suddenly to speed toward European political and military union, through religious union!”
Only through the Vatican’s role as a mediator and peacemaker can bickering nations come back together, as they were centuries ago when Europeans were believers.
The Bible also tells us the Catholic Church will be involved in the peace process in Jerusalem. Hosea 5:13 describes Judah being afflicted by a “wound.” Strong’s Concordance defines that word, “in the sense of binding up: a bandage, i.e. remedy.” Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon says that it is “used figuratively of a remedy applied to the wounds of the state.” The cure is the wound. Obadiah 7 uses the same word, directly referring to it being received by a peace pact.
Israel’s peace process with the Palestinians is a wound, an open sore, sapping the nation’s strength. Yet like some medieval medical procedure, the Jewish nation continues to try to heal itself with that same wound. Hosea 5:13 says that once Israel recognizes this, it will turn to “the Assyrian”—Germany in Bible prophecy. Germany is the key military power in the Vatican-dominated Holy Roman Empire. When Israel sees the peace process has failed, it will turn to this Vatican-led power for help.
The result? Daniel 11:41 states that this European power will “enter also into the glorious land.” The Hebrew word “enter” doesn’t mean invasion. There’s no sign of this being violent at all. Why? Because the Jews believe this Vatican-led power is a peacemaker.
The Vatican-led world order in the Middle Ages ended in one of Europe’s most destructive conflicts in generations. The Bible tells us the new era will be much shorter but much more destructive.
But it also tells us this will be its last resurrection. There will be no more going dormant only to rise again. This time the Holy Roman Empire will be finished for good!
The Holy Roman Empire is a counterfeit of God’s rule on Earth. That is one reason it has been so enduring. But God tells us this time He will replace it with the real thing. Those theologians who taught that the world needed one ruling empire to be at peace were right. But it matters which empire. Soon the God Family Empire will truly bring peace to the world.