If one adheres to the view that the various secularization theses of twentieth-century sociology—by which at least the advanced industrial world is to painlessly and permanently evolve into an irreligious collective future—seriously overlooked the enduring significance of the institutional Roman Catholic Church, then it bears emphasizing that the Protestant theses of the seventeenth central to the foundation of modern international relations were by no means so seriously misinformed. Universally referenced in this respect is Englishman Thomas Hobbes, who in the final section of Leviathan (1991 [1651]) condemns the Catholic Church and its papacy as a “Kingdome of Darknesse” dedicated to the usurpation of civil government. Although other Westphalian and Restoration commentators, including Samuel Pufendorf, Hugo Grotius, Christian Thomasius, and George Lawson, may not share the rhetoric of Hobbes, they did largely share his view, stressing the vital importance of religious questions for international politics. Social science has therefore since 9/11 not so much “discovered” the influence of the theological upon the political—as it too often supposes—but rather rediscovered a vital and enduring connection buried under generations of Marxian debris.

The overall intent of Modern Papal Diplomacy and Social Teaching in World Affairs—edited by Mariano P. Barbato, Robert J. Joustra, and Dennis R. Hoover (2019)—is to continue such rediscovery with respect to the recent papacy. They argue, “Just as the Vatican by its very existence challenges our common understanding of things like sovereignty and power in the international system, so its boutique diplomacy is also the ‘tip’ of the iceberg of what the Vatican can, and has, done in foreign relations” (1). Originating from a 2017 scholarly conference in the Vatican entitled “Popes on the Rise! Mobilization, Media, and the Political Power of the Modern Papacy,” the 17 articles are republished from respective volumes (2005–18) of The Review of Faith & International Affairs, with most of the 18 contributors research professors in Central Europe or the United States concerned with the intersection of Christianity and democratic politics. The book is organized into two parts.

The first part is entitled “Contemporary Research Articles on the Papacy and World Affairs,” with its ten submissions, according to this reviewer, falling into four categories. The most pronounced tendency, first, is identification and discussion of the Holy See as a robust and enduring transnational actor, which both realists and liberals for their own ideological reasons have often been slow to recognize and reluctant to admit. In “Sovereignty, Supranationalism, and Soft Power: The Holy See in International Relations” (pp. 6-20), Timothy A. Byrnes surveys papal diplomacy on such questions as resistance to the Iron Curtain, the pursuit of nuclear détente, climate change, and stateless persons to boldly argue on behalf of “the unique constellation of resources and status that the Holy See brings to its participation in global politics” (17). Mathias Albert (pp. 21-30) likewise stresses the importance of papal semantics within a functionally differentiated global order. Relying upon English realist Hedley Bull, Thomas Diez (pp. 31-38) contends that increased international solidarity by reason of a responsibility ethic, non-governmental involvement, and diplomatic change has resulted in increased papal visibility since the 1980s. Meanwhile, Jodok Troy compares the position of the seven Roman pontiffs with that of the nine United Nations Secretaries-General since 1945 in order to contend that “a combination of individuals in institutions leads to the influence and possession of moral authority beyond constitutional arrangements and external structural constraints and opportunities” (69). The second group of submissions approaches the subject through critical theory, the current academic term for the Marxian epistemology essentially concerned with how power relations are sustained through linguistic structures. Kratochvíl and Hovoková (pp. 79-92) compare the respective Urbi and Orbi messages of Benedict XVI and Francis to identify a shared emphasis upon the spiritual and physical welfare of the peoples of Africa and the Middle East. Barbato (pp. 93-104) seeks to establish the public diplomacy function of the annual Deepavali messages addressed to Hindus in India. Then Scott M. Thomas (pp. 105-25) traces a critical thread from Francis of Assisi through French professor Louis Massignon to suggest that “the radicalism of Franciscan metaphysics is relevant to international relations” (113). Papal social teaching, third, is addressed in Joustra’s contribution (pp. 39-47) regarding how the encyclical Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII, 1891) can facilitate a moral reconsideration of the trade union question in North America, while Adrian Hänni, fourth, furnishes a fascinating case-study (pp. 48-66) of the samizdat activities of The Commission for the Persecuted Church (La Commission pour l’Eglise Persécutée) during the 1950s and 1960s.

Part two consists of seven older and shorter archival essays (2005–06) primarily concerned with various international dimensions of the John Paul II and Benedict XVI pontificates. Grasso and Hunt (pp. 127-33) lead with a ringing endorsement of Dignitatis Humanae (1965) as a “needed bulwark against any counterfeit ‘religious freedom’ that offers only relativism and the radical privatization of faith” (126). Allen D. Hertzke (pp. 134-39) in much the same vein traces the influence of Vatican II-era human rights policy on the passage of the International Religious Freedom Act (1998) and the increased institutional salience of faith-based questions in the US State Department. Scott M. Thomas (pp. 163-73) seeks to establish a useful intersection between the political theory of Alasdair MacIntyre and modern Catholic personalism as a partial antidote to the destructive tendencies of hyper-Enlightenment individualism. Weigel (pp. 140-43) and Christiansen (pp. 144-51) provide coverage of John Paul II on the world stage, while O’Connor (pp. 152-54) and Christiansen (pp. 155-61) respectively characterize the international engagement of Benedict XVI as “Diplomacy of Candor” and “Peacemaker.”

The volume is intended for specialists. The general reader interested in developing greater functional awareness of both the “hard” and “soft” power of the papacy in postwar world politics is therefore advised to begin elsewhere, perhaps with Robert A. Graham’s Vatican Diplomacy (1959), Anthony Rhodes’ The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators (1973), or Hyginus Cardinale’s The Holy See and the International Order (1976). But on its own terms, Modern Papal Diplomacy and Social Teaching in World Affairs suffers somewhat from an apparent discrepancy between its title and the contents of a number of the submissions. International relations as a concept involves the entirety of concrete and abstract political interactions across the globe, but the term diplomacy is much more restrictive, consisting of the formal display of the prestige intended “to impress other nations with the power one’s own nation actually possesses, or with the power it believes, or wants the other nations to believe, it possesses” (Morgenthau 1985 [1948]: 87). Much of the material is but indirectly concerned with papal diplomacy as such, with the majority of the contributions instead inclined to apply the international theories preferred by their authors to various dimensions of Catholic ortho-doxy and ortho-praxis. Nor is any attempt made to distinguish Catholic from papal, or the Holy See as a late Roman imperial institution from the Vatican city-state created as recently as 1929. Consequently, the actual structure of pontifical diplomacy remains a blur, with such vital components as the Cardinal Secretary of State and his canonical authority (CIC/1983, c. 365 § 1) to conclude concordats completely overlooked, whilst at the same time subjects such as the normative alterations of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), however inherently interesting and historically important, are pursued in a volume that would outwardly appear to restrict itself to the papacy.

But these are nevertheless welcome contributions to the further establishment of the positive international role played by the Holy See in recent decades. There is every reason to expect that with no end in sight to current global turmoil, the Bishop of Rome shall continue to feed its squabbling nations as his flock.