Diplomacy, Vatican style: Relationships are key, says former ambassador

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Pope Francis exchanges greetings with Ken Hackett, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, and his wife, Joan, during a meeting with ambassadors to the Holy See at the Vatican Jan. 13, 2014. Hackett is the author of a new book, “The Vatican Code: American Diplomacy in the Time of Francis.” CNS photo/Paul Haring

VATICAN CITY. Ken Hackett, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said he was advised early on that diplomacy with the Vatican was about relationships, not transactions.

“You have no oil to sell, no rockets, no guns, no grass seed. You are not selling anything,” he said. Instead, you must “develop workable relationships with the many people in the Curia and elsewhere, in order to really find out what’s going on and to be able to do your job.”

So, naturally, Hackett’s book, “The Vatican Code: American Diplomacy in the Time of Francis,” is heavily focused on relationships formed during his term in Rome, from October 2013 to January 2017.

Now 75, he came to the Vatican already having built many relationships with Catholic leaders around the globe from his 40 years at Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas aid and development agency. He served as president and CEO of the organization from 1993 through 2011.

The job took him all over the world – literally – which, he wrote, provided one challenge when he underwent the thorough vetting of the FBI before his nomination by President Barack Obama was announced.

“Part of the background examination was to list every country visited over the last 15 years, people whom I had met, and the topics discussed. This was totally unworkable for me; my life had been filled with international travel,” he wrote. “I handed the investigator my old passports. If he wanted more specifics, I would be happy to answer to the extent that I could recall.”

The need to build personal relationships and the need to bide one’s time go hand in hand at the Vatican.

Hackett received patience training even before he arrived in Rome. He wrote in the book that Denis McDonough, then-chief of staff for Obama, first approached him about the ambassadorship at his CRS retirement party in February 2012. He did not present his credentials to the pope until 20 months later – and it was a different pope by then.

But the Vatican has elevated patience to an art form, which, Hackett wrote, “was often hard to appreciate, because many of us had a limited term and wanted things accomplished on our watch.”

Hackett also said he learned the limits of trying to press, pressure, or cajole the Vatican, including when it came to Russia.

In an interview Nov. 30 from his home in Florida, Hackett said that in 2014 when Russia invaded the Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and Crimea, “I, like many other ambassadors there at the Vatican, were very upset that the Holy See wasn’t more forthright in condemning the invasion, and we spent a lot of time using what little cache we had to try to convince those in the Secretary of State to be more out front in condemning it.”

“That is when I learned that actually, as a matter of long-term practice, the pope, in particular, and the Holy See, in general, do not come out in a condemnatory way,” Hackett told Catholic News Service. Even when it disagrees strongly, “it does not want to close the door.”

“If you come out slamming your fist on the table, calling somebody what they are – a murdering person – you probably will not be invited to participate in negotiations or to mediate,” he said.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale war on Ukraine in February, the policy has continued, he noted. And Pope Francis has been asked repeatedly why he does not condemn Putin and Russia by name.

“In his recent interview with the America magazine staff,” Hackett said, the pope was asked again and “said something to the effect that ‘everybody knew who I was talking about, even though I didn’t name him.’”

“I mean, come on,” Hackett said. “That’s true, but being an American, we like to say it sometimes. And it’s frustrating when it’s not said.”

Then, again, popes “have been doing this a long, long time,” he said. “And they’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t. But I mean, at this point, there is nobody who doesn’t believe they (the Vatican) know exactly what’s going on.”

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