At a religious freedom event in Washington, D.C., this week, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States explained how the Holy See takes a unique approach to diplomacy and the promotion of religious liberty.

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who has served as the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States since 2014, explained that he is not a fan of “grandstanding diplomacy,” in which leaders make condemnations from afar.

“It is easy enough for us to say things in Rome or say something in the international press, but the local people have to take the consequences,” Archbishop Gallagher told CNA.

“What we try to do is to engage, to show concern and, very often, to work through our local networks.”

Speaking at a July 24 event co-hosted by the Religious Freedom Institute and The Catholic University of America’s Center for Religious Liberty, the archbishop pointed to the examples of the Vatican’s recent role in negotiations in both Nicaragua and Venezuela.

“The bishops have taken, at the invitation of the government, a role of accompanying and witnessing a dialogue between the government and those groups that are opposing or in conflict. Now that is very complex, and in the moment it is a dialogue that is in great difficulty, but we remain committed to it.”

He added that “we try to remain committed. We don't pull out. We don't give up, because we believe that solutions are possible.”

Gallagher, who has previously served as a papal nuncio in Burundi, Guatemala, and Australia, told CNA that he is even more aware of his responsibility to the people on the ground when making decisions in his current role as Secretary for Relations of States.

“We are always very aware of our responsibility to local people because they are the people who have to sometimes pay the price, and I personally feel that very much, and I know the Holy Father does, so we are obviously cautious,” the archbishop explained.

For Gallagher, this is one of the things that differentiates Vatican diplomacy from the foreign policy of individual countries pursuing a specific national interest.

“We are arguably the oldest diplomatic organization in the world,” he explained, “. . .the Holy See and the pope exercise this role on behalf of the benefit of humanity, not just for the promotion of the Catholic Church.”

“Nearly everywhere in the world there are Catholics . . . Sometimes those Catholics might be a minority group. They might be quite vulnerable. Now if we, by what we say and do, may be contributing or aggravating to their vulnerability, then that is something that you have to think long and hard about before you do it. So that's why we tend to say, ‘Let's try and do it by diplomatic means. Let's talk to people privately.’”

While “grandiose statements and denunciations...have their place sometimes,” he said, “I prefer to talk to people and to reason with people or to put people under personal pressure.”

However, Gallagher said that he would like to see more public conversations about freedom of religion and freedom of conscience, calling them “the litmus test of any society.”

The July 24 event, entitled “The Fight for International Religious Freedom: Perspectives from the Vatican,” was an offshoot of a larger State Department Ministerial on international religious freedom taking place from July 24 - 25.

U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich and her predecessor Ambassador Miguel Diaz also spoke on how the U.S. and Vatican have worked together to advocate on behalf of persecuted religious communities around the world.

Gingrich chaired a panel in the Ministerial focusing on the intersections between women’s rights and religious freedom.
She spoke of the widespread sexual assault, rape, and killings of the Rohingya women and girls in Burma, Boko Haram kidnappings, and ISIS’s enslavement and rape of countless women from Yazidi, Christian, and Muslim communities.

“While these and other repulsive acts have in part been committed on the basis of religion, they in fact represent perversions of religious faith. These abuses have encouraged a misconception that freedom of religion and women’s rights are incompatible – that increased religious freedom restricts equality and justice for women,” she said.

However she rejected these ideas as “unfair and misled characterizations,” saying, “When religious freedom is protected, women’s rights are strengthened, and societies flourish.”