It was Joseph Stalin who once asked mockingly: "How many divisions does the Pope have?"
The Vatican still remains a player in foreign policy, but recently it is experiencing diplomatic difficulties with China and, surprisingly, with the Republic of Ireland.
The Vatican has excommunicated two Chinese Catholic bishops who were appointed without the approval of the Vatican. In recent years, the Vatican and the Chinese government seemed to have worked out a system where Catholic prelates in China secure the approval of both the Chinese government and the Vatican.
That system has broken down and the bishops were appointed without Vatican approval. The Chinese government expressed its disappointment and called for constructive dialogue: ""If the Vatican is sincere about improving relations, it should rescind the so-called 'excommunications,' and return to the correct path of dialogue."
It may be that the conflict is less between China and the Vatican than between the two groups that claim to represent Chinese Catholics. The officially recognized Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association has historically dealt with the Chinese Communist regime. Simultaneously, an underground Catholic Church exists which is loyal solely to Rome. The official organization plays off Rome against Beijing.
The Vatican has so far failed to weld the two organizations together. The official Catholic organization is planning to appoint an additional seven bishops, whether the Vatican likes it or not.
China was a expected to be a difficult proposition for the church, but the current diplomatic crisis with Ireland is painful. Poland, Ireland and Spain were once considered the most faithful daughters of the church in Western Europe.
Spain has gone through a process of secularization and the weakening of the church's position. In Ireland, the prestige and the position of the church have been buffeted by revelations of child abuse by the clergy. Following a report into abuse by the clergy in the Cork diocese, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny and his Justice Minister Alan Shatter pledged to compel priests to reveal anything they hear in the confession box about such abuse.
The church regards such confessions as privileged information, akin to attorney-client relations, so the church has reacted heatedly. Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti, a Vatican theologian, dismissed the idea:
“Ireland can approve all the laws it wants, but it should know the church will never allow itself the obligation to betray the confessional to civil authorities,” said the Archbishop.
“It is absurd to think that priests should be obliged to betray what is said in the confessional box.”
Shatter has retorted "the central focus of the government is child protection." Therefore the government would not be bound by "internal rules of any religious grouping".
The Vatican has responded by recalling its ambassador to Ireland for a consultation and the Irish government responded dryly that consultations were perhaps a good idea since the ambassador could inform Rome about the cover-up and its negative repercussions.