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Nigel Baker

Ambassador to the Holy See (2011-2016)

Part of UK in Holy See

19th September 2013

Questions about the Holy See

Nigel Baker OBE MVO

I recently ran a competition on Twitter, inviting questions about the Holy See and the UK’s relationship with it. The response was impressive, with many searching questions. Below are the winners, their questions, and slightly lengthier answers than the 140 characters Twitter permits.

Q. What made possible the great shift from historical anti-Catholicism to dialogue and confidence in UK/Vatican relations? – submitted by Giulio

My Twitter answer was: “Time. Vatican II. Ecumenism. Popes since WWII. 1982 Papal visit. Basil Hume. Northern Ireland dialogue. Better UK understanding.” All were key elements, Giulio, and I don’t think it is possible to say there was one single factor. You are right that well into the twentieth century there was residual nervousness in the UK, reflecting historical relationships since the Reformation, about establishing a full diplomatic presence in Rome. Ironically, though, the Holy See and Britain were great allies in the war against Napoleon, reflected in the Lawrence portrait of Pope Pius VII that hangs in the Waterloo Gallery at Windsor Castle. It helps, now, that religion is not a visceral issue in British domestic affairs, and that the Pope is a spiritual – albeit global – but not a temporal leader. There is so much we can do together.

Q. What can the UK learn from the Holy See’s role in international affairs and global diplomacy? – submitted by Jamie Kerr

Jamie, the universality of the Holy See’s approach is always impressive. Yes, it does have its own ‘interests’ – but how many other world leaders address global issues with the deep concern for human dignity that we see from the Pope? Holy See diplomacy is patient and cautious, sometimes excessively so, but with a long term perspective that tends to trump electoral cycles and short term considerations. Patience is definitely a diplomatic virtue.

Q. The strong UK relationship with the Holy See is well known, especially under Benedict XVI. What differences under Pope Francis? – submitted by Domenico Musso

Q. Has life / work as a diplomat changed at all since Pope Francis was elected – if so how? – submitted by Rory O’Donovan

I would not underestimate the importance of continuity as well as change. Pope Francis has several times stressed his deep respect for the legacy of his predecessor. And the universal values remain the same. But it is clear, Domenico, that there is a new emphasis on some areas including human trafficking, development issues and the need for an activist Holy See foreign policy, all of which we welcome and provide new terrain for engagement across our mutual global concerns. As for the diplomats, Rory, life is that little bit more hectic – everyone has an opinion on Pope Francis, and that means Foreign Ministries round the world want to know what’s going on. It’s up to us to tell them…

Congratulations to the winners of our competition, and I look forward to meeting you. You will all receive a copy of our recent publication: Britain and the Holy See, A Celebration of 1982 and the Wider Relationship. And my thanks to everyone who sent questions from around the world. They demonstrate just how strong interest is in the Holy See at present.

1 comment on “Questions about the Holy See

  1. Thank you very much, Your Excellency, for Your answer.
    I totally agree with You, especially on the complex point concerning the temporal power of the Church and its perceptions in English constitutionalism. Indeed, I feel that one of the most engaging issues in the lengthy and fascinating history of modern English political and constitutional thought comes to be represented by the view (epitomized in Locke’s most famous “Letter concerning toleration”, embedded in the Toleration Act and so on) of Catholicism as “politically intolerable”, being a source of conflicting loyalties in the state. To put it in another way, by the idea that being Catholic and, at a time, loyal subjects-citizens in a nation committed to the preservation of individual liberty was almost impossible, and this because of the “clumsy” presence of a “foreign Head of State (the Pope)” who, as spiritual leader and Vicar of Christ, also had the power to impose to its subjects a definite stance on matters of conscience. In this form, the conflict between modern state and Catholic universalism (an European conflict, leading to Reformation and secularization, as we all know too well) in England reached a very high and “dramatical” cultural/political pitch. I wonder wheter this might be in some ways historically connected with the ascendance of medieval motifs, first of all the representation of formal legitimacy of political power in the British Isles as being connected to the Papacy (much similarities here with the Norman kingdom of Sicily, where I “come from”, being an Italian southerner). A representation which led to clashes and conflicts as the lay state-building progressed (e.g., the dispute between Innoncentius III and John Lackland; the assassination of St. Thomas Becket…), ultimately culminating in King Henry VIII’s breach from Rome and the foundation of the Anglican church (not to mention, a century and a half later, James II’s reign, the Declaration of Indulgence and the Glorious Revolution). The theme is extremely rich and I could go on to unbearable lengths in discussing it (and I feel I don’t possess in the very least degree the competence to do so!): for example, during this tormented history of a lost love (I may be so bold) between England and the Church, one should also consider the importance of the XIX century, which You justly underlined mentioning the cooperation during the Napoleonic wars, and which could be continued considering the influence of the Oxford circle and the rise of anglo-catholicism, the steady decline of traditional whiggism (and its hatred for “Popery”, rooted in the struggles against the royal Stuarts and their supporters), and so on. What’s most important to consider, though, is that now the situation has changed for good: the crisis of “modernity” poses vast challenges both to the noble English constitutionalism and to the Catholic identity; Vatican II continues to urge the Church toward an ever-increasing understanding of contemporary world and towards a global projection as a spiritual force (as You rightly say); meanwhile, the British system faces postmodern complexity too (as a “jurist”, my mind goes firstly to the problems of European integration, with the “threats” of its charters and treaties, their value etc.). I’m certain, with You, that both England and the Church have a long and windy road awaiting them, but we now know that this road can be taken together, with a steadily strenghtening mutual comprehension, respect and even affection. Again, many thanks for Your twitter challenge and Your patience!

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About Nigel Baker

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as…

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy in Havana, Cuba (2003-6) and then as British Ambassador in La Paz, Bolivia (2007-11). In July 2016, Nigel finished his posting, and is currently back in London.

As the first British Ambassador to the Holy See ever to have a blog, Nigel provided a regular window on what the Embassy and the Ambassador does. The blogs covered a wide range of issues, from Royal and Ministerial visits to Diplomacy and Faith, freedom of religion, human trafficking and climate change.

More on Nigel’s career

Nigel was based in London between 1998 and 2003. He spent two years on European Union issues (for the UK 1998 EU Presidency and on European Security and Defence questions), before crossing St James’s Park to work for three years as The Assistant Private Secretary to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. At St James’s Palace, Nigel worked on international issues, including the management of The Prince of Wales’s overseas visits and tours, on the Commonwealth, interfaith issues, the arts and international development.

Nigel spent much of the early part of his FCO career in Central Europe, after an initial stint as Desk Officer for the Maghreb countries in the Near East and North Africa department (1990-91). Between 1992 and 1996, Nigel served in the British embassies in Prague and Bratislava, the latter being created in 1993 after the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the separate Czech and Slovak Republics.

Nigel joined the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) in September 1989. Between 1996 and 1998 he took a two year academic sabbatical to research and write about themes in 18th century European history, being based in Verona but also researching in Cambridge, Paris and Naples. The research followed from Nigel’s time as a student at Cambridge (1985-88) where he read history and was awarded a First Class Honours degree, followed by his MA in 1992.

Before joining the Foreign Office, Nigel worked briefly for the Conservative Research Department in London at the time of the 1989 European election campaign.

Nigel married Alexandra (Sasha) in 1997. They have one son, Benjamin, born in Bolivia in September 2008.

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