The U.S. and the Holy See: Evolving Attitudes

The following is an excerpt, edited for clarity, from “The Global Vatican: An Inside Look at the Catholic Church, World Politics, and the Extraordinary Relationship between the United States and the Holy See.” It is reprinted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield.

Whatever challenges and changes each face, the United States and the Holy See remain two of the most significant institutions in world history, one a beacon of democracy and progress, the other a sanctum of faith and allegiance to timeless principles. Despite the obvious differences between the first modern democracy and the longest surviving Western monarchy, both were founded on the idea that “human persons” possess inalienable natural rights granted by God. This had been a revolutionary concept when the Catholic Church embraced it 2,000 years ago, and was equally revolutionary when the Declaration of Independence stated it 1,800 years later.

Given our mutual respect for human rights, it is natural, even inevitable, that we should be friends and collaborators. Why it took nearly two hundred years for us to establish formal diplomatic relations is a question explored at some length in these pages. The answer lies in our respective histories, particularly in the evolution of each one’s attitude toward the other. The short answer is that both the United States and the Holy See had to overcome deeply held convictions and perceptions — entrenched anti-Catholicism on the part of Americans; antidemocratic, monarchical reflexes on the part of the Holy See — and that neither managed to do so until the latter half of the twentieth century.

“Congress will probably never send a Minister to His Holiness,” wrote John Adams (great-grandfather of Henry Adams) in 1779, voicing the opinion shared by many of his compatriots. Nor, added Adams, should Congress accept a nuncio from the pope, “or in other words, an ecclesiastical tyrant which, it is to be hoped, the United States will be too wise ever to admit into their territories.”

Some Americans still question our diplomatic relations with the Holy See. They do so by either citing the Establishment Cause of the First Amendment — that it is unconstitutional for the U.S. government to accord diplomatic status to a religious body — or assuming that, as a matter of realpolitik, the relationship is inconsequential.

I earnestly hope that this book shows the error of those views. President Reagan established full diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1984 because, among other reasons, he realized that he could have no better partner than the Pope John Paul II in the fight against communism — and he was right.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Holy See has continued to play an important role as a diplomatic force while maintaining formal relations with 179 countries, a number surpassed only by the United States. The church is one of the leading advocates and providers for the poor in the world, fights against the scourge of human trafficking and advances the cause of human dignity and human rights more than any other organization in the world.

The Holy See also plays a significant role in pursuing diplomatic solutions to international problems, whether promoting peace between Israel and Palestine, for example, or helping end the civil war in Lebanon or obtaining the release of nearly one hundred political prisoners from Cuba in 2010 — or numerous other examples discussed in this book.

Francis Rooney served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See from 2005 to 2008. He is also an alumnus of Georgetown University.

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