Partners for Freedom, Justice and Peace

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The United States has not always had the dynamic and versatile relations it has currently. In the 18th century, the U.S. mission to the Holy See (the Papal States) was put in place primarily to protect American merchant interests. Not long after the U.S. Constitution was signed in 1787, the country’s leaders began to see the need for American consular representation in Rome, which at the time was the capital of the Papal States. In addition to protecting commercial interests and looking after the needs of Americans abroad, the consular post offered a unique vantage point to report on the revolutionary instability spreading through Europe in the 19th century.

In June 1846, Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti was elected pope and took the name Pius IX. His election was a driving force in the movement to establish full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. To Americans in Rome, expanded relations seemed natural, but were still resisted by the American public and the U.S. Congress. By June 1847, high-level Vatican officials were voicing their quiet support for the expansion of relations between the Holy See and the United States. Ignoring his critics, President James Polk elevated the position of the American office from “Consul” to “Chargé d’Affaires.”

On March 21, 1848, the U.S. Senate debated an appropriations bill providing funding for Polk’s chargé d’affaires at the papal court. Surprisingly, religious objections to the establishment of relations were hardly invoked during the debate. Only a few of those arguing against sending a chargé d’affaires to Rome claimed such a mission would serve to establish the Catholic Church in the United States.

Sen. Andrew Butler of South Carolina, for example, remarked that he could find no significant reason to send a representative to Rome. He argued that “ours is a government which does not allow us to legislate for religion, and I am not willing indirectly to give countenance to a mission for religious considerations.

Sen. Lewis Cass of Michigan was, nevertheless, quick to make the important distinction that the United States would be sending a representative to the pope in his capacity as a sovereign, not in his spiritual capacity as head of the Roman Catholic Church. This distinction made by Cass more than 150 years ago is still one of the guiding principles of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.

Ultimately, the 1848 Senate appropriations bill passed, and that same year President Polk designated Jacob L. Martin the first chargé d’affaires to the Papal Court. Although the United States had enjoyed official consular relations with the Papal States since 1797, by this act of 1848 the United States formally recognized the Holy See as a full member of the community of nations.

Funding Stops Back to Top

One incident in the mid-19th century greatly tried U.S. and papal relations. In 1863, during the U.S. Civil War, Pius XI sent a letter to the archbishops of New York and New Orleans suggesting that every effort be made for the cause of peace. Confederate President Jefferson Davis responded to the letter and Pius in turn responded to Davis, addressing him as the “Illustrious and Honorable Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.”

To many in the North, this greeting was seen as papal recognition of the Confederate government. Vatican Secretary of State Giacomo Antonelli disputed this, insisting that the pope no way intended to make a political statement in his address to President Davis. Some Americans were satisfied with the Holy See’s claim of neutrality, but others remained suspicious of the Vatican’s intentions.

Despite such gestures of friendship, opposition to the mission in Rome was mounting in the United States. The critics finally won out in 1867 when Congress withdrew all funding for the U.S. mission in Rome. American representation at the Holy See would remain only a memory until 1940.

Cooperation Between Presidents and Popes Back to Top

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. Catholic Church expanded in numbers, power, influence and wealth. With the influx of immigrants from predominantly Catholic countries in the late 1800s, the United States became a country of such increasing importance that the Holy See had no desire to ignore it.

In 1892, Pope Leo XIII appointed Archbishop Franceso Satolli to be the apostolic delegate to the American hierarchy. In order to minimize controversy and damage further public sentiments against the Church, a plan was devised by which Satolli would come to the United States under the pretext of representing the pope at the 1892 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Despite continuing controversy over his presence in the United States, Satolli remained for some four years.

By the middle of the 1930s, the U.S. Depression and domestic issues of mutual concern to both the Catholic Church and President Franklin Roosevelt brought the powerful members of the government and Church into a state of increasing collaboration. President Roosevelt’s crusade against unemployment, unfair labor practices, discrimination and poverty were problems that the American Catholic hierarchy was also attempting to tackle with equal vigor. It was a relationship Roosevelt was more than happy to encourage.

Roosevelt found a devoted friend and supporter in Cardinal George Mundelein of Chicago, a zealous social reformer himself. The president’s first 100 days in office were marked by the successful implementation of recovery programs designed to combat the Great Depression. Cardinal Mundelein wrote the president praising his achievements. This would prove to be the start of a long friendship between these two men.

Defeating Totalitarian Regimes Back to Top

When Pope Pius XI died in February 1939, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli was elected to succeed him. Pope Pius II’s coronation took place on March 12, and President Roosevelt sent as his personal representative Joseph Kennedy, U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. This high-profile representative may very well have been a means to test public opinion toward diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

By that summer, interest in renewing diplomatic relations with the Holy See was rising among some members of the U.S. political establishment. In July, Secretary of State Cordell Hull received a letter from Rep. Emanuel Celler, a Jewish congressman from New York City, arguing for the restoration of diplomatic ties to the Holy See. In his letter Celler pointed out: “Events abroad indicate in no uncertain terms the great stake which religion must play in the preservation of democracy against the savage and merciless inroads of Fascism, Nazism and Communism.” In a dramatic plea, he insisted: “A reinstatement of relations with the Holy See would dramatically serve to recall to the world that intolerance and religious hatred and bigotry cannot flourish here. It would enkindle in our own hearts sympathy for the thousands of unfortunates who have been castigated, tortured and ruined because of a dictator’s insane hate and venom.” The letter goes on to praise the Holy See for always placing a “high value on justice and charity in relations among men and among nations.” In particular Cellar applauded Pius XII and his efforts to comfort war-torn Europe, concluding, “Let us help him in his glorious mission of Peace by sending our delegate to him.”

The idea of sending a representative to the Vatican began to gain ground, prompting Roosevelt to invite New York Cardinal Francis Spellman to lunch on Oct. 24 at the White House to discuss Vatican relations. The president explained to the prelate that a mission to the Holy See would have to be humanitarian in character if it was to avoid controversy and political opposition.

Sensing the time was right, Roosevelt moved quickly to appoint a special representative. On Christmas Eve 1939, he sent a Christmas greeting to the Holy See sharing his hopes for peace and announcing the appointment of Myron C. Taylor as a personal representative of the president to the Holy See. Over the ensuing months, Taylor worked closely with the Vatican to feed refugees streaming across the borders of Europe, provide material aid to the vicims of war-torn Eastern Europe and assist Allied prisoners of war. The U.S. mission became a clearinghouse for thousands of letters from American families eager for news that their loved ones were alive and well.

On Dec. 11, 1941, Italy and Germany declared war on the United States. Taylor, who had been back in America recovering from an illness, returned to Italy in 1942. In a brief visit at the Holy See in September, he reiterated America’s commitment to win complete victory over the Axis powers — a goal that did not correspond to the Holy See’s repeated calls for immediate cessation of hostilities. On June 4, 1944, Allied forces entered Rome and days later stormed the beaches of Normandy, speeding the end of Nazism.

With Hitler’s fall, another equally ominous force was gaining dominion over the East. Communism had posed a threat to the Holy See even before the start of World War II. According to a memo written in 1941 by Taylor about a conversation he had with a Vatican official, the Holy See said Europe was faced with two great dangers: Nazism and communism. If the war could bring an end to both of them, then Europe could live in peace. If, however, communism were to remain an active force, then Europe would be in a grave situation.

It would take many years before the United States, in concert, with renewed and strengthened diplomatic ties to the Holy See, would finally free the world and the Church from the yoke of communist oppression. But the partnership between President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II was still far off in the future.

The President and the Polish Pope Back to Top

The early 1980s were a time of nascent but revolutionary change across Europe. Within three years of Ronald Reagan taking office, the United States would have a full-fledged ambassador representing American interests at the Holy See. Within 10 years, the back of Soviet communism would be broken. Reagan recognized the critical role the Holy See would be able to play in a final assault on the forces of communism in Eastern Europe and he saw Pope John Paul II as a friend and ally.

In 1982 the Holy See made a clear expression of interest in formal relations with the United States. The Knights of Columbus was planning its centennial anniversary when William Wilson, the U.S. representative to the Holy See, received a call from Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli inviting President Reagan to attend the festivities in Connecticut. Wilson conveyed the invitation to the president, who subsequently accepted.

At the Knights’ convention, Cardinal Casaroli had a private hour-long meeting with Reagan. Ambassador Wilson speculates that this meeting provided the impetus for Reagan’s decision to establish formal relations with the Holy See. Less than a year after that historic meeting, the U.S. House of Representatives in June 1983 introduced a resolution calling for the “establishment of United States diplomatic relations with the Vatican.” A Senate bill similar to the House resolution was passed by unanimous vote on Sept. 22, 1983, and on Jan. 10, 1984, President Reagan announced the nomination of Wilson as the first Ambassador to the Holy See.

Working for Common Goals Back to Top

The diplomatic relations that began in the late 18th century have been marked with highs, lows and hiatus right up to today. Few will dispute the role that the Holy Father and a U.S president can play in trying to diminish the growing polarity in the world owing to religious tolerance and extremism. It is the leader of the strongest temporal power in the world teamed closely with one of the great moral leaders of the world, in a common goal of helping others to accept cultural and religious traditions that differ from their own.

I firmly believe, as have my predecessors and my successors, that the Holy See has an international presence like none other. With more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide, the Holy See is partners with the United States in the quest for freedom, justice, peace and human dignity throughout the world.

Jim Nicholson was the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican from 2001 to 2005. He served as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs from 2005 to last fall. A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he served as a Ranger and paratrooper in Vietnam and continued as an Army reservist for 22 years before retiring with the rank of full colonel. He received his law degree from the University of Denver. This article is excerpted with permission from Nicholson’s book The United States and the Holy See: The Long Road (30 Days Books © Trenta Giorni Società Cooperativa). He is a member of Denver Council 539.