Venice — American relations with the Vatican have settled into a state of public acceptance and diplomatic normalcy. This includes presidential visits with the Roman Catholic Pope, which once aroused political controversy among Americans but today are widely viewed as helping to promote US foreign policy goals.
President Reagan flies to Rome tomorrow for his third meeting with Pope John Paul II in five years. When the Pontiff arrives in the United States in September for a nine-day visit, says a US official, Mr. Reagan will probably be on hand to greet him in Miami or meet with him in California.
Presidential and other high-level contacts with the Vatican have thus become de rigueur, and whatever limited US public opposition existed to the establishment of full diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1984 has subsided.
After Mr. Reagan's appointment in 1984 of the first US ambassador to the Holy See, a number of religious groups, including the National Council of Churches, joined Americans United for Separation of Church and State in a three-year effort to challenge the constitutionality of US diplomatic ties with a church, taking the challenge all the way to the Supreme Court. But the high court refused to review a lower court ruling that the president alone has the authority under the Constitution to conduct foreign policy.
Reagan administration officials express satisfaction with the benefits of full diplomatic relations. The US-Vatican dialogue has not greatly intensified in volume and scope, they say, but the formalized tie makes it easier to broaden and deepen that dialogue on issues ranging from nuclear arms control and third-world debt to the situation in the Middle East and Central America.
``Our interests are often parallel and a discussion of this sort is mutually reinforcing,'' says a State Department official. ``There are occasions when we think there are things the Vatican can do ... such as move toward diplomatic recognition of Israel. There are other times when the Vatican is interested in our doing something - Poland is a case in point.''
The Philippines and Haiti, the official says, are situations where ``despite different approaches, our general view is not that dissimilar and we are working in the same direction.''
The administration makes no bones about trying to influence Vatican positions as it would the policies of a secular government. One area where the US seems to have had success, for instance, is President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, associate editor of the Jesuit periodical America, earlier this year recounted the efforts made by then-US Ambassador William Wilson and other US officials to convince the Holy See of the program's merits. ``This lobbying effort appears to have been successful, since a negative report on SDI prepared by the Pontifical Academy of Science appears to have been suppressed,'' the Reverend Mr. Reese wrote.
The State Department official says the US view at the time was that, if the report had been published, it would have created the impression that the Vatican had reservations about SDI.
Some religious groups, and even some American Catholics, remain uneasy about US government efforts to influence Vatican policies, viewing such efforts as state interference in church affairs. ``It's not the business of this government to influence the deliberations of the church on the application of the Christian message to political and social problems,'' says James M. Dunn, executive director of the Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.
But in the State Department view, the Holy See is an international entity with all the attributes of a nation-state, and the US treats it as a state. ``The nature of the discourse is not much different from the discourse with other countries,'' the official says.
Not all US officials agreed with the move to establish diplomatic relations. Some felt the US already had sufficient access to Vatican officials and intelligence information. But the question was difficult to discuss publicly because of domestic religious and political sensitivities. ``The State Department was co-opted [by the White House] on this, without much dissent at high levels,'' says one State Department official. ``It was not an atmosphere in which criticism could have been made.''
The US mission at the Vatican has grown but remains small by world standards. It now is made up of a staff of 13 employees, including an ambassador, deputy chief of mission, political officer, administrative officer, public affairs officer, and five US Marine guards. Among other things the embassy helps smooth the way for the steady stream of high-level US visitors to the Holy See - from the US secretary of state and other Cabinet officers to congressmen and senators.
``There's been a sea change in [the United States],'' says the State Department official. ``When [President] Truman thought of establishing diplomatic ties, there was strong opposition, and he and succeeding presidents lived with personal representatives to the Vatican. But the [US] has now come to view this as OK and I see no tendency to roll it back.''
With the 1988 presidential race looming, the official indicates, political candidates are already lining up to meet with Pope John Paul during his second American visit.