Joe Biden upbeat on Pope Francis, but US-Vatican relations not always so rosy

The first US ambassador to the Holy See wasn’t appointed until 1984, when President Reagan broke the ice. Vice President Joe Biden is attending the installation of Pope Francis.

Riccardo De Luca/AP
Vice President Joe Biden attends the installation of Pope Francis at the Vatican, Tuesday.

Vice President Joe Biden seems as if he’s been having a great time in Italy attending the installation of Pope Francis at the Vatican. On Monday, Mr. Biden expressed words of hope about the new pontiff, saying Pope Francis “shares a vision that all of us share, to reach out to the poor and the dispossessed.” Later Biden, a Roman Catholic himself, joked that “I’ll lose my soul” if late for a meeting with US cardinals.

But what he didn’t say was this: US-Vatican relations have not always run so smoothly. Largely because of prejudice against Catholics, the US government throughout its history has had unsteady official contact with the Holy See, the supreme body of government of the Roman Catholic Church and a sovereign juridical entity under international law.

In fact, the first US ambassador to the Holy See wasn’t appointed until 1984, when President Ronald Reagan finally broke the ice.

“[I]t took America over two centuries before it entered into formalized relations with the oldest international personality in the community of nations,” Thomas P. Melady, a former US envoy to the Vatican, and Timothy R. Stebbins wrote in a 2009 paper in “The Ambassadors Review.”

That doesn’t mean there was no official contact at all. From the early days of the republic, the new United States and the venerable Holy See exchanged lower-level diplomats. In 1848, President James Polk upped the ante a bit by appointing Jacob Martin as chargé d’affaires to the Papal States. This recognition, just below the ambassadorial level, meant that the US saw the Holy See as in essence another nation. It remained the status quo until 1867, when Congress passed a law prohibiting use of US funds for American-Holy See relations.

Why so harsh? Because anti-Catholic sentiment was rising in the America of the time, as poor Catholic immigrants poured into the country from Ireland, France, Italy, and Spain. Many voters were afraid that the Vatican was a dangerous, foreign octopus of an enemy, participating in numerous anti-US and anti-Protestant conspiracies. The Know Nothing movement of the 1850s made this a political mantra and recruited a number of prominent national lawmakers.

Thus began a “74 year interregnum during which there was no American diplomatic representation to the Pope,” Messrs. Melady and Stebbins write.

The wily President Franklin Roosevelt maneuvered around this sentiment in 1939. He sent a “personal envoy” to the pope, Myron Taylor, who served in the position for more than a decade. Thus even while the US and Italy fought in World War II, an American diplomat lived in Vatican City, in the heart of the enemy capital of Rome.

In 1951, President Harry Truman wanted to take the last step and raise representation to the official ambassadorial level. This led to an outburst of opposition and advice from Democratic Party leaders not to take that step. Surprisingly, the liberal icon Eleanor Roosevelt was among those preaching caution.

“[I]t seems to me since we are a Protestant country, we should heed the very evident feeling so many Protestants have against having an ambassador at the Vatican,” she wrote Truman in a 1952 letter posted on the Truman library website.

“The recognition of any church as a temporal power puts that church in a different position from any of the other churches and while we are now only hearing from the Protestant groups, the Moslems may one day wake up to this and make an equal howl. For us who take a firm stand on the separation of church and state, the recognition of a temporal power seems inconsistent,” FDR’s widow continued.

Truman bowed to political pressure and didn’t make the political appointment. But after his Washington pastor at the First Baptist Church preached against recognition from the pulpit, Truman never returned to the church, according to the Truman library.

Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson didn’t appoint personal representatives. (John Kennedy, the first Catholic president, confronted religious prejudice in his own campaign; he must have felt that naming a representative to the Vatican would only have inflamed the situation.) Jimmy Carter revived the appointment practice, and Mr. Reagan continued it.

Pope John Paul II was the game-changer. Reagan met the pope in Vatican City in 1982 and was enormously impressed by the energetic pope’s support of his native Poland’s Solidarity labor movement.

Reagan and Pope John Paul “forged an important partnership in their efforts to discredit the Soviet Union,” notes a Council on Foreign Relations background publication on US-Vatican relations.

Thus a Protestant president who was a favorite of evangelical Christians obtained what Truman could not – Senate confirmation of a US ambassador to the Vatican, William A. Wilson.

“In 1984, a revised Concordat was signed defining the relations between the government and the church within Italy. The United States and the Holy See announced the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1984,” the US State Department notes in its summary of the history of US-Vatican relations.

Today the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See, the equivalent of the Vatican’s embassy, is one of the most visible such buildings in Washington. It sits near the top of D.C.’s Embassy Row on Massachusetts Avenue, right across from the entrance to the Naval Observatory, the official home of the US vice president.

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