REVIEW: Article

United States-Vatican Diplomatic Relations: The Past and The Future

The beginning of a new administration is a good opportunity to examine the diplomatic relations between the United States (US) and another state. This is also a good time to examine the relations between the United States and the Holy See.

The White House announced on April 6, 2001, that it was the intention of President George W. Bush to nominate Mr. James Nicholson as the next Ambassador of the United States to the Holy See. Mr. Nicholson, an alumnus of the Military Academy at West Point served as an officer in the armed forces. He subsequently graduated from law school and practiced law in the state of Colorado. In 1997, he was elected Chairman of the Republican National Committee and played a major role in the George W. Bush presidential campaign. He is a friend of the President and is well connected with the White House.

On January 10, 1984, when President Reagan announced the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See, he appointed William A. Wilson, who had been serving as his personal representative to the Pope, as the first US Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Holy See. Ambassador Wilson was a well known business executive from California.

The second US Ambassador was Frank Shakespeare, who had been Director of the US Information Agency (USIA) and Ambassador to Portugal. He was also an activist in public affairs.

Dr. Thomas Patrick Melady, appointed by President George H. W. Bush as the third Ambassador, served from 1989 to 1993. He was a former University President, US Ambassador and an Assistant Secretary for Post Secondary Education. 

President Clinton appointed in the spring of 1993, the Hon. Raymond Flynn, who was mayor of Boston and a former head of the Association of US urban mayors. The Hon. Corinne (Lindy) Boggs, widow of Hale Boggs, Speaker of the House, succeeded him in 1997. She also served for nine terms in the US Congress.

The appointment of national figures to this position started in the personal representative period. President Roosevelt appointed Myron Taylor, retired Chairman of the US Steel Corporation, as his personal representative in 1939. President Nixon appointed Henry Cabot Lodge and President Carter selected Robert F. Wagner, a former mayor of New York City.

Early History

In the first years of the United States, the new Republic had contacts with the Papal States. During that period, Papal authority extended over the territory of central Italy. However, the recognition by the United States did not include any perception of the Holy See and its unique international personality.

The consular relations established by the United States in March 1797 with the Papal States, whose capital was Rome, were reciprocated at the same consular level in 1826 when the Papal States established a consulate in New York City. President James Polk proposed in 1848 that the United States extend formal de jure recognition to the Papal States and appointed a Chargé d’Affaires. Mr. Jacob I. Martin presented his credentials to the Pope Pius IX in Rome on August 19, 1848. Mr. Martin was followed in a period of nineteen years by five other diplomats. They were: Lewis Cass, Jr., 1849-1858; John P. Stockton, 1858-1861; Alexander W. Randell, 1861-1862; Richard M. Blatchford, 1862-1863; and, Rufus King, 1863-1867.

Rufus King was the last minister resident to the Papal States. He left his post in August 1867. Beginning in that year, it would not have been possible to fund such a diplomatic post, as Congress in that year prohibited the financing of any diplomatic post to the Papal authority. Furthermore, with the incorporation of the Papal States into Italy (following Garibaldi’s unification of Italy and virtual imprisonment of Pius IX), the United States would not have had a basis for its recognition, since control of territory was an intrinsic part of its original recognition of the Papal States. The international personality role of the Holy See and the unique role of the Pope himself were not part of the act of US recognition (at that time).

Mr. King’s departure from Rome in 1867 initiated a long interregnum of seventy-two years when the United States did not have a diplomatic representative to the Pope. There was little or no indication that this absence of diplomatic contact would end until the Franklin Roosevelt Administration launched the concept of a “personal representative of the President.” It is interesting to note that the long absence of diplomatic representation coincided with the period of strong anti-Catholicism in the United States. It was a time when an increasing number of immigrants from predominantly Catholic countries were arriving, and there was a strong negative reaction against the Irish, the French, the Italians, the Spanish and the Germans—all those from predominantly Catholic countries. The literature at the time was full of highly intemperate and in many cases vicious characterization of the leadership of the Catholic Church. It is hard to imagine that there could be any kind of approval by the US Congress for a diplomatic representative to the Pope under the circumstances of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States.

The question of the sovereignty of the Vatican City State was cleared up in 1929. The Lateran Treaty of that year established that the Republic of Italy recognized the sovereignty of the Vatican City State.

Personal Representative to the Pope

President Roosevelt announced on December 24, 1939, that he intended to send a personal representative to the Pope. The same announcement also included the news that he wanted closer contacts with the leaders of the major faiths. Thus, on Christmas Eve 1939, he informed the President of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ and the President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America that he would be maintaining contact with them on ways to promote peace.

The appointment to the Protestant and Jewish organizations were cover operations for the real plan that Roosevelt had in mind: US diplomatic contacts with the Vatican in Rome.

There was considerable opposition in the United States to this action of President Roosevelt. Since the appointment did not require Senate approval, there was no way to focus a national campaign against it. Some of the opposition was rooted in sincere concern about the constitutional implications of the appointment.

Few took the pains to point out that the recognition of other state leaders, who also had important roles as heads of Churches or religious leaders, such as (at that time) the Emperor of Japan, the King of Saudi Arabia, the Emperor of Ethiopia and the British Monarch did not prevent their recognition as leaders of sovereign states.

And there was the clear case of unabashed anti-Catholicism. In 1939, Catholics were not members of the American political power establishment. But President Roosevelt appreciated the geopolitical significance of the Vatican and pushed through his appointment of Myron Taylor, retired corporate leader and an Episcopal lay leader. President Roosevelt’s special representative arrived in Rome when Nazi Germany was scoring victories on the war front in 1940.

Taylor in Rome

Mr. Taylor, once he arrived in Rome, was regarded as the US Ambassador. He served for ten years, which covered the World War II period. Taylor had easy access to the Pope and, of course, top Vatican officials. His office was a source of important information to the United States. He was able to influence the Holy See in 1945 to immediately recognize the dangers of the communist Soviet Union expansion.

Following the retirement of Myron Taylor, President Truman decided to open up a full Embassy of the United States to the Vatican. He nominated General Mark Clark as the US Ambassador in 1951.

Opposition to the nomination mounted quickly. The opposition did not focus on the credentials of General Clark but on the recognition of a “Church” by the US government. The Truman Administration did not do well in explaining the existence of the Vatican City State as a sovereign state.

The high emotional overtones of the opposition were sufficient to torpedo the attempt to establish full diplomatic relations between the United States and the Papal authority.

In 1952, President Truman decided not to summit the nomination of General Clark to the formal confirmation process. Another 18 years would pass before a US President would attempt to name any kind of diplomat to the Vatican.

President Nixon broke the long interregnum in 1969 and appointed Henry Cabot Lodge as his personal representative, and President Carter sent a former New York City mayor to the Vatican.

Action by President Reagan

Within months of President Reagan’s inaugural in 1981, it became known that he was looking into the challenges of establishing full diplomatic relations with the Vatican. One of the first steps taken by President Reagan was to obtain the repeal of the 1868 law which prohibited the expenditure of funds for an Embassy to the Vatican. He was successful in obtaining the repeal. There was no real opposition, and this was interpreted as a favorable sign for those who favored full diplomatic relations.

President Reagan moved quickly and on January 10, 1984, announced that full diplomatic relations between the United States and the Vatican had been established. The President did this over the opposition of the office of the Secretary of State.

What a difference 32 years could make! In 1952 there were demonstrations and loud opposition. In 1984, there were few manifestations against the Vatican or Catholicism. The nomination of Ambassador Wilson was approved by a landslide vote.

Since the Senate vote in 1984, there has been no opposition in the Senate to subsequent nominations. Several attempts were made to challenge the establishment of diplomatic relations in the courts; they were unsuccessful.

When Ambassador Lindy Boggs, the very popular fifth US Ambassador, took leave of her duties as Ambassador on March 1, 2001, 174 states recognized the Holy See. The structures of US-Vatican diplomatic relations are safe and sound.

Opposition to the diplomatic role of the Holy See appeared on another front in 2000. A group of individuals and organizations attempted to influence the United Nations (UN) to reduce the status of the Observer Mission of the Holy See to that of a non-governmental organization (NGO). There was an avalanche of support for the Holy See to support its Observer status at the United Nations.

One of those speaking strongly in favor of the Holy See role at the UN was the Hon. George W. Bush, then the Governor of Texas. It is widely believed that the new Ambassador representing President George W. Bush, will begin his duties at the Vatican with a warm and welcoming reception.


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