Editor’s note: Francis Rooney is scheduled to be a guest on next Sunday’s “Naples Daily NewsMakers with Jeff Lytle” news/interview program airing at 10 a.m, on ABC7.
President Barack Obama’s appointment of Ken Hackett as the next U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, the governing body of the Catholic Church, has calmed speculation that the administration was considering eliminating the mission.
But the weakened relationship between this administration and the Holy See remains a powerful reminder of the unique nature of the global diplomatic engagement of the Holy See and of the role of the U.S. mission in particular.
My new book, “The Global Vatican,” is especially relevant today given these circumstances and the immense change we’re now seeing in the Catholic Church and the world. My book describes how influential and constructive this diplomatic engagement has been throughout history, is at the present time and can be in the future. It also explains the complicated relationship between the United States and the Holy See, seemingly obvious partners in the quest for religious freedom and human dignity, but often at odds due to misunderstandings and political manipulation.
Unlike typical bilateral relationships, the robustness of a particular nation’s engagement with the Holy See depends on the degree to which it values the Holy See’s unique position among sovereign nations and to which it finds the “soft power” which the Holy See projects in the world to be relevant and impactful. However, beyond respect for influence, when a country’s core principles and diplomatic objectives are aligned with the Holy See, the relationship is broad and deep, and offers valuable leverage to achievement of these objectives.
One would think that the country whose origins were based on the “inalienable rights of man” and who enshrined religious freedom in its constitution would have naturally partnered with the Holy See, but it was not the case for many years. President James Polk appointed the first charge d’affaires to the Holy See, Jacob Martin, in 1848, but the relationship became stale after the Civil War and Congress cut off funding in 1867. President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the opportunity of leverage with the Holy See as war was coming and appointed the former CEO of U.S. Steel, a leading industrialist, Myron Taylor, to represent him in the Vatican. This tradition continued off and on until President Ronald Reagan appointed the first ambassador in 1983.
Ever since the Holy See established the world’s first school of diplomacy in 1701, the strength of its diplomatic presence has waxed and waned many times but has consistently pursued diplomacy centered on the protection of human dignity and the natural rights of man, the assurance of freedom for all and establishment of conditions conducive to peace.
After surviving the barbarian invasions in the fifth century, ultimately converting them into Christians, the Holy See faced an existential threat in the reign of Napoleon in 1801. Ultimately, the pope’s resolve won out and Napoleon finally realized that the force of religion was a powerful stabilizing influence on his uneasy populace and came to terms with the Holy See.
The next test was the loss of the Papal States in 1870. Either of these two threats to its sovereignty could have removed the Holy See from diplomatic engagement in the relations among states. The popes involved, Pius VII and Pius IX, refused to accept either diminution of the status of papal concordats and agreements, or subjugation to the rule of another sovereign power.
Subsequently, the Holy See has brought its soft power to bear during the two world wars, using its neutrality to benefit the Unites States and oppose the Axis powers, and during the Cuban missile crisis, when an intermediary of Pope John XXIII established dialogue between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Lacking a territorial or hegemonic agenda, the Holy See does not seek credit for what it might accomplish, which makes it all the more useful and impactful. Pope Benedict XV did not need to draw attention to the similarity between President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” and his seven-point peace plan, just as Pope John Paul II never had to comment on the role he played in bringing down the Iron Curtain. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev did that for him: “Everything that happened in Eastern Europe would have been impossible without the pope.”
Most recently, Pope Benedict XVI defined the nature of the struggle a 21st-century world faces with radical Islam. His address at Regensburg in 2006 captured the intractability of this religiously and culturally based threat. He also drew attention to the risks to good governance when fundamental moral values and the influence of religion are attenuated in the public sphere.
Now we have a new pope, from the Western Hemisphere, bringing a different focus to the external reach of the Holy See. Hopefully, his unpretentious style and clarity of speech will lead more people and governments to consider the core principles of Holy See diplomacy and to modify their behavior toward respect for human dignity and individual rights and liberties.