‘An Act Of Hope’: U.S. Diplomacy And The Vatican
Religion & Liberty Online

‘An Act Of Hope’: U.S. Diplomacy And The Vatican

In Francis Rooney’s book, The Global Vatican, Rooney quotes Pope Benedict XVI regarding diplomacy, that it is, “in a certain sense, an act of hope.” This is an apt description of the work of diplomats, especially those associated with the Vatican. As Rooney points out,

The pope comes to the table with no threats, no bullets, no drones; he has no stick and no carrots. He comes simply as a man of faith, armed with words and beliefs. His is the ultimate soft power.

The Global Vatican is a rich and pleasantly-detailed look at the history of U.S.-Vatican relations, as well as Rooney’s recollections of his time as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See from 2005-2008. While one can imagine that the job of a diplomat varies from place to place, much of it is the same: to represent the interest of one’s own country while serving in a foreign land. In the case of the Holy See, it’s even more complex: the Holy See is the home of a religion, not simply a nation of people under one flag. As Rooney points out, to understand Vatican diplomacy, one must understand the Catholic Church.

Rooney does an admirable job of romping through American and Vatican relations. Given the deep anti-Catholic sentiments in this nation since its inception, much of those relations were strained. One memorable story of a “crimp” in diplomacy is the story of Archbishop Gaetano Bedini, personal envoy of Pope Pius IX, who was sent to the U.S. in 1853. He was received by President Franklin Pierce, and then traveled to several cities. Officially, the welcome was warm, but unofficially, anti-Catholic views were that he was an “interloper,” sticking his nose into business that was not his. By the time he got to Cincinnati, Bedini had been burned in effigy, and violent mobs turned out to meet him. He had to be smuggled out of New York harbor under dark of night, and left the U.S. with little affection for the place. Thankfully, relations between the U.S. and the Vatican have improved greatly since then.

Rooney clearly believes a turning point in these relations occurred during the mid-20th century. First, the U.S. and the Vatican forged a friendship battling the foe of Communism. Then, the Catholic Church’s Vatican II and the papacy of John XXIII, coupled with the Presidency of John F. Kennedy, ushered in a new era of American comfort with the Catholic Church, but also an understanding of how valuable the Vatican could be on the global playing field. Rooney notes, as example, the “Bay of Pigs” incident in 1962. The Soviet Union had installed missiles in Cuba, aimed at the U.S. and President Kennedy, calling for a quarantine on Soviet ships approaching Cuba and warning of retaliation if necessary, brought about what Rooney terms, “[t]he most dangerous international standoff in world history.”

In an effort to bring calm, Pope John XXIII spoke via radio, asking both parties to step back. The pope’s message was sent to both Washington and Moscow, and printed on the front page of Pravda. The next day, Kruschev wrote to Kennedy, asking for a deal, thus de-escalating the situation. Rooney is quick to point out that one can’t give the pope all the credit here, but his words allowed for both leaders to back down without losing credibility.

The neutrality of the Holy See is the key to its diplomatic success. In 2002, Kofi Annan (then-Secretary General of the United Nations) approached the Holy See to apply for full membership to the U.N. Since joining the U.N. in 1964, the Holy See has operated under “permanent observer status.” This allows for voting on procedural matters, co-sponsoring drafts of resolutions, and participation in meetings and assemblies, but does not allow for voting on resolutions. It was the lone U.N. member with such a designation…and it remains so. The Vatican determined that becoming a full member of the U.N. was not a wise choice, as it would “inevitably compromise the Holy See’s impartiality, forcing it into political alliances and voting blocs.” Instead, the Holy See’s observer status allows it to preserve its “universality and moral authority.”

In 1946, President Harry S Truman said, “Both religion and democracy are founded on one basic principle, the worth and dignity of the individual man and woman.” It is under this principle that diplomacy between the U.S. and the Vatican operates. The Global Vatican illustrates that it hasn’t always been an easy alliance, but it certainly is fascinating. The “soft power” of the Holy See is unique and universally observed, and Rooney’s book provides ample insight into that power.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.