Revisiting the “Holy Alliance” between the United States and the Vatican

By: Marie Gayte

December 6, 2019

Vatican Diplomacy in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

Much has been said about the tensions between Pope Francis and Donald Trump over immigration policy, climate change, and regulation of the market economy. The rift currently characterizing relations between the Holy See and the United States is often contrasted with the heydays of the “holy alliance” between John Paul II and Ronald Reagan to defeat communism, a time during which diplomatic relations between the two powers were restored after a 130-year hiatus. At the time, the common perception was of a natural alignment between the West and the Vatican. If the depth of this so-called alliance has been largely exaggerated, little has been said about the dismay experienced by Washington when Pope John Paul II’s policies departed from Reagan administration objectives. If the circumstances of the time should not be neglected, it appears that, just like today, the Vatican was also charting its own course, which happened to intersect with U.S. foreign policy at times—but not always. Pontiffs since the days of Leo XIII have had as top priorities the promotion of peace, the defense of human rights and of human dignity. However, they also have aimed to foster what they see as the interests of the Universal Church, to quote Giovanni Barberini, namely the freedom and autonomy of local church institutions, the rights and freedom of the faithful, and the conditions for the development and the growth of the Catholic faith in general.

To these enduring aspects of Vatican diplomacy, Francis has added his own “touch” by emphasizing the importance of a culture of encounter, as well as by highlighting a series of guiding principles listed in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, such as the importance of unity prevailing over conflict, or the whole being greater than the parts. Pope Francis’ personality has also brought a new dimension from his two immediate predecessors, being the first post-Cold War pope, whose center of gravity locates him firmly outside of the U.S. orbit and makes him aspire to a multipolar world.

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the pursuit of the Vatican’s own interest resulted in its sustaining contacts with Cuba, much to U.S. dismay. It also accounts for its continuous attempts at rapprochement with China, which led to the signing of a September 2018 deal with Beijing on the appointment of bishops, the culmination of efforts initiated in his day by John Paul II. In addition, this deal, which U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback said would advance the regime’s “war on faith” throughout the country bears the imprint of Pope Francis’ desire to see Christians around the world unite. Vis-à-vis Russia, Francis’ early contacts with Vladimir Putin, his subdued reaction to the Russian invasion of Crimea, and his refusal to take side in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, or to support autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, despite the clear position of Ukrainian Catholics and appeals by the United States, point to two things. One can first see continuity with efforts from previous popes to heal the thousand-year schism with Orthodox brethren by not antagonizing the political authority with which they are closely associated. One can also see Pope Francis’ touch: Faced with the urgency to protect Middle Eastern Christians, he does not turn necessarily to the United States, especially as the country is seen as bearing most of the blame for the current situation in the region. One may also add that the Vatican did not see eye to eye with the United States on this issue as early as the days of the Obama administration. On all three issues, the Vatican defended the interests of the church, and the virtues of dialogue and unity, whether the United States liked it or not.

Despite these noteworthy differences, the Holy See under Pope Francis has also remarked when Trump administration policies intersected with the interests or the priorities of the Holy See. Thus, the pope had words of praise for the June 30, 2019 summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, which he called a good example of the “culture of encounter” that has been the trademark of his papacy so far. Also, there seems to be satisfaction in the Vatican about the Trump administration’s emphasis on the need to promote international religious freedom and defend persecuted Christian minorities, especially in the Middle East. The ministerial held in July 2018 was attended by the Vatican’s “foreign minister,” Secretary for Relations with the States Paul Gallagher, while last October’s symposium on religious freedom, the fight against human trafficking, and humanitarian assistance—jointly hosted by the Vatican Secretariat of State and the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See—was attended by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (who availed himself of the opportunity to mention twice the repression of religion in China, in the presence of Archbishop Gallagher). In this context, the redirecting of U.S. foreign assistance directly to Christians in the Middle East under the bill signed into law by Donald Trump in December 2018, the creation of an International Religious Freedom Alliance in July 2019, and the emphasis placed on the issue by the United States at last September’s UN General Assembly could be seen as a welcome move, regardless of its motivations, which may have more to do with pleasing Trump’s religious voting base than Pope Francis. Likewise, the creation last July of an advisory commission on human rights, chaired by Mary Ann Glendon, to reexamine human rights in light of natural law principles, can be a source of satisfaction for the Holy See, not to mention the restoration and strengthening of the Mexico City policy early in Donald Trump’s tenure. 

35 years after they were established, revisiting the story of U.S.-Vatican diplomatic relations could serve as a useful reminder that current tensions between Rome and Washington should not be measured by the yardstick of an aggrandized alignment.

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