U.S.-Vatican Relations: An Historical Perspective from Reagan to Biden
Webinar Panel Discussion
Charles Gallagher, S.J., Boston College
Peter G. Martin, Boston College
Mark Massa, S.J., Boston College
Oliver Rafferty, S.J., Boston College
Date: Friday, February 26, 2021
Time: 2 - 3pm EST
Historians Oliver Rafferty, S.J. and Charles Gallagher, S.J., theologian Mark Massa, S.J., and Peter G. Martin, former policy advisor with the U.S. State Department, will discuss the history of U.S.-Vatican relations between Ronald Reagan and Joseph Biden (our second Catholic president). The panel will focus on long-term patterns and political issues in American politics and social movements that have changed the context for Vatican relations with American Catholics and with the larger political culture.
The Boisi Center’s spring events commenced with a panel entitled, “U.S.-Vatican Relations: An Historical Perspective from Reagan to Biden.” The panelists included three members of the Boston College community: Charles Gallagher, S.J. (History); Peter G. Martin (special assistant to the president); and Oliver P. Rafferty, S.J. (History).
Mark Massa, S.J., the Boisi Center’s director, moderated the conversation and began by asking the panelists how they would assess diplomatic relations since President Reagan, and whether the occupant of the White House had much impact on that relationship. Rafferty noted that the relations are managed by professionals, but the president at the time can matter, as evidenced by certain statements by Pope Francis alluding to President Trump. Martin, who worked for many years at the U.S. Embassy at the Holy See, said that the length and depth of the diplomatic relationship help avoid some of those issues that might emerge from more visible members of each state. Gallagher, looking historically, observed that the Vatican archives that cover the period of this panel are closed, so we might not know much about the real relationship until those are opened. He also raised the re-arrival of “secret diplomacy” under Francis, especially regarding Cuba and China. Martin defended the importance of secrecy as a common necessity, pointing specifically to the communications about Cuba—the secrecy avoided any interference by other players. Rafferty added that the Vatican does have its own interests and, in China, for example, the Vatican’s work could be complicated as they desire to better their relationship with China if Biden continues Trump’s combative policies toward China.
Massa asked which president was best at diplomacy to the Vatican. Gallagher led with Nixon, explaining that Nixon flew to Rome in 1969 to meet the pope, even extending his stay in Europe to meet him. That conversation led to a U.S. representative to the Vatican for the first time since 1950. This led to the 1970 appointment of Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. as the representative to Paul VI, paving the way for full diplomatic relations. Rafferty voted for Reagan, who brought about the establishment of full diplomatic relations, doing so with an idea that he and John Paul II would have a shared concern about communism in eastern Europe and a distrust of liberation theology.
Massa then asked whether the high point in U.S.-Vatican relations was between John Paull II and President George W. Bush. Rafferty said it was overshadowed because of clear policy differences over Iraq. But it was true that at one level Bush spoke the same language as the pope: no apology for being a Christian. Martin believed that Bush was the president that visited more than any other, though Martin also praised President Obama because, under his administration, there were many shared foreign policy goals they shared, and John Kerry, Secretary of State at the time, had significant contact with Cardinal Secretary of State Parolin. Gallagher spoke of the publicity high point on July 20, 2015, when President Obama held a press conference to announce the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba and the first thank you is given to the Vatican diplomatic corps. The Vatican was seen as useful to a superpower.
Massa asked the panelists to assess the most contentious issues in the relationship between the U.S. and the Vatican. Rafferty brought up the Cairo Conference on Population and Development in 1994 where the U.S. was foregrounding abortion access in the Third World. The Vatican asked them to not advocate for that as strongly. The U.S. backed down only after the Vatican sent a representative to the U.S. Martin brought up Wikileaks, when a U.S. army private got access to a database of diplomatic cables, including many from the Vatican embassy, and released them in violation of the confidence in which those communications are understood to be disclosed. This included the communications of a Venezuelan priest who had visited the U.S. Embassy at the Vatican and told them about the situation under Chavez. This was a situation when confidence would be very important given the potential danger to him and his family in Venezuela.
Questions were then taken from the viewers. When asked about Catholic presidents, it was noted by Rafferty that having a Catholic in the White House is not necessarily better or worse, though it is different this time, given the way President Kennedy had to deal with significant anti-Catholic bias. The bigger issue might be the relationship between the nation’s second Catholic president and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, especially given their president’s (Archbishop José Gomez) statement on Biden and abortion on Inauguration Day. Asked about whether there were any residual issues from the Trump presidency, Martin noted that it did less damage because it was less organized. The announcement of the “Muslim ban,” which was learned by many embassies from the news, was an area that caused some difficulty, especially given Pope Francis’s focus on the Vatican’s relationship with the Islamic world. Further questions were asked about the significance of the move of the embassy to the same campus as the U.S. Embassy to Italy, whether the opening of the Vatican archives for this time period will reveal anything significant or cause any issues in the relationship, and whether Newt Gingrich’s media/public presence caused any challenges.
“U.S. Relations with the Holy See: Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet.” Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State. August 27, 2020. https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-the-holy-see/.
“History of the U.S. and Holy See.” U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. https://va.usembassy.gov/our-relationship/policy-history/io/.
Faggioli, Massimo. Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States. New London, CT: Bayard, Inc., 2021.
Franco, Massimo. Parallel Empires: The Vatican and the United States—Two Centuries of Alliance and Conflict. New York: Doubleday, 2008.
Rooney, Francis. The Global Vatican: An Inside Look at the Catholic Church, World Politics, and the Extraordinary Relationship between the United States and the Holy See. Lanham, M.D.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.
Sawicki, Nicholas D. “Explainer: The (complicated) history of U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican.” America. January 29, 2021. https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2021/01/29/united-states-ambassadors-holy-see-vatican-239828.
Former Ambassador to the Holy See, Miguel Díaz, speculates in an article for the National Catholic Reporter that the relationship between Pope Francis and President Biden will likely be positive, benefitting from their history—Biden’s pre-existing relationship with Francis during his time as Vice President—as well as their shared interest in fighting both the “biological pandemic and social pandemic,” as seen in the policies already advanced by Biden and Francis’s latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti.