U.S.-Holy See Diplomacy: The Establishment of Formal Relations, 1984

By Essig, Andrew M.; Moore, Jennifer L. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2009 | Go to article overview

U.S.-Holy See Diplomacy: The Establishment of Formal Relations, 1984


Essig, Andrew M., Moore, Jennifer L., The Catholic Historical Review


The authors explore the circumstances that permitted President Ronald Reagan to establish full diplomatic relations with the Holy See where other U.S. presidents had failed in the past, including an examination of the relationship between Reagan and Pope John Paul II. Their dynamic personalities, life experiences, and repudiation of communism created a natural bond between them that resulted in a period of warm relations between the United States and the Holy See. Several events also occurred in which the United States and the Holy See shared common interests and collaborated extensively. Furthermore, within the domestic realm there was support-or, more accurately, little active opposition-from Congress, the courts, and Protestant groups. Finally, the Holy See and Reagan were eager to see these relations established. The combination of these factors created the proper environment for the Reagan administration to send the first U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

Keywords: Holy See diplomatic relations; John Paul II, Pope; Reagan, Ronald; U.S. diplomatic relations

On January 10, 1984, President Ronald Reagan made the official announcement that he was nominating William A.Wilson for the post of ambassador to the Holy See.1 At first glance this may not seem remark- able since presidents possess the power to appoint ambassadors under Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. What made this particular public statement so unusual was that it was the first time in its diplomatic history that the U.S. government extended full diplomatic recognition to the Holy See. The United States did pursue intermittently other types of relations, both consular and diplomatic, beginning shortly after gaining independence from Great Britain and proceeding over the next two centuries, but never at the ambassadorial level.

Consular relations began in spring 1797 when President John Adams commissioned the first American consul, Giovanni Battista Sartori, to the Papal States, which represented the temporal sovereignty of the Holy See at that time. Sartori was an enterprising Italian who managed to convince the American government that it needed a consul in Rome. According to international law, consuls were not considered diplomatic agents, but they did represent the limited interests of their respective governments. Adams was wary about setting up formal diplomatic relations because of the consequent reciprocation of receiving papal diplomatic representatives. He nevertheless realized that it was in the U.S. interest to have some form of representation in the Papal States. The purposes were threefold. First, it was common knowledge within diplomatic circles that Rome was an excellent "listening post" for collecting valuable information on international affairs. Second, the United States also saw the opportunity of gaining commercial access to the Papal States. Postrevolutionary America's early attempts to open overseas markets to U.S. products met with little success, and the Papal States offered some commercial opportunities. Finally, consuls could assist American citizens who were visiting the region.2 The Papal States reciprocated somewhat later in 1826 by establishing a consulate in New York City.

In 1848, in response to the popular policies inaugurated by newly elected Pope Pius LX, President James Polk established formal diplomatic relations with the Papal States, elevating the position from consul to chargé d'affaires. Six years later, Franklin Pierce upgraded the rank of the American diplomatic representative to Minister Resident. In 1867, however, funding for the diplomatic mission was cut based upon reports that the Vatican was denying the Protestant personnel in the U.S. legation the right to celebrate their services within Rome. Also, the incident when Pope Pius IX had addressed Jefferson Davis as "President of the Confederate States" in a letter had aroused suspicion that the pope had recognized the Southern Confederacy.

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