The Vatican and the Reagan Administration: A Cold War Alliance?

By Gayte, Marie | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2011 | Go to article overview

The Vatican and the Reagan Administration: A Cold War Alliance?


Gayte, Marie, The Catholic Historical Review


Vatican-American relations were closer in the second half of the twentieth century than at any time in their history; they were said to have been particularly close during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the pontificate of John Paul II, in light of their common anticommunist feelings. However, a closer look at the nature of the relationship indicates that, although the United States and the Vatican had a convergence of interests, this did not mean that the Holy See backed all American initiatives, for the Vatican pursued its own agenda and was not likely to change its stance simply to satisfy the United States.

Keywords: cold war; diplomacy; Reagan presidency; U.S.-Holy See relations

Regarding the relationship between the Vatican and the United States during the cold war, the acute awareness by the United States of the role of moral and religious forces in its ideological struggle with the Soviet Union is evident. Vatican support was considered of particular value, as few other religions could boast as visible a leader as the pope. Various administrations had the view that involving the Church in their struggle would help challenge the morality of Soviet actions in the face of global public opinion and bolster support for their policies from certain constituencies at home. From Harry S. Truman to Ronald Reagan, relations with the Vatican were of differing intensity, yet one remarkably constant preoccupation is clear: the need to secure Vatican support, at least publicly, for American foreign policy decisions. If, at times, the United States seemed to take Vatican support for granted, this was not always the case. The question is particularly relevant in the context of the Reagan administration, inasmuch as a perfunctory look seems to indicate a perfect ideological convergence between the United States and the Vatican, which should have led to an endorsement by the Holy See of major foreign policy and defense choices. Furthermore, little exists in the various accounts of the period that addresses the claims of an "alliance" between the pope and the Reagan administration; the literature on Vatican-American relations in the 1980s deals almost exclusively with the establishment of diplomatic relations.1 Now that a wider access to archival material is possible (specifically the Reagan administration papers, as well as those of William Wilson, first U.S. ambassador to the Holy See), a preliminary analysis of the nature of Vatican-American relations in the 1980s seems appropriate. The case made here is that the relationship between the Reagan administration and the Holy See, although close, was nowhere near the perfect alliance as some have represented it. The Vatican of Pope John Paul II, although undeniably moved by very strong concerns about communism, pursued its own agenda as a church consistent with the legacies of John XXIII and Paul VI- something that the Reagan administration had a hard time understanding as it tended to see its interactions with the Holy See solely through the prism of East-West relations.

In 1949, Pope Pius XII published a decree excommunicating all Catholics collaborating in communist organizations. The pope's hostility to this ideology and its manifestations was no secret, and it led to a cooperation of sorts with President Truman. When, after trying to convince the pope throughout World War II- to no avail- of the benign attitude of Soviet Russia toward religion (the pope well understood the intensity of suffering and persecution inflicted on Catholics under the Soviet regime), the United States under Truman became convinced of the expansionist aspirations of Stalin's regime, it found in Pius XII an eager partner. The pope felt no other nation but the United States could protect Western Europe from Soviet expansion; his fear of a communist takeover and the annihilation of Christian culture was all the more acute as the strongest communist party in Western Europe was the Italian Communist Party. …

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