Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Joe Biden Upbeat on Pope Francis, but US-Vatican Relations Not Always So Rosy (+Video)

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Joe Biden Upbeat on Pope Francis, but US-Vatican Relations Not Always So Rosy (+Video)

Article excerpt

Vice President Joe Biden seems as if hes been having a great time in Italy attending the installation of Pope Francis at the Vatican. On Monday, Mr. Biden expressed words of hope about the new pontiff, saying Pope Francis shares a vision that all of us share, to reach out to the poor and the dispossessed. Later Biden, a Roman Catholic himself, joked that Ill lose my soul if late for a meeting with US cardinals.

But what he didnt say was this: US-Vatican relations have not always run so smoothly. Largely because of prejudice against Catholics, the US government throughout its history has had unsteady official contact with the Holy See, the supreme body of government of the Roman Catholic Church and a sovereign juridical entity under international law.

In fact, the first US ambassador to the Holy See wasnt appointed until 1984, when President Ronald Reagan finally broke the ice.

[I]t took America over two centuries before it entered into formalized relations with the oldest international personality in the community of nations, Thomas P. Melady, a former US envoy to the Vatican, and Timothy R. Stebbins wrote in a 2009 paper in The Ambassadors Review.

That doesnt mean there was no official contact at all. From the early days of the republic, the new United States and the venerable Holy See exchanged lower-level diplomats. In 1848, President James Polk upped the ante a bit by appointing Jacob Martin as charg daffaires to the Papal States. This recognition, just below the ambassadorial level, meant that the US saw the Holy See as in essence another nation. It remained the status quo until 1867, when Congress passed a law prohibiting use of US funds for American-Holy See relations.

Why so harsh? Because anti-Catholic sentiment was rising in the America of the time, as poor Catholic immigrants poured into the country from Ireland, France, Italy, and Spain. Many voters were afraid that the Vatican was a dangerous, foreign octopus of an enemy, participating in numerous anti-US and anti-Protestant conspiracies. The Know Nothing movement of the 1850s made this a political mantra and recruited a number of prominent national lawmakers.


Thus began a 74 year interregnum during which there was no American diplomatic representation to the Pope, Messrs. Melady and Stebbins write.

The wily President Franklin Roosevelt maneuvered around this sentiment in 1939. He sent a personal envoy to the pope, Myron Taylor, who served in the position for more than a decade. Thus even while the US and Italy fought in World War II, an American diplomat lived in Vatican City, in the heart of the enemy capital of Rome.

In 1951, President Harry Truman wanted to take the last step and raise representation to the official ambassadorial level. This led to an outburst of opposition and advice from Democratic Party leaders not to take that step. …

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