The Vatican and the Worlds of this World

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By George Weigel

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Amidst all the world’s other problems—the possible outbreak of a general Balkan war, genocide in the south of Sudan, the continued unraveling of other African states, troublesome hints of a possible trade war, the feverish quest for weapons of mass destruction by Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, the stalled Middle East peace process, the rising tide of aggressive Islamic revivalism, the travail of the post-USSR, etc., etc.—one would not have expected to find U.S. diplomatic relations with the Vatican in some jeopardy in the early days of the Clinton administration. (One wouldn’t have expected the question of homosexuals in the military to dominate the headlines for a week, either; but, evidently, there’s a lot that we’re going to have to get used to sub regno Gulielmi.)

To say that U.S. diplomatic relations with the Holy See are “in jeopardy” may not be quite right: “at issue” would perhaps be more correct. For, since December, a curious coalition has formed to protest U.S. diplomatic exchange with the Vatican, and to urge President Clinton not to appoint a U.S. ambassador to the Holy See—as Presidents Reagan and Bush did. The coalition consists of conservative evangelical Protestant denominations (prominently, the Southern Baptist Convention) and organizations (prominently, the National Association of Evangelicals), on the one hand, and, on the other, secular and left-liberal advocacy groups (among them, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State; that the latter was once styled, rather insouciantly, “Protestants and Other Americans United …” tells you something). The charge leveled by the coalition—whose two wings would be hard pressed to find any other point of agreement on a matter of public policy—is that U.S. diplomatic representation at the Holy See violates the First Amendment’s injunction against an “establishment of religion.”

A bit of verbal clarification and a quick dose of history are in order here. In American media parlance, “the Vatican” and “the Holy See” are often used interchangeably, somewhat to the chagrin of those to whom the terms refer. “The Vatican” is a place, the Vatican (or Apostolic) Palace, hard by St. Peter’s Basilica, in which the pope and his closest collaborators work. “The Vatican” can also be shorthand for Vatican City State, the 110-acre microstate created by the Lateran Treaty of 1929. “The Holy See,” on the other hand, is the juridical embodiment of the pope’s activity as supreme pastor of the Roman Catholic Church. For centuries, that activity has been understood to have both internal and “public” aspects.

In respect of its “public” character, the Holy See has long been recognized in international diplomatic practice (and, later, in international law) as having a distinctive, even sui generis, status. Thus embassies are exchanged between sovereign states (145 at present) and the Holy See. Moreover, the Holy See participates in many international organizations and agencies and enters into treaties—it is, for example, a signatory of the Nuclear Test Ban and Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaties. Of perhaps more consequence for recent history, the Holy See was a signatory of the Helsinki Final Act, which included an explicit affirmation of the right of religious freedom at the Vatican’s urging; moreover, the Holy See was a vigorous participant in the Helsinki review conferences that were crucial in supporting the cause of human-rights activists behind the iron curtain in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The work of the Holy See as a moral agent in world politics has been made immeasurably easier today by the fact that, unlike their medieval Renaissance, and indeed nineteenth-century predecessors, popes are no longer temporal rulers—save, technically, of the microscopic Vatican City State, a legal reality that does render the pope independent from any other sovereignty. When Italian troops occupied Rome in 1870, completing the reunification of Italy and putting an end to the Papal States, it was widely assumed, in some ecclesiastical quarters as well as in “the world,” that the public influence of the papacy had drawn to an end. As things turned out, however, the loss of the Papal States liberated the Holy See for its essential public task: that of moral mentor and servant to the nations. The temporal influence of Pope Pius IX, the last ruler of the Papal States, was rather limited; the temporal influence of Pope John Paul II, the principal architect of the moral revolution that made possible the Revolution of 1989 in central and eastern Europe, is immense.

But throughout these ebbs and flows of history, the Holy See has retained its sui generis position in international public life. The United States has been, in truth, a bit of a laggard in recognizing this. Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has had a “personal representative” at the Vatican; but memories of the agitations that ensued when Harry Truman (a Baptist) announced that he intended to follow standard diplomatic practice by appointing General Mark dark as ambassador to the Holy See made Truman’s successors extremely gun-shy on this point. Thus in 1984, when President Reagan finally entered into a formal exchange of embassies with the Holy See, the United States finally caught up with Bangladesh, Burundi, Ghana, Malawi, Rwanda, and Trinidad & Tobago, all of whose governments were already represented at the Holy See at the formal, diplomatic level.

The critics of the exchange of embassies (in 1984, and now) argue that this is a First Amendment issue. It is nothing of the sort. The religion clause of the First Amendment is intended to regulate the relationship of the federal government to religious institutions in the United States: and “disestablishment,” on the reading of the clause advanced by Richard John Neuhaus, Mary Ann Glendon, and others, is a means by which the goal—free exercise of religion—is to be fostered. The critics say that the exchange of embassies with the Holy See violates the disestablishment provision, presumably by conferring a privileged position on the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. But the exchange of embassies doesn’t do that, either in intention or in execution.

The exchange simply recognizes what I noted above: that the Holy See has a distinctive (sui generis), historic, legally established, and diplomatically recognized status in international public life. To acknowledge that fact by doing what 145 other states do—namely, exchange diplomatic representatives with the Holy See—does nothing to privilege the Catholic Church in the United States. The diplomatic relationship is between the U.S. government and the Holy See; it is not between the government and the Catholic Church in the United States. Thus there is no First Amendment issue engaged.

To view this matter through the filters of either American denominationalism or American secularism is thus to commit a serious category mistake. Moreover, for the United States to deny itself formal representation at the Holy See would be an act of grave imprudence. Not only is the Holy See a tremendous listening post, given the extraordinary range of information that pours into it; the Holy See also has a capacity to act “disinterestedly” in world politics that, like its international legal position, is unique. This capacity is no small asset in the pursuit of peace with freedom, given the conflicts that have riven the post-Cold War world. To demean that asset—which is precisely what a withdrawal of formal U.S. diplomatic links with the Holy See would involve—would be worse than an error. It would be a stupidity.

One hopes, and expects, that the Clinton administration will understand this, and will act accordingly.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.