Peace Be With You: Vatican and U.S. Diplomacy

The news of the first Papal resigna­tion in 598 years has focused the at­tentions of nearly the entire Western world upon a tiny, yet world-famous, enclave within the city of Rome, Italy.

Many states around the world maintain diplomatic ties with the Holy See, and the United States is no different. From the earliest years of American independence, the United States maintained consular ties with, what were at that time, the Papal States, which were territories in cen­tral and northern Italy over which the Pope exercised control. After Italian unification in 1861, the Papal States were incorporated into the State of Italy and the Pope was sent retreating into within the Vatican walls.

The Vatican, or Holy See, is the world’s smallest sovereign state. With its territorial claims consisting of a mere 109 acres, a population of less than 850, and the distinction of being the only state on Earth where the Latin Language is still spoken in a day-to-day context, the Vatican is dwarfed by the sizes of most Ameri­can municipalities. Its leader and sov­ereign, the Pope, is also the shepherd of the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics and is one of the most recognized and influential indi­viduals on the planet.

In 1929, the Lateran Treaty, an agreement between the Holy See and the State of Italy, established the Vatican as a sovereign and indepen­dent state, and secured the Pope’s independence from national obliga­tions in his leadership of the Catholic Church.

Although informal relations be­tween the U.S. and the ecclesiastical state had existed for decades after the ratification of the Lateran Treaty, the United States officially recognized the Vatican’s independence in 1984 and has maintained diplomatic ties ever since.

One of America’s longstanding at­tributes, however, has been the lack of an official state religion as well as the implication of a separation of church and state. Given the Vatican’s position as sovereign territory of the Catholic Church; can the United States’ continued diplomatic ties with the Holy See be interpreted as an en­dorsement of Catholicism?

Fr. William Lago, the University’s Chaplain and Campus Minister, be­lieves that this does not yield a con­tradiction in American precedent. “There are several countries which maintain diplomatic relations with the U.S. whose governments are inextricably linked with other reli­gions. Our government’s diplomatic relationships with these other coun­tries have not meant that the U.S. government endorses any religion.” Fr. William’s sentiments are echoed by the U.S. State Department, whose website states that diplomatic ties are purely of a state-to-state dynamic; “The United States and the Holy See consult and cooperate on internation­al issues of mutual interest, including human rights, inter-religious under­standing, peace and conflict preven­tion, development, and environmen­tal protection.”

U.S.-Vatican relations have, how­ever, been an asset over the years with regard to U.S. foreign policy as well as for international security and human rights concerns. The work between the United States and then- Pope John Paul II served to sow the seeds of change in terms of begin­ning to tear the Iron Curtain which separated Western Europe and the Soviet-dominated East. The abil­ity for America and the Holy See to unite their message on human equal­ity, religious tolerance, and civil lib­erties helped to embolden formerly oppressed populations in Eastern Europe, particularly in John Paul II’s homeland of Poland.

The power of the United States coupled with the influence of the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church is a fact not lost to senior political science major Alexandria Fitzger­ald. Although Communism, still extant but much weakened, no lon­ger poses a danger in the eyes of the United States, Fitzgerald argues that “the Vatican has been established for so long and it still holds such a supreme role in world affairs; the United States is right to maintain its diplomatic ties with them.” Fitzgerald also stated that, despite a far different geo-political outlook at present than there had been in the 1980s; future U.S.-Vatican relations could “include combined efforts to combat humani­tarian issues such as women’s and children’s rights, forced labor, and sexual abuse.”

What does the future hold for U.S.- Vatican relations? After the resigna­tion of Pope Benedict XVI, the Holy See is considered sede vacante, Latin for “vacant seat.” At this point, the 115 cardinals who make up the pa­pal electoral conclave hold the key to future ties between the ecclesiastical state and America. Until a new pope is elected, which is thought to occur by Easter, relations are effectively in a state of suspended animation, as the new pope, in his role as sovereign of the Vatican city-state, will assume the role of being its chief diplomat and, as such, will dictate Vatican policy moving forward.

As to whether this new era could serve as an opportunity for the Cath­olic Church as a whole to reinvent its image in light of a declining audience in America, opinions are divided.

Fr. Lago believes that “The Catho­lic Church has never had the need to ‘re-invent’ itself and always has been relevant. The Church, in its mission, is relevant because its service is al­ways needed – to serve people in their needs and to assist people in the quest for truth.”

Others, such as a professor who re­quested to remain anonymous, stated that “The Church needs to address its loss in influence among America’s youth. Issues such as gay rights and clergy celibacy turn many young people away from the Church.”

Despite the relative uncertainty over the exact details of future U.S.- Vatican relations as well as possible implications it could have for the so­cial influence of the Catholic Church moving forward, it is almost certain that America and the Holy See will continue their collaboration for the sake of advancing the human con­dition around the world. Until then, the world will watch and wait for the beginning of a new era which shall commence with a proud announce­ment of great news from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica: We have a pope, or, as is said in the customary Latin, Habemus Papam.