U.S.-Vatican Relations

U.S.-Vatican Relations

U.S.-Vatican relations remain uneven following Joseph Ratzinger’s accession as Pope Benedict XVI, particularly as the Obama administration pursues a more liberal social agenda.

Last updated July 14, 2009 8:00 am (EST)

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Since Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ascended to the papacy in 2005, becoming Pope Benedict XVI, U.S.-Vatican relations have progressed unevenly. The pope has weighed in on several pressing matters of interest to the United States, from climate change to the Iraq war to domestic "culture war" issues like stem-cell research and abortion. Some analysts say the Vatican has soured on several aspects of U.S. foreign policy, including the methodology the Bush administration used to pursue its "global war on terror." Others see theological divergence between the pope and U.S. Catholic leaders. But some say this interpretation is overly blunt, pointing to aspects of Ratzinger’s writings that indicate strong allegiance to the U.S. Catholic Church and a sophisticated understanding of U.S. foreign policy.

A Brief History of Vatican Foreign Policy

Wilson Miscamble, a Catholic priest and professor of U.S. history at the University of Notre Dame, wrote in a pair of articles--America (1979) and Diplomacy History (1980)--that until the early twentieth century the Vatican’s involvement in foreign policy was "episodic and, in fact, largely limited to attempting to protect the interests of the institutional church in other lands." Not until the twentieth century did the church really seek to influence U.S. foreign policy.

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Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church has not always taken a pacifist line on policy. Applying teachings on Just War theory that can be traced back to thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, the church supported the Allied Powers entering World War II. It took a strong anti-Communist stance during the Cold War, and Catholics who supported communism were excommunicated by Pope Pius XII in 1949. When war in Vietnam erupted, the church initially called the cause just, but grew increasingly pacifist as the 1960s wore on. At the same time, significant changes were taking place within the church as the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council modernized and freed up discourse within its rank and file. From this sprang the liberation theology movement.

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Beginning with Pope John XXIII’s 1963 Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) encyclical calling for nuclear disarmament, the church began to a take a stronger and more vocal stance against the nuclear arms race. Throughout the 1980s, in addition to its anti-Communist stance, the Vatican took a stronger position in promoting human rights and economic development. The United States did not establish full diplomatic relations with the Holy See until 1984.

In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II forged an important partnership in their efforts to discredit the Soviet Union. But since the end of the Cold War, experts say the Vatican and U.S. administrations have struggled to find common cause. There have been long-standing tensions on a number of issues, not least of which is Washington’s handling of counterterrorism policies. The Vatican strongly opposed the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq. Yet some theologians say this rift over the war has been overstated and U.S.-Vatican relations will not be negatively affected. "The United States works with the Holy See on a huge number of issues: trafficking, aid, development; the idea that all this stopped because of different prudential judgments about what to do about Saddam Hussein is just wrong," says George Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Other issues of common cause include reviving the Middle East peace process and curbing the spread of nuclear arms. The Catholic Church and the White House do clash on several important social issues, however, including the use of the death penalty, as well as the Obama administration’s support for global programs that permit abortion.

Pope Benedict XVI

Many experts see Pope Benedict’s foreign policy as a continuation of the policies of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. "Popes don’t invent doctrine," Weigel says. "Every pope is going to tease out of the rich and complex traditions of the church particular themes he’ll want to explore in depth." In his first encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI spoke at length about love and charity and the church’s role vis-à-vis the state. He said it is primarily the state’s responsibility to bring about a just social and civil order. But, the pope added, the church "cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice."

Pope Benedict XVI chose his name after that of Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922), who had a peacemaker’s reputation. Benedict stirred controversy, however, in a September 2006 address that quoted the following statement from a medieval text: "Show me just what [the Prophet] Mohammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman." After Muslim leaders expressed outrage, the pope backpedaled, apologizing for any offense that had been taken--though some Muslim groups said the apology was insufficient because the pontiff stopped short of apologizing for the remarks themselves. Later the pope struck a more conciliatory tone, calling for "reconciliation" among world religions. In early 2008, the Vatican publication L’Osservatore Romano published an interview with a Vatican official that listed a modern companion to the "seven deadly sins," updating the ancient list of vices to include politically sensitive moral failings such as polluting the environment and contributing to the income gap between rich and poor.

The War on Terror and the Iraq War

Unlike the united U.S.-Vatican stance against Soviet-style communism, theologians say Washington’s and the Holy See’s positions on terrorism are profoundly different and more complex. Most of the disagreements are over the means of fighting the war on terror, not the ends. "The Vatican is not opposed to the right of the United States to defend itself, but as a general rule is less willing to endorse the use of force," says Gregory A. Smith, a research fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. According to Catholic teachings on jus in bello, war can only be waged in self-defense or in defense of others. War also requires just cause and "competent authority," or, in this case, the United Nations. In 2003, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said there were "not sufficient reasons to unleash a war in Iraq."

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The church was critical of the Bush administration’s treatment of detainees. Pope John Paul II, in a June 2004 meeting with President Bush, called the abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib "deplorable events." The March 2008 killing of the kidnapped Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul revived Vatican concerns about Iraq just ahead of Benedict’s April 2008 trip to Washington. In private talks at the White House in 2008, the pope was reported to discuss the plight of Iraq’s Christian minority (BBC) but publicly he avoided specifically mentioning the war because of the 2008 presidential campaign.

The White House and Vatican agree, however, on the need to frame the war on terror not as one against Muslims but rather one against radical ideology. "There’s been lots of emphasis on the Holy See to make sure this is not seen as a religious conflict," says J. Bryan Hehir, an expert on the Catholic Church at Harvard University. However, Pope Benedict XVI, like Washington, has been vocal in pressing for Muslim moderates to condemn terrorist actions.

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Vatican has played an important role in the Middle East peace process. Officially, it recognizes Israel’s right to exist while supporting Palestinian demands for a homeland. The Vatican, theologian Weigel says, is motivated as much by demographics as geopolitics. "The Holy Land is hemorrhaging its Christian populations and has been for twenty-five years," he says. "There’s concern that the Holy Places might become museum pieces rather than homes to living Christian communities." Israelis have sometimes perceived the papacy as being too pro-Palestinian. In 2006, the pope’s omission of Israel from a list of countries struck by terrorist attacks drew criticisms from Israeli leaders.

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Yet some experts say that Pope Benedict XVI is hardly anti-Israel. Theologically, Benedict has a fine appreciation for religious Judaism, J. Peter Pham of James Madison University says. The pontiff’s views on Muslims are less clear. "If you look at history, he’s profoundly skeptical of democracy and Islam," Pham says. Before he was elected pope, Cardinal Ratzinger came out against Turkey’s accession to the European Union, ostensibly because of its Muslim heritage. "He’s a realist about the differences between Islam and Christianity and favors dialogue while recognizing profound differences in their identities," says Timothy Shah, former CFR adjunct senior fellow for religion and foreign policy. During the 2008 trip to Washington, the pope issued a joint statement with President George W. Bush affirming a number of shared foreign policy goals (NPR), including "resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict." However, the Vatican and Israel continue to have periods of uneasy relations over the Palestinians. In early 2009, a senior Vatican official characterized Israel’s December 2008 campaign in the Gaza Strip as a "big concentration camp," drawing sharp criticism from Israel.

Latin America

Perhaps nowhere does the Vatican wield more influence than in Latin America, where the population is roughly three-quarters Catholic. The Vatican opposed Reagan’s policies in the region during the 1980s, including the U.S. interventions in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Twenty years later, the U.S. image in the region has been tarnished, not least because of Washington’s failed prescriptions for market reforms. Some experts say a U.S. alliance with the Vatican can help improve Washington’s image south of the border. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says it supports free trade agreements like CAFTA and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Generally, the church favors free but fair trade in addition to a more equitable redistribution of wealth, but not to the point of abolishing private property or individual freedoms. This partially explains the Vatican’s chilliness toward Marxist-oriented liberation theology movements in Latin America from the 1960s through the 1980s.

Shah points out in an April 2008 interview that the pope is intently focused on the extent to which Vatican-U.S. policy intersects with Vatican-Latin American policy. He says an April 2008 papal address to the American people was delivered in both Spanish and English. Shah adds that the increasing importance of Hispanic Catholics within the U.S. Catholic community has encouraged Benedict to turn toward the new issue, including immigration. "You have more and more cities adopting measures to round up illegal immigrants, at least illegal immigrants that are guilty of minor crimes," Shah says, adding that Benedict is "acutely aware of this."

Helping the Poor

The Catholic Church has long emphasized the need to alleviate poverty, heal the afflicted, and forgive debts. "Poverty is a plague against which humanity must fight without cease," says Pope Benedict XVI. Experts say the Vatican views terrorism as rooted in economic injustice, inequality, and abject poverty. Says Shah: "In addition to political freedoms, the church stresses the need to bring greater economic development to alleviate pent-up frustrations." Likewise, the Bush administration linked its disbursement of development aid to the war on terrorism. "Poverty doesn’t cause terrorism," President Bush told reporters in March 2002. "Yet persistent poverty and oppression can lead to hopelessness and despair. And when governments fail to meet the most basic needs of their people, these failed states can become havens for terror." In 2004, Bush established the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) to deliver billions of dollars of aid to developing countries that met certain standards of democratization. The United States’ aid budget to Africa increased substantially during the Bush administration. President Obama pledged to cut extreme poverty and hunger by half by 2015 and double foreign aid to achieve that goal. However, critics say that as a percentage of its gross domestic product, U.S. foreign aid remains among the lowest in the developed world.

Climate Change

The Vatican has increased its pressure on major global political players, including the United States, to take a firm stance on climate change policy. In Pope Benedict’s revisions to the "seven deadly sins," he included polluting the environment as a sin--a sign many experts interpreted as politically significant. In an August 2007 address, Benedict urged the Catholic Church worldwide to become more environmentally conscious, saying abuse of the environment is against God’s will. Experts say Benedict’s speech was only the latest in a series of increasingly forceful statements about tending to environmental concerns, and that by defining the issue in moral terms he substantially upped the ante for policymakers in countries where the Catholic Church is influential.

Life and Science

The beginning of the Obama administration signaled there would be sharp disagreements on issues that collide with the Vatican’s views on the sanctity of life. Shortly after the 2008 presidential election, Pope Benedict spoke with Obama to make clear that the Vatican would oppose attempts to loosen policy (Times Online) on embryonic-stem-cell research; Vatican officials were quick to criticize Obama’s move to end restrictions on stem-cell funding in March 2009. Before the stem-cell decision, Obama upset the Vatican by rescinding the Mexico City Policy, a Reagan-era rule preventing humanitarian groups receiving U.S. funding from promoting or performing abortions. Relations between the Obama administration and the Vatican could sour further if he signs the Freedom of Choice Act, which would codify into U.S. law a women’s right to have an abortion.

"On life issues, there’s great unhappiness," says Shah. However, he notes that the church is eager to work with Obama on a number of other issues such as aid to Africa, and says there’s hopefulness that Obama will not pursue war with "the same alacrity" as the Bush administration. In a July 2009 meeting at the Vatican, the Pope and President Obama discussed a myriad of issues (Religious News Service), including the global food crisis, the Mideast peace process, and drug trafficking in Latin America, but the Pope also gave Obama a booklet condemning embryonic stem cell research and arbotion rights.

Meanwhile, the pope came under fire (WashTimes) on a March 2009 trip to Africa for saying the distribution of condoms would not solve the AIDS epidemic. The church prohibits the use of contraception of any kind. Pope Benedict has yet to rule on whether he supports the use of condoms for married couples when one member is infected with a sexually-transmitted disease. The church has encouraged a strong "conscience clause" within the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a major funding initiative targeting some of the worst-affected countries. The clause allows groups like Catholic Relief Services to refuse to execute the condom education and distribution portion of the programs.

Lionel Beehner contributed to this article.


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