President Trump’s decision to visit the Vatican on his first overseas trip underscores the importance of United States diplomatic relations with the Holy See. History shows that the moral persuasion, or “soft power” diplomacy, of the Holy See is an important resource for successful pursuit of American foreign policy goals. Going forward, the United States and the Holy See should work together on their common objectives of defeating Islamic extremism and promoting human rights.
The United States has not always had official diplomatic relations with the Holy See. While the first diplomatic mission to the Holy See was established in 1848, permanent, ambassador-level relations with the Vatican began in 1984 when President Reagan appointed William Wilson as ambassador. The Holy See mission differs in some respects from a typical bi-lateral one. Lacking continuous and consistent economic and consular duties which keep a diplomatic relationship active, the vitality and depth of our relationship with the Holy See depends in part on personal chemistry and how much the President and his administration directly values the Vatican’s soft power diplomatic role.
Throughout history, the United States and the Holy See have worked together when their foreign policy goals aligned. During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt recognized the opportunity for leverage at the Vatican and sent a leading industrialist, Myron Taylor, as his personal envoy. Pope Pius XII allowed Taylor and his staff to stay in the Vatican during the war, which created a valuable diplomatic outpost for the United States in the heart of Fascist Italy.
Throughout the 1950’s the Holy See played a prominent role alongside the United States in the fight against communism and in supporting the Christian Democrat party in Italy. Seeking to unite clerical leaders of all religions in this fight, an effort also led by Myron Taylor, President Truman found the Catholic Church to be the only religious establishment willing to speak out forcefully against the ideology. Keenly aware that the dialectic materialism of communism represented an existential threat to religion, and as a result freedom and individual liberties, the Church directly and publicly attacked it. Additionally, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Pope John XXII helped establish back-channel, private communications between President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev to de-escalate tensions and avoid a nuclear war. This could be considered an initial attempt at détente.
The final days of the Cold War drew the United States and the Holy See into even closer alignment. President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II did more than any other western leaders to weaken and ultimately defeat Soviet communism. While President Reagan championed “peace through strength” and waged economic warfare against the Soviet Union, Pope John Paul II undermined the communist regime through his strategic use of moral persuasion. The Pope’s 1979 speech at the Gdansk shipyard in Poland sparked the Solidarity movement, which eventually defeated Polish communism, and serves as a prime example of the soft power diplomacy only the Holy See, as a non-hegemonic sovereign, can exert in the world.
The early 2000’s also saw a close working relationship between the United States and the Vatican. While I served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, 2005-2008, President George W. Bush and Pope Benedict XVI worked together on common goals such as coming to terms with Islam-inspired terrorism, human trafficking and combatting AIDS in Africa. Pope Benedict XVI spoke out clearly and consistently against radical Islamic terrorism, condemning the use of religion to justify violence and calling for a reformation of Islam to bring its practice into conformance with 21st century mores and values. By arguing for the compatibility and co-existence of reason and religion in the world, the pontiff gave a rationale for the secular world to exist within Islam as well as for religion to be nurtured in the secular world.
Another example of the Holy See’s unique diplomatic posture arose in 2006, when we engaged the Holy See to help unify Christians during the war in Lebanon. The tripartite coalition which had worked together to govern Lebanon was falling apart under pressure from Hezbollah, and a strengthened role of the Christian element was needed. The Holy See was able to help accomplish this and maintain the historic coalition.
These past examples remind us of the importance of strong relations between the two sovereign states. When the United States and the Holy See are aligned, the relationship is a powerful diplomatic force. Our mutual goals of defeating radical Islamic terrorists, protecting human rights and promoting freedom remain.
Presently, Pope Francis continues this work. His visit to Egypt this April was an important inflection point in the fight against radical Islam. Like Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg speech in 2006, Pope Francis condemned the use of religion to justify terrorist attacks and called on moderate Muslims to reform their religion to root out the causes and justifications for extremism. He also called for tolerance and religious freedom in the world. The pope’s comments complement the Trump administration’s efforts to defeat the terrorists and hasten the end of this extremist ideology.
Promoting religious freedom, the right of each individual to freely and safely practice the religion of their choice, is a policy goal for both the United States and the Catholic Church. Days after Pope Francis’ declarations in Egypt, President Trump signed an executive order to protect the rights of the faithful from being forced into actions running counter to their beliefs. This will protect religious non-profits which provide healthcare services, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, from being forced to pay for abortion coverage.
Another issue where the Holy See and the United States can combine the former’s soft power with the latter’s hegemonic power is on ending the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. The Holy See’s initial attempt last year to mediate the political conflict was unsuccessful. Given the deteriorating conditions in Venezuela, a renewed effort might be more effective. Recent actions against the socialist Maduro government by both the United States and the Organization of American States (OAS) demonstrate that the world has had enough of the regime. United States sanctions against the Venezuelan vice-president, Tareck El Aissami, who has ties to the narcotics trade, and calls for the release of political prisoners like Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma are important steps.
In conclusion, the strength of United States relations with the Holy See depends on how highly the President values its soft power diplomacy. Relations were strong during the Bush years and weaker under the Obama administration. Stronger ties with the Holy See could help President Trump in confronting foreign policy challenges, such as eliminating radical Islamic terrorism and promoting human rights and religious freedom. President Trump’s visit provides a good first step toward a strong relationship.
Francis Rooney is the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 19th congressional district. He serves on the Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and previously served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.