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Washington and Rome

Two recent books attempt to explain the relationship between the Vatican and the United States. Each has a different agenda.

By From the June 2009 issue

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Parallel Empires: The Vatican and the United States—Two Centuries of Alliance and Conflict
By Massimo Franco
(Doubleday, 221 pages, $26)

Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace
By George Weigel
(Crossroad, 339 pages, $24.95)

Two recent books attempt to explain the relationship between the Vatican and the United States. Each has a different agenda, and thus they reach opposite conclusions. Common to both, however, is a primary focus on the debate over the legitimacy of America’s war in Iraq.

Parallel Empires: The Vatican and the United States—Two Centuries of Alliance and Conflict, by Italian journalist Massimo Franco, portrays the Vatican as an independent actor on the world stage, guiding and guarding the flock of Christ. The other work, Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace, a collection of essays by American Catholic commentator and papal biographer George Weigel, sees a strong relationship between the Vatican and the U.S. based on a mutual concern for saving Western civilization and promoting democratic government around the world.

Franco, who writes for Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, makes no effort to disguise his dislike for any attempt to elide Vatican and U.S. policy. In contrast, Weigel, a Distinguished Fellow at Washington’s conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center (and often described as a “theocon”), sees the union of Roman Catholicism and American democracy as part of the divine plan for advancing human rights. The Franco book begins with a history of U.S.-Vatican relations. From the early days of the Republic, according to Franco, Rome was considered a threat to the American constitutional principle of church-state separation. Franco highlights the diplomatic fits and starts of the past 230 years, beginning with the first high-level contact, an unofficial visit to the U.S. by Archbishop Gaetano Bedini, a Vatican diplomat, in 1853. That initial outreach effort was unsuccessful because of both Protestant suspicion of “papism,” and the split that existed between liberal American Catholics who sought more autonomy from Rome and conservatives who wanted to maintain a tight relationship.

The Vatican’s initial diplomatic breakthrough came with the appointment of Archbishop Francesco Satolli as apostolic delegate to the U.S. (1893–96). Speaking at an American Catholic Congress, he encouraged his audience to go forth “in one hand carrying the book of Christian faith, and the other the Constitution of the United States.” He maintained that the U.S. was protected from papal interference “by the spirit of the Constitution, and the loyalty of those who guard it.”

Satolli’s efforts to equate American ideals with the Gospel were an exaggerated attempt to breach the divide that separated Washington and Rome. However, even after these conciliatory words, fear of Protestant backlash at too close an association with Catholicism forced occupants of the White House, including America’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, to keep the Vatican at arm’s length. To fill the diplomatic void, the Vatican continued to appoint apostolic delegates to the U.S., rather than ambassadors, for most of the 20th century.

At certain intervals, a working relationship was deemed valuable for both camps. World War II provided such an occasion. President Franklin D. Roosevelt realized the importance of the Vatican as an international listening post. He also saw the need for Catholic support of his administration. In 1940, the question of international refugees during the war gave Roosevelt cover to nominate (without Senate approval) Myron C. Taylor as his personal representative to the Holy See. Franco insists that it was ultimately this kind of pragmatism that succeeded in establishing full diplomatic relations. In 1984 Ronald Reagan, realizing John Paul II’s potential to help him bring down the Soviet Union, appointed William Wilson as the first U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. Archbishop Pio Laghi (1980–90), then the apostolic delegate, was elevated to be the first papal nuncio (ambassador) to the U.S.

According to Franco, the success of that joint venture provided impetus for theocons like Weigel (and his philosophical brethren, the so-called neocons) to elide Catholicism with American public policy. Reading Weigel, it would seem that the match was made in heaven—and it is here that the two authors make their opposing cases.

Whereas Franco sees a disconnect between Vatican concerns and the American approach to foreign policy, Weigel envisions a joining of forces to make the world safe for democracy. But Weigel goes even further. He sees the U.S. as the world’s moral policeman, armed with Catholic ideals drawn directly from the great social encyclicals. He writes, “The first thing that Christian orthodoxy does for democracy has to do with the problem of what we might call ‘making room’ for democracy.” He imagines the idea of American exceptionalism extended beyond our borders, with the U.S. divinely charged to uproot unjust governments that violate human rights so that “mini- Americas” can be established around the world. Regarding Iraq, Franco highlights the contrast between Vatican and U.S. policies (clear to him in the diplomatic exchanges prior to the war), where for Weigel they are of a piece. Franco’s descriptions of the encounters between former pro-nuncio Cardinal Laghi and the Bush administration attest to the divide. He states, “The United States was slipping into a unilateralism that the United Nations and the Vatican considered a devastating development in international relations, foreshadowing a deterioration of relations between the West and the Islamic world.” He further elaborates, “The United States and the Vatican, the West’s two parallel empires, were worlds apart.”

Weigel, on the other hand, evokes the just war theory, interpreting it in a light favorable to U.S. interventionism. He claims that preemptive strikes are in order to ensure the “tranquillitas ordinis” (tranquility of order) that, he says, extends beyond our own borders. Weigel justifies his position by arguing that “We are, as Augustine put it, to ‘be peaceful…in warring,’ that is, to keep the aim of peace first and foremost, and not only ‘vanquish those whom you war against’ but also to ‘bring them to the prosperity of peace.…’”

Accordingly, Franco maintains, the Vatican’s preferred agency for intervention in Iraq is the United Nations. Weigel is ultimately unconvinced of the UN’s value in keeping world order and protecting human rights.

THERE IS A STARK DIFFERENCE between the two authors’ visions of the “parallel empires.” Franco’s Vatican is more concerned with the promotion and protection of Catholics throughout the world. At the same time, the goal of the Holy See (the juridical embodiment of the moral office of the papacy) is to fulfill the Dominical command “to announce the Good News” and promote Gospel values. For Weigel, intervention by America, with its Christian natural law foundation in human rights, is the last bastion of hope for preserving the values of Western civilization. He sees those values threatened by a pusillanimous European Union, by a rapidly decreasing European native stock, by moral relativism, and by rising radical Islam on the Continent.

Both books are full of information and represent the philosophies of their respective constituencies well. But while Weigel makes many excellent, cogent points and realistic arguments, in the end Franco’s presentation carries more weight. His historical depth and clarity regarding the Catholic Church in America and its relationship with the U.S. government is more theologically correct and consistent with the historical context of how the parallel empires have interacted over the years—each often clumsy in its diplomacy and sometimes quick to use the other for its own purposes. The message here is that the Church has to be careful not to marry a political ideology or ally itself too closely with any nation, lest it sacrifice its mission to build God’s kingdom—which, of course, is “not of this world.” 

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About the Author

Rev. Michael P. Orsi is a chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at the Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Florida.