Undiplomatic relations

The Seventh-day Adventist Church, throughout its history strongly supportive of the United States's constitutional separation of church and state, takes a dim view of the recent establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Vatican. In this article, B. B. Beach points out that while in the past the Holy See might justifiably have requested diplomatic recognition on the basis of its having a significant political dominion, this is no longer true. And he gives five reasons the Seventh-day Adventist Church opposes President Reagan's move.

B. B. Beach is director of the Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Washington, D.C.
On January 10 President Reagan placed a diplomatic cat among the constitutional pigeons. Both the United States and the Vatican announced that they had established diplomatic relations, and the White House nominated William A. Wilson, who has been serving as the President's personal envoy at the Vatican, as the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

A little historical background may be helpful in understanding current developments. In a surprise move, the Senate, on September 22, 1983, unanimously approved an amendment to the routine State Department Authorization Bill lifting the 1867 prohibition against expenditure of government funds to support diplomatic relations with the Holy See. This amendment prevailed in conference and on November 22 became law.

Actually, the action of Congress represents much more than the simple removal of a 116-year-old stricture, for it openly states that its purpose is "to provide for the establishment of United States diplomatic relations with the Vatican." This radical change in long standing national policy was accomplished without public discussion or hearings and without substantive debate in either House, and thus seems to be a circumvention of the democratic process. This gives us cause for concern.

Between 1848 and 1867 the United States had diplomatic relations with the Papal States. For much of this time the pope was the sovereign of a bona fide state controlling some sixteen thousand square miles of central Italy and a population of 3 million. It is a matter of record that the U.S. Presidents and Secretaries of State clearly instructed their envoys in Rome (Italy had not been unified as yet and the capital was in Florence) to become involved only in "civil relations" and "extension of commerce" and( to protect U.S. citizens traveling in that part of the Italian peninsula controlled by the secular authority of the pope. Relations with the pope as head of the Church of Rome were specifically excluded.

By 1867 the territory of the Papal States had been reduced to only the city of Rome itself; and the early 1870s marked the end of the Papal States, when the troops of King Victor Emmanuel II stormed the Eternal City and made it the capital of a unified Italy. (It is not a coincidence that at this very time the Catholic Church, having reached the nadir of its political pretensions as a state, endeavored to bolster its claims of church supremacy by proclaiming the dogma of papal infallibility.)

During the 1867 Congressional debate a number of reasons for permanently closing the U.S. legation in Rome were given: (1) papal intolerance Protestant worship in Rome, even in private homes, was prohibited and was subject to the Inquisition; (2) because the Papal States were gradually being swallowed up by the kingdom of Italy, there was no practical need for continued diplomatic relations with a state that was in the process of disappearing; (3) the post in Rome had become "ornamental" in nature and was of no advantage to the American people; (4) the legation was a useless expense; (5) there was an issue of church-state separation, especially with the almost complete elimination of the pope's temporal power. The result of the debate in the House of Representatives was an overwhelming vote (82 to 18) in favor of closing the legation in Rome. A few years later the United States re opened a legation in Rome, but this time it was, of course, to the Italian nation.

For some sixty years the pope could in no way claim to be the ruler of a state. In 1929 an effort was made to heal the deadly wound inflicted upon the Papacy's aspirations to be a state. The present minuscule Vatican City (one sixth of a square mile) was created by the Lateran Treaty with the Italian Government of dictator Benito Mussolini. The latter agreed to give the pope sovereignty over the 108 acres surrounding St. Peter's and the papal palace in order to improve relations with the Papacy, relations that had been strained by the Italian risorgimento and unification, and to gain at least a modicum of support for his regime.

Vatican City is thus really an artificial state. It is exclusively the headquarters of a church the Roman Catholic Church. It is basically a church center, run by clerics, which has some formal overdressing of a state (stamps, ornamental Swiss guards, diplomatic service, international finance) to give the religious hub of Catholicism international political influence and independence from Italian state control.

There is no doubt that in the past anti-Catholicism was an element in the opposition to U.S.-Vatican diplomatic 'relations. The fear of Roman Catholic intolerance (religious persecution in some Roman Catholic nations) and concern for American civil liberties were related factors. Today, with the growth of ecumenism and more benign interchurch relations, with the official acceptance in 1965 of religious liberty by the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council, and with the activities of the current Pope in the promotion of peace and human rights, the atmosphere is quite different from 1951, when President Truman tried unsuccessfully to appoint Gen. Mark Clark as ambassador to the Vatican.

Nevertheless, there is strong nation wide opposition to U.S.-Vatican diplomatic relations. The groups or individuals who have spoken in opposition represent a broad spectrum: the National Council of Churches (most mainline churches some of a liberal theological orientation), National Association of Evangelicals (conservative theology), Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (speaking for some eight denominations), General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Jerry Falwell for the Moral Majority, and many others. There has also been some muted Jewish opposition. The weakness of the Jewish voice in this connection is explained in at least one way: The Vatican has not recognized the State of Israel, and it is felt that Jewish opposition to U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Holy See would militate against Vatican diplomatic recognition of Israel.

It is interesting to note that by no means are all Roman Catholics enthusiastic about U.S.-Vatican diplomatic relations. Some see the constitutional problem, the negative fallout on interchurch relations, the lack of practical need, and the source of trouble that Vatican interference in U.S. affairs of state could represent. Members of the Catholic hierarchy have been circumspect regarding the matter of diplomatic relations and have not wished to speak out publicly, especially in opposition to the Vatican desire for U.S. diplomatic recognition. Yet some are not at all eager to have a papal nuncio in Washington breathing down their clerical collars, speaking for the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church and having access to the government without having to speak through the U.S. Catholic Episcopal Conference.

The Seventh-day Adventist rationale for opposition is fivefold. Diplomatic ties with the Holy See run counter to the fundamental U.S. tradition and concept of separation of church and state. It is a "question of establishment of religion." One of the tests of constitutionality of a law is whether it entangles the government with the affairs of a church. Not only would diplomatic relations with the Holy See entangle the United States with the problems, views, claims, and aims of a church, but it would involve that church in the political affairs of the United States. The papal ambassadors ("nuncios") have been and are strongly involved in the internal and external political affairs of various countries (for example, in South America),

Second, having diplomatic relations with the Vatican is discriminatory. It represents a violation of the American principle of equality of all religions and churches before the law and government. Such a diplomatic tie shows special favor to one church simply because of its size and influence and because historically that church has claimed to possess civil, as well as religious, authority. The U.S. Supreme Court (for example, in Everson v. Board of Education or McCollum v. Board of Education) has made clear that government cannot pass laws that aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over others.

There is no doubt that the Papacy has political power and over the centuries the Church of Rome has had to pay a heavy spiritual price as a result. Church political ambition runs counter to the American national spirit and heritage of separation of church and state. Granting the Holy See, and therefore the Roman Catholic Church, special recognition and direct access to the State Department and the White House is discrimination toward other churches, especially world churches or world ecclesiastical councils. It is a valued American principle of government to treat all churches and religions alike.

Third, it is unrealistic, and in practice impossible, to differentiate between the Pope as head of the Roman Catholic Church and as head of the Vatican city-state. In fact, diplomatic relations are not with the Vatican or Vatican City but with the Holy See. The Vatican is simply the official residence of the Pope and nucleus of Vatican City. The Pope and curia (headquarter's staff of the Roman Catholic Church, the departments of which are headed by various cardinals) together comprise the Holy See. The Holy See has come to designate either the central government of the Roman Catholic Church or the authority itself behind that government (the Pontiff) or the community governed (the Church of Rome). An ambassador to the Holy See is in essence an ambassador to the head and government of the Roman Catholic Church. Any interpretation making a clear separation between the Holy See as a state and the Roman Catholic Church is, to say the least, misleading. The Roman Catholic Church makes this very clear by the dual role played by nuncios as ambassadors to the government and as papal representatives to the Catholic bishops of the same country.

Today, advocates of U. S. diplomatic relations with the Holy See want these relations specifically with the Pope, precisely because he is head of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church. Relations with the tiny Vatican enclave in Rome as such, with its population of about 1,000 people, would be meaning less, if not ridiculous. An ambassador to the Holy See is not and cannot be an envoy simply to the ruler of Vatican City. It is the religious authority of the Pope over hundreds of millions of Catholics that prompts the call for diplomatic relations. It is the religious force of the Papacy as a church permeating aspects of international life that is in play. In the briefest of discussions in the Senate on September 22, 1983, Senator Quayle advocated recognition of the Vatican as a "world state." This obviously means the Roman Catholic Church, the only entity through which the Vatican has world significance.

A well-known Roman Catholic historian has written: "If there were to be an American ambassador to the Vatican, he would have to be ambassador to the Pope as Pope. This would not demand United States recognition of all the papal claims implied in the titles "Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor to the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church,' but, to speak realistically, it would mean that the United States acknowledged the fact that such claims were made, and that a reality existed to substantiate them, and that the importance of that reality, the spiritual authority of the Pope, was such that it warranted establishment of diplomatic relations." James J. Hennesey,, S.J., "U.S. Representative at the Vatican," America, Dec. 4, 1965, p. 708.

Fourth, the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to the Holy See is unnecessary. While representing a triumph for the diplomatic activities of the Catholic Church, it is of little, if any, value to the United States. Much is made by some of the importance of the Vatican as a listening post. However, the President already has a personal envoy, and there is the large staff of the U.S. Embassy in Rome. It is not convincing to suggest that the Vatican is holding back information from the personal envoy of the President of the number one superpower simply because he does not have the protocol status of ambassador. Such status would no doubt help William A. Wilson to "sit higher" at Vatican ceremonial functions (of which there are many, mostly of a religious nature), but would hardly provide him with additional valuable intelligence information. Furthermore, any information provided by the Vatican would, quite understandably, have been refracted through the glasses of Catholic aims, needs, and desires. The goals of Roman Catholic diplomacy, with the Pope espousing the role of world leadership as Vicar of Christ, are obviously not the same as those of the strictly nonreligious, though not antireligious, government of the United States.

Finally, sending a U.S. ambassador to the Holy See is not helpful to good interchurch relations. In recent years, especially since Vatican II, relations between Protestants and Catholics in the United States have been free of many of the tensions and accusations of the past. The appointment of an ambassador to the headquarters of the Church of Rome and the arrival of a papal pronuncio* in Washington could very well acerbate interchurch relations by raising in the minds of many non-Catholics certain legitimate questions, emotional specters from the past, and concerns regarding the future. The charge of favoritism and discrimination does not sit well.

Our opposition to U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Holy See is not based on bigoted motives of anti-Catholicism. No one can deny the current Pope's efforts in the promotion of peace and his speeches supporting human rights. These endeavors are not in question. The Pope's status as a significant inter national figure is not the problem. The basic issue is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and diplomatic relations with a church.


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B. B. Beach is director of the Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Washington, D.C.

March 1984

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