Interview: U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican on Joe Biden and Pope Francis’ relationship, Ukraine and Catholic polarization
Pope Francis dedicated his entire Angelus address this past Sunday, Oct. 2, to denouncing the war in Ukraine. Recent weeks have seen the Ukrainians pushing back Russian forces on the ground while Russian president Vladimir Putin has escalated his threats, claiming that four Ukrainian regions now belong to Russia and that Russia will take any attempt to reclaim them as a threat to its territorial integrity. Mr. Putin said that in the face of such a so-called invasion, Russia would respond by all means necessary—including using nuclear weapons.
The Vatican has responded to the war so far by advocating for peace and focusing on sending humanitarian aid. But the pope has faced criticism on the world stage for being too soft on Russia. In the past, he has said that NATO had been “barking at Russia’s gate” before the invasion, and he prayed for a Russian civilian who was killed, purportedly by Ukrainian forces; she was the daughter of a controversial pro-Putin Russian philosopher.
Joe Donnelly: "I hope that when the Vatican looks at [us], they say, 'You know what? They are also accomplishing God’s mission in making people’s lives better.'"
In the pope’s brief but forceful speech this weekend, he appealed to Mr. Putin directly for the first time, calling for an immediate ceasefire. He called on Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to be open to serious proposals for peace. But what does a just peace look like?
On this week’s “Inside the Vatican” podcast, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Joe Donnelly told me, “It is not much of a peace agreement if somebody comes to you and says, ‘Look, we’ve put a deal together, and 80 percent of your town is going to be safe, and sorry, you’re in the 20 percent.’”
The ambassador and I discussed his work with the Vatican, and how he navigates that collaboration even when the Holy See’s goals and approach to diplomatic issues differ from those of the United States. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
Colleen Dulle: Can you give us a look inside the day to day work of an ambassador? What is an ordinary day for you?
Joe Donnelly: I’m incredibly blessed that President Biden asked me to do this. I was raised as a Catholic, still am Catholic, a second-generation Irish immigrant. So the Catholic faith has been a big part of my life. And obviously, having a chance to serve my home country, the United States, which I love with all my heart, in the House and in the Senate has been such a big part of my life as well. [This role] kind of blended both those things. What I try to do is represent the United States to the Vatican to represent us on various policy issues, and to make sure that when topics are being discussed and being thought of by the Vatican, that America’s point of view is heard. As well, it gives the Vatican a chance to be able to speak to Americans, [and] say, “Look, here are our concerns about these issues.”
CD: What does that look like? Do you hear that something is being discussed in the Vatican and you call up Cardinal Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, and say, “Hey, here’s our stance”?
JD: No, it’s not like that. Usually on a regular basis, we meet with Cardinal Parolin, the secretary of state, and Archbishop Gallagher [the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, the counterpart to a foreign minister]. The list of issues, obviously, is long. It involves Ukraine, which has been a huge part of my time here, and working on things like human rights and trafficking, health care issues, security concerns for religious who may be serving overseas that we might be able to be of help with. A couple days before, we’ll hear from the Vatican saying, “Hey, we’re looking to talk about this issue,” or vice versa, where we will say, “Look, there’s a discussion going on about Ukraine, we’d like to sit with so-and-so and go over that.”
CD: There are points of agreement between the United States and the Holy See, and there are points of less agreement. Can I ask you what the points of cooperation are and what the points of difference are—and more importantly, how you approach navigating those points of disagreement?
JD: Well, I represent the United States. Obviously in our country, for instance, in the Catholic Church, there are different points of view about almost every issue. There are Catholics who are considered social justice Catholics; there are Catholics who are considered more rules-oriented Catholics. My job is not to get in the middle of the different Catholic groups who don’t agree with one another on this or that. I don’t represent a Catholic group. I represent the United States. When I work on an issue with the Vatican, we may agree on part of it, on a foreign policy issue in the Middle East, for instance, and the Vatican may say, “We believe in this and this,” and I will say, “Look, that’s not where we are. Here is why. Here’s our point of view on this.” On the Catholic cultural issues, my job is not to be in the middle of Catholic fights about doctrine. That’s the last place you want to be sometimes. I let the various religious groups scrum those out, and I try to work on issues regarding our country.
Joe Donnelly: "My job is not to get in the middle of the different Catholic groups who don’t agree with one another on this or that. I don’t represent a Catholic group. I represent the United States."
CD: You said you are a practicing Catholic yourself; you’re also in this position where you’re not necessarily representing Catholics or Catholicism. You’re representing the entire American people, who are a lot more diverse. I wonder how you personally navigate times when your personal beliefs may not be in alignment with what President Biden wants you to advocate, for example.
JD: You know, I’ve not had any problems so far navigating those things. People ask, “Does any of that stuff keep you up at night?” No. There has actually not been any problem with that.
CD: You brought up Ukraine: Just for some context for our listeners, you began your duties in the Vatican in mid-April, so a little bit after the beginning of the war in Ukraine.
JD: Yeah, and I actually became the ambassador to the Vatican before Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine, in mid-February, and came here to Rome in mid-March and presented my official credentials to the pope on April 11.
CD: It was around then that you had this conversation with the pope that you told my colleague Gerry O’Connell about, that focused mostly on Ukraine, where you said that the pope really seemed to be agonizing over [the war]. How was that anguish evident?
JD: If you hear what the pope said in his Angelus address [on Oct. 2], it was completely about Ukraine. I think this is something that he agonizes over every single day. On the day I spent with him on April 11, we talked for over half an hour, and probably 90 percent of it was about Ukraine and how we can get to a place where the bloodshed ends. I was very honest and upfront with him. I said, “Look, Putin started this war. Putin and Russia invaded Ukraine. They have slaughtered the Ukrainian people. They have tortured and raped and murdered them. Russia is fighting to take Ukraine. Ukraine is fighting to survive.” What I have always tried to do is speak truth, and that’s the situation we’re in.
Joe Donnelly: "You look to try to find a position where Putin will say, 'Enough.' And I have had past experience in dealing with folks like this."
CD: Your conversation with Pope Francis was a while ago. A lot has changed in terms of the war. How do you see things standing now in terms of the Vatican’s efforts for peace, and then the role that you can play in that?
JD: I’ve tried, like I said, to be consistently very clear in representing the United States’ views on this, which is that Putin and Russia attacked Ukraine. The interesting thing right now is that the tide has turned in Ukraine: The Ukrainian army is pushing back and is succeeding at moving the Russians further back toward their own country on an almost daily basis. So we’re in a different situation than when I first talked to the pope, where it was a question of, “Could they hang on and could they survive?” Right now, the question is, “How far can the Ukrainians go? Can they bring this right back to the Russian border?”
You look to try to find a position where Putin will say, “Enough.” And I have had past experience in dealing with folks like this. I served on the Armed Services Committee in the United States Senate, traveled to Iraq five or six times, to Afghanistan five or six times. [Putin] is not the first person who I’ve seen conduct themselves this way. Unfortunately, I think, with Vladimir Putin, you have to push back. He’s a bully.
CD: Is that any different from the way that the Vatican approaches this? I just read Victor Gaetan’s book, God’s Diplomats, about the pope’s ambassadors. And he made the point that in Vatican diplomacy, since peace is the top priority, you never want to be in a situation where you’re creating winners and losers. I think that’s the fear as Putin gets more and more erratic and is escalating his threats of nuclear attacks. Is there a tension between the Holy See and the U.S. on this?
JD: I wouldn’t say there is a tension, no. You have heard the Vatican say that Ukraine has a right to defend itself. Ukraine has a right to use weapons to defend itself. Ukraine has a right to protect its territory. And that’s what they’re doing. They are following through on all of those particular points. This is what I’ve tried to continually stress to the Vatican: Russia attacked. Russia invaded. Ukraine is fighting for their life. What I am hopeful that the Vatican seems to understand and will continue to understand is, there is no moral equivalence here. There just isn’t. And while we all want peace, it is not peace if the agreement that’s achieved takes your family’s home, takes your town. That’s not peace. That’s just putting off war to another day.
CD: You say that you’re stressing that to the Holy See. I wonder if you think that they are veering toward a moral equivalency. Is this something that you’re pushing back against them on?
JD: Well, I am very hopeful that the message that we offer to them is one that they clearly understand.
CD: I appreciate you unpacking that with me. I have one last question on Ukraine: Do you think it’s advisable for the pope to visit Ukraine?
JD: I have encouraged the folks I speak to at the Vatican to go to Ukraine. I believe when I met with the pope, I encouraged him to visit Ukraine as well. I think it is one of the strongest moral statements that the world could see about what is right and what is wrong here. I have also encouraged them not to tie themselves down. What I mean by that is, you have heard it discussed, “Well, the pope can’t go to Ukraine unless he also goes to Russia.” Well, what you do is, you make the offer to go. You offer to go to Russia. Russia has clearly said they don’t want him to come. [The pope has] made that offer. If they are saying they don’t want you to come, then you shouldn’t simply say, “Well, now I can’t go to Ukraine, because [Russia] won’t have me come.”
The people of Ukraine love the Holy Father. They have great faith in him. It would be an extraordinary moment to see the Holy Father in Kyiv praying with the families who have lost loved ones, who have lost sons and daughters on the battlefield, for the Holy Father to visit Bucha, where the Russians tortured and murdered people. That is the kind of moral leadership that would have an incredible impact around the world, and I think would also be an extraordinarily powerful moment for the papacy.
Joe Donnelly: "While we all want peace, it is not peace if the agreement that’s achieved takes your family’s home, takes your town. That’s just putting off war to another day."
CD: Shifting gears, I want to ask you about your impression of President Biden’s relationship with Pope Francis. What do you think of their relationship? What is it like?
JD: I think they have a great relationship. They get along extraordinarily well. They talk to each other. You’ll laugh at this: The president, when I was with him before I came over to Rome, gave me an envelope and said, “This is for the Holy Father.” I said, “O.K., I will put it in my bag and hopefully not forget it.” And when I met with the Holy Father, he laughed. He said, “Oh, you didn’t open it!”
They have a great relationship. And I will tell you this, I think we have a great relationship, the United States embassy, with the Vatican, with the Holy See. Archbishop Gallagher has said, “We have a really positive relationship with the U.S. embassy.” And, part of his answer was, “Look, we don’t agree on every issue. There are some issues where they don’t agree with us, and some issues where we don’t agree with them, but we’re very clear with each other. We respect one another, and we’re both trying to make life better for people around the world.”
Folks have asked what is involved in this position. Obviously we don’t provide visas like other embassies do. What it is closer to is almost like a United Nations, where it is the moral power of the Vatican. This is more of a global engagement embassy or a global engagement post, in that we are working with them on security issues for religious in various parts of the world, to try to help with any information we might have, to work together on how to provide health care to people all over the world, including the United States, where I think about one-seventh of health care is provided by the Catholic Church. It goes to human rights and religious freedom, for instance, with the Uyghurs who are in concentration camps in Xinjiang in China. We work on those issues. Also, the pope’s concern about our planet with “Laudato Si’” and trying to work together to see how we can control global warming.
CD: Are you able to say any more about the kinds of security issues that the U.S. works on with the Vatican?
JD: For instance, we had a United States sister who had been held who was recently released: Sister Suellen [Tennyson, who was kidnapped in Burkina Faso and freed after five months. Editor’s note: No information about her kidnappers or the conditions for her release have been published.] And we were thrilled to have her come home. So, any information we had, we tried to work [with the Vatican] to receive also any information that the church had because she’s a United States citizen, and we have an obligation.
CD: Last question: What do you want U.S. citizens, and maybe the U.S. Catholics who listen to our show, to know about our diplomatic relationship with the Vatican?
JD: That it is strong, that it is from a position of respect for one another, that the effort being made by both sides is to try to make sure that at the end of the day, our efforts help make it a safer world, help make people’s lives better, help provide food to places that need it more, help provide better health care. We are the United States embassy, but I hope that when the Vatican looks at [us], they say, “You know what? They are also accomplishing God’s mission in making people’s lives better.”