Drew ChristiansenDecember 14, 2020
Pope Francis greets then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the Vatican in this April 29, 2016, file photo. Church and diplomatic experts are assessing how U.S.-Vatican diplomacy will change with Biden, as U.S. president. He is the second Catholic elected to the nation's highest office in U.S. history. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)Pope Francis greets then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the Vatican in this April 29, 2016, file photo. Church and diplomatic experts are assessing how U.S.-Vatican diplomacy will change with Biden, as U.S. president. He is the second Catholic elected to the nation's highest office in U.S. history. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

Anticipation of a new administration in Washington prompts questions about the future course of U.S.-Vatican relations. There is much on which a Biden administration and the Holy See can collaborate. President-elect Joe Biden and Pope Francis share many policy concerns, above all climate change, where Mr. Biden has pledged to re-join the Paris Climate Covenant.

The Holy Father’s recent encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” addresses the need for solidarity in a post-pandemic world to relieve poverty and correct accelerating inequality. In announcing his new economic team, the president-elect has likewise affirmed his intent to reduce economic inequality and empower workers, a perennial concern of Catholic social teaching.

On numerous occasions, the pope has demonstrated his concern for refugees and migrants; and Mr. Biden has expressed his opposition to the Trump administration’s harsh, even cruel, treatment of Central American refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border and his desire to address the backlog of admissions and to regularize the asylum process.

The quality of the potential collaboration between the Holy See and the Biden administration will depend on the president-elect’s choice of ambassador and the trust the president and the secretary of state have in the appointee. The incumbent, Ambassador Calista Gingrich, was clearly a political appointee often overshadowed by her outspoken husband, former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

There is much on which a Biden administration and the Holy See can collaborate. President-elect Joe Biden and Pope Francis share many policy concerns, above all climate change.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used the embassy to the Holy See as a platform to hector Pope Francis about the 2018 Vatican-Beijing agreement on the appointment of bishops, ignoring the unity of the church and its internal governance. He preceded the denunciation with an article in First Things that carried the same message. It was an affront that publicly irked the Vatican, which pointedly noted that this kind of criticism is usually a matter of diplomatic exchanges rather than public attacks.

Mr. Pompeo proved insensitive to the delicacy of the Sino-Vatican relations and the Holy See’s painstaking efforts over two decades toward an agreement. He imposed his evangelical understanding of religious liberty on the church’s strategy of rapprochement with China, apparently not grasping that for the Catholic Church—in accordance with international law—corporate, ecclesiastical matters relating to church unity and internal church governance are also matters of religious liberty. In his typically heavy-handed style, he tried to suborn the Vatican’s tenuous tie to China in the service of the Trumpian cold war with the Middle Kingdom.

Mr. Pompeo’s false steps show why Vatican officials have long made known to U.S. interlocutors their preference for professional diplomats over politically prominent Catholics as potential ambassadors. As long as one has a high tolerance for long ceremonial events, an appointment to the Vatican offers special potential for constructive diplomacy. Most other diplomatic appointments are simply bilateral, focused on issues with the host-state. The Holy See’s interests, by contrast, are global, and its various dicasteries treat a variety of multilateral, global concerns, from poverty to disarmament.

Vatican City, moreover, because of the church’s worldwide reach, is famous as a listening post for diplomats. Through its hierarchy and charities, the church reaches into social and political grassroots around the world in a way that often makes it an early warning system for popular concerns and a font of alternative viewpoints for diplomats tied down to their embassies and capital host cities.

Mr. Pompeo proved insensitive to the delicacy of the Sino-Vatican relations and the Holy See’s painstaking efforts over two decades toward an agreement.

With the presumed return of the United States to the world stage under Mr. Biden, the Holy See, with its principled commitment to multilateralism, can also provide wise counsel on how to re-engage in global affairs without appearing overbearing. Other states, including allies, have come to understand that they must do more on their own with less reliance on the United States. That self-reliance is a development that needs to be encouraged.

Others fear the Biden administration might turn out to be a brief interlude between populist or at least more nationalist U.S. administrations. The Holy See could be a quiet partner in advancing global policies and in supporting popular movements, a special concern of Pope Francis, while opposing populist ones.

Multilateral Diplomacy

In recent years, the Holy See has also been at the forefront of multilateral initiatives. In 2000, in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Clinton administration, it led the way on jubilee debt relief for the poorest nations under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative. Pope Francis and his encyclical “Laudato Si’” played an important role in the lead up to the 2015 Paris Climate Covenant. Likewise, the Holy See has been party over the last three decades to a series of arms control initiatives on landmines, cluster munitions and the small arms trade.

Vatican diplomats, particularly Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, engaged with the Humanitarian Consequences movement, a civil society initiative in conjunction with non-nuclear-weapons states, examining growing knowledge of the effects of nuclear weapons and the inability of nations to recover from nuclear war. The movement set the stage for the 2017 Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons. The negotiations for that treaty opened with a message from Pope Francis, and the Holy See was among the first state parties to sign and ratify the treaty.

The T.P.N.W. comes into force on Jan. 22, two days after Mr. Biden’s inauguration. High among the multilateral issues on which the Holy See and the United States can closely consult is nuclear disarmament, beginning this August with the postponed Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. It can be a bridge for the United States with non-nuclear states that support the treaty and with elements among wavering states currently under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

China—the Civilizational State

Both the United States and the Holy See face a major challenge in forging relations with China. No doubt, China will remain a multifaceted problem for years to come. Unfortunately, U.S. foreign policy is subject to the vagaries and hyperbole of electoral politics. Surely, it would help to reduce the dramaturgy surrounding Sino-U.S. relations.

Much like China, the Vatican thinks in centuries. In that spirit, the Holy See has shown how persistence can succeed in relations with a wary China. Persistence is too little valued in the United States, which favors urgent action it soon forgets.

Likewise, the history of the Vatican’s recent China policy shows how providing signs of respect can build a relationship. The Chinese regard themselves as “a civilizational state” rather than a nation-state. The Vatican, too, is the inheritor of 2000 years of Christian civilization.

The Vatican thinks in centuries and has shown how persistence can succeed in relations with a wary China. 

At the same time, by affirming the validity of the Gospel’s inculturation in different regions, Pope Francis has legitimated a Catholicism with a Chinese face. By inviting China to Vatican events and jointly sponsoring others, the Holy See built trusted relations with the Chinese, through both informal back-channel contacts and formal diplomatic conversations.

The Chinese still revere 16th- and 17th-century Jesuit missionaries like Matteo Ricci and Adam von Schall as Westerners who genuinely respected the value of Chinese culture. Perhaps they see the Jesuit pope as an heir to that historic cross-cultural encounter. Amid all the tensions between China and the West, it would behoove the Biden administration to choose some projects or events it can participate in that show respect for the civilizational state of China, not just for its historic legacy but for the dramatic economic achievements of the last 40 years as well. In a climate of respect, renewed progress might be made on more difficult issues like human rights, religious liberty and intellectual property.

Sustaining a climate of encounter and creating a diplomatic culture that is prepared to receive signals of goodwill from the other side is vital to moving relations forward. That is particularly true in U.S.-China relations. Chinese policy is relatively more coherent; U.S. policy formation is more subject to dissension from within the bureaucracy as well as from electoral politics. Diplomats must be ready to read the signs of the times and seize the new openings offered them.

A trusting, engaged relationship between the United States and the Holy See can be a major building block for the post-pandemic global order Pope Francis has been urging the peoples of the world to embrace. But it will take an administration with a president, a secretary of state and a Vatican ambassador attuned to the opportunities this special relationship can make possible.

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