Explainer: The (complicated) history of U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican
Why would a global, democratic superpower seek out and maintain diplomatic relations with the world’s smallest monarchical theocracy? While the United States and the Holy See have enjoyed diplomatic relations for nearly four decades, theirs is a formal relationship that took the better part of two centuries to develop. Throughout that time, the same questions were, rightly but repeatedly, litigated: Would relations with the Holy See lead the government to give an explicit preference to the Catholic Church in the United States? Would American presidents interfere with the selection of Catholic bishops? What is the tangible benefit of investing the time, resources and personnel in such a non-transactional relationship?
In order to appreciate the value of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the United States under President Joseph R. Biden Jr., it is first important to understand the relationship’s history.
The long road
As with many of the great stories from the nascent days of the American Republic, Benjamin Franklin can be found at the first formal interaction between the Holy See and the fledgling United States. At some point in 1789, Franklin received an emissary from Pope Pius VI, who carried a simple question: Would George Washington permit the pope to appoint a bishop in the new country? The reply was a straightforward “yes.” It was only eight years later that John Adams would name Giovanni Sartori as the first American consul to the Papal States, a position that would exist until 1848 when the mission was elevated by James K. Polk.
One of the more coincidental developments took place during the European revolutions of 1848, when Pius IX had fled to Gaeta, near Naples. At the same time, the U.S.S. Constitution was moored in the Port of Naples where its commander, Captain John Gwinn, was expressly ordered not to allow the pope or King Ferdinand II of Naples aboard because the United States did not want to be seen as supporting a particular side during the conflict. Gwinn defied these orders, and the pope and king spent nearly three hours on U.S. territory, departing with a 21-gun salute. (For his part, Gwinn was court-martialed but died of a hemorrhage prior to sentencing).
Throughout the American Civil War, Pius IX maintained communication with bishops in the Union and the Confederacy and urged them to work toward peace. One major misstep on the Holy See’s part was in corresponding with Jefferson Davis, who was addressed as the “Illustrious and Honorable Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America.” Through this letter, the Holy See, prone to a bit of puffery, had led many to believe that they were recognizing the Confederacy as legitimate. Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli, then-secretary of state, issued a statement to the U.S. church that the pope was not offering such recognition.
Another point of tension arose following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Two of the conspirators involved were Mary Surrat and her son, John Surrat—both devout Catholics. While Mary Surrat was executed, John fled to Canada where he was given sanctuary by a Catholic priest. He then made his way to the Papal States and served as a Zouave in the papal army. Once recognized, Surrat was pursued by papal officials and arrested—despite the lack of an extradition treaty. Following his arrest, Surrat made a daring escape and boarded a boat to Egypt, but authorities caught up with him in Malta and extradited him to the United States.
It is important to understand that the relationship between the United States and the Holy See is not transactional.
These incidents fed anti-Catholic rhetoric already fomenting in the United States, and Congress refused to fund the American legation in Rome any longer. One false rumor that the Holy See had prohibited the celebration of Protestant services within the Papal States was the final straw. On Feb. 28, 1867, Congress passed legislation prohibiting funds for any mission on behalf of the United States to the Holy See (which, ironically, had the effect of forcing Protestant services outside of the city of Rome, as they were most frequently held at the home of the American resident minister). Minister Rufus King wrote to Secretary of State William Seward, “The Pope himself feels hurt by the hasty and apparently groundless action of Congress and thinks it an unkind and ungenerous return for the good will he has always manifested towards the American Government and People.”
It would be 73 years until another American representative was sent to the Holy See on official business. As a result, the Holy See did not consider itself to be adequately represented to the church in the United States. Beginning in 1892, Pope Leo XIII selected Archbishop Francesco Satolli to be the first of 10 apostolic delegates to the church in the United States. (Satolli himself was lampooned as the “American Pope.”) Much of this uncertainty, of course, derived from the international status of the Holy See itself. Until the signing of the Lateran Treaty in 1929, the popes considered themselves “prisoners of the Vatican” in their ongoing struggles with the Italian government.
In 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed the first personal representative of the president to the Holy See. Myron Charles Taylor would spend the next 11 years, throughout the duration of World War II, representing the interests of the United States—and collecting valuable wartime information. Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman, attempted to elevate and re-establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See and nominated General Mark W. Clark for the post. The initiative, much to Truman’s chagrin, was defeated in Congress.
The post remained empty until Richard Nixon appointed Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. as his personal representative to Paul VI, with Lodge serving in this capacity through the Ford administration. Jimmy Carter appointed former New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner as his personal representative in 1978. But the greatest development in the relationship, 187 years in the making, was just about to come to fruition.
At the height of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan wanted to take advantage of the Solidarity movement’s strong hold in Poland. Given the Polish Pope John Paul II’s closeness with the worker movements in Poland and forceful rejection of Soviet communism, it was a natural partnership. As a result, William A. Wilson, a Los Angeles-born and -bred businessman, was nominated by President Reagan on Jan. 10, 1984, as ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the Holy See. Since that time, there have been 11 U.S. ambassadors to the Holy See.
An ambassador to the Holy See will benefit from familiarity with the Catholic Church. There are the matters of protocol that can be learned, but the nuances of the church’s functions and dogmatic teachings can only add to the relationship’s opportunities.
The Relationship’s Goals
Given the extensive history between the United States and the Holy See, the next logical question is: Why? At first glance, the United States and the Holy See have little in common when it comes to economics, military endeavors and policy goals. Underlying this perception, however, is a rich and mutually beneficial relationship that provides opportunities for the United States to work with one of the most experienced and well-informed international actors.
First, it is important to understand that the relationship between the United States and the Holy See is not transactional. There are no direct military or economic considerations that benefit one side over the other; the major benefit is relational. The Holy See has representatives in nearly every country, including several where the United States does not, and maintains extensive networks of on-the-ground information providers. The Holy See’s diplomatic corps is well-trained and well-informed. These diplomatic relations provide the United States with an opportunity to obtain, consider and employ unique information that it might not otherwise have. As to the Holy See’s interest in the relationship, it considers the United States a global superpower with valuable information of its own and home to tens of millions of Catholics.
Second, there are a number of overlapping policy concerns. Care for our planet, religious freedom and anti-human trafficking efforts are important areas of common ground. That is not to say that there are not areas of significant policy divergence—issues like the death penalty, nuclear proliferation and abortion. These differences, however, do not limit the opportunity to work together diplomatically. For example, the Holy See, which unlike the United States maintained its diplomatic relations with the government of Fidel Castro in Cuba, facilitated the re-establishment of U.S. relations with its Caribbean neighbor in 2015.
Third, close relations with the Holy See help American administrations in two ways: First, it allows the U.S. president an opportunity to improve relations with the Catholic bishops in the United States, who lead nearly 51 million American Catholics. The U.S. church is a significant constituency, and while relations with the Holy See do not create a special relationship between the president and U.S. bishops, the relationship does foster a better sense of understanding and cooperation on points of common interest. Additionally, it provides a greater sense of moral authority on the global stage when the United States takes actions in concert with the Holy See. Every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy has visited the pope within his first year in the presidency.
The relational benefits of such a standardized diplomatic status bear real fruits for U.S. policy initiatives. So who does the U.S. send to steward this relationship?
The products of this diplomatic relationship, identified and forged through experience over two centuries, will continue to prove a great addition to the foreign affairs of the American people.
Since the embassy to the Holy See was established in 1984 in Rome (no foreign embassy is located within the Vatican’s walls), there have been 11 U.S. ambassadors—only one of which, Thomas Patrick Melady, was not a political appointment. (Mr. Melady had prior diplomatic experience.) All of the U.S. ambassadors to the Holy See have been Catholic, although this is not a requirement. The Holy See does require that an ambassador simply not be openly antagonistic to the church. As President Biden looks to appoint his own ambassador to the Holy See, there are several characteristics for the position that should be weighed carefully.
An ambassador to the Holy See should have a strong sense of international affairs. The diplomats and curial officials at the Holy See have a wide range of expertise and a nuanced understanding of situations around the world. Being able to contextualize international developments is, therefore, a significant benefit to the ambassador. Being able to articulate an American perspective, side by side with American policy positions and interests, can also produce outcomes as notable as the end of the Cold War.
An ambassador to the Holy See will benefit from familiarity with the Catholic Church. There are the matters of protocol that can be learned, but the nuances of the church’s functions and dogmatic teachings can only add to the relationship’s opportunities. Familiarity with members of the hierarchy of the church is also invaluable, as it provides a method of cooperation and facilitation that would provide another obstacle. When you are appointed an ambassador from the United States to the Holy See, you are aware that you may only have so much time to accomplish the policy goals of the U.S. government. Being as prepared as possible prior to entering the assignment can save an ambassador valuable time and effort that can be redirected to achieving shared policy goals.
Maintaining the relationship between the United States and the Holy See is vital to advancing the interests of each government. The value and quality of the information exchanged, the shared authority that these two entities can present to the global community and the resources each can marshal are of a unique caliber. The products of this diplomatic relationship, identified and forged through experience over two centuries, will continue to prove a great addition to the foreign affairs of the American people.
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