Making Friends With the Holy See

Symposium Considers 25 Years of US Diplomatic Relations

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WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 29, 2009 ( The United States is interested in keeping and developing its diplomatic relations with the Holy See for three principal reasons, according to former U.S. ambassador Mary Ann Glendon.

Glendon offered her reflections on motives for formal relations between the two entities at a daylong symposium held Thursday at the Catholic University of America. The conference marked the 25th anniversary of the establishment of these relations, when President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II formalized them Jan. 10, 1984.

Glendon, who is also the president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and a Harvard professor, said that relations with the Holy See have come to be «especially valuable to the United States,» and offered her suggestions on «why it is likely to remain so in the future.»

«The first reason is simply that the Holy See’s sphere of concern, like that of the United States, is worldwide,» the former ambassador explained. Citing Colin Powell, she added, «Both of us think and act globally and that makes for a unique partnership.»

There are «important common commitments, global commitments, enduring commitments» shared by the two states, Glendon contended. And she listed a common pledge to «human rights, especially religious freedom, to strengthening the global moral consensus against terrorism, especially against the use of religion as a pretext for violence, to fostering interreligious dialogue and to working for peace in the Middle East and other troubled areas of the world.»

The professor went on to maintain that a strong link could be expected between two entities that share a «common commitment to the relief of poverty, hunger, disease among the poorest peoples of the world, and the poorest countries of the world.»

«If you think about it, it is only natural that a partnership should have arisen between the country that is the world’s largest and most generous donor of humanitarian aid and the Holy See, which oversees the world’s largest network of health care, educational and relief agencies,» she remarked.

Listening and speaking

Offering a second reason for the importance of relations with the Holy See, Glendon said that the Holy See is «regarded as what diplomats call an important listening post.» This, she explained, is due to the Church’s «350,000 educational, charitable aid agencies, health care agencies all over the world,» and its «network of parishes, parish priests, dioceses, bishops, missionaries, religious sisters all over the world.»

«This gives the Holy See access to types of information that are difficult for most countries to obtain — information about what is really going on in the capillaries of society,» she commented.

Finally, the pontifical academy president said another reason can be offered, one that is «increasingly important as our world has become more interdependent.»

«In this age of rapid communications, the Holy See has come to be recognized not only as a great listening post, but as a great, important, influential communicator. It possesses a widely respected moral voice,» Glendon declared. «As they say, ‘When the Pope speaks the world listens.’ And since that voice carries so many of the values to which the United States also is dedicated, this provides yet another reason to treasure our diplomatic relationship.»

Hard to come by

Nevertheless, as attested by an address from New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the fact that the United States and the Holy See share formal diplomatic relations is only thanks to literally centuries of effort, dating back to the very beginnings of the United States as a nation.

Contacts were «awkward at the start,» as the United States established itself as a state, the archbishop explained. Superiors in Rome were initially concerned about the health of the Church in this new country.

The model the fledging state was developing for relations between Church and state was also unique. Archbishop Dolan noted how Benjamin Franklin responded to a request from Rome that there was no need to involve Congress in dictating who would govern the Church in the United States.

Nevertheless, there was no easy road to follow in order to establish a good relationship.

Rome wanted early on «more stable contact» with both the Church in the United States and with the government, «hopefully in the person of an apostolic delegate,» the prelate said.

But, anti-Catholicism in the United States was part of the obstacle, he pointed out, as could be seen with the tour of a papal diplomat in 1853, who after mob harassment eventually had to be escorted in disguise to a departing ship in the New York harbor.

Several presidents were able to maintain contact with Rome through the figures of «personal envoys.» Then finally, in 1984, Archbishop Dolan explained, a turnaround came about: «Undoubtedly the immense prestige of Pope John Paul II and the obvious influence of the Holy See in world affairs muted criticism,» and President Reagan was able to formalize ties with the Holy See.

«From the Holy See’s point of view, the establishment of the pontifical mission in Washington has been very successful,» the prelate said. «Since the earliest days of the new Republic, due to distance, the novel political arrangement, the American penchant for freedom, and the unreliability of communication, Rome has been ever eager for stable, personal representation. […]

«The development [of] influence of the United States in world affairs made such a mission all the more important so that the exchange of ambassadors and nuncio in 1984 proved very satisfactory. And to the United States as well, even critics had to acknowledge the Holy See’s impact on world events in the mid 1980s when diplomatic relations were formalized and to admit that it was probably in America’s self interest to have exchanged ambassadors.»

«It may have taken a while to get there,» he concluded, «but it has sure been worth it.»

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On the Net:

Archbishop Dolan’s full account of the history of U.S.-Holy See relations and Mary Ann Glendon’s address:

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