Relations With the Vatican: Why Not?

Author and Associate Professor of History at Harvard, ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER, JR., is a Unitarian who believes that it is in our national interest to have a diplomatic representative at the Vatican. We have had one before, he argues, why not now? Mr. Schlesinger won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1945 with The Age of Jackson, and provoked no little controversy with his next book. The Vital Center.


IF diplomacy is the art of dealing with external forces to secure national ends, and if the Vatican is one of the powerful external forces in the world today, then it would seem at first glance entirely sensible for the United States to enter into diplomatic relations with the center of Catholic power. Yet the recent announcement by President Truman of his intention to regularize such relations through the appointment of an ambassador has raised a storm of protest. To many sober and intelligent observers the dispatch of an ambassador to the Vatican seems an ominous move, fraught with incalculable peril for our national institutions. To this observer, after due study, research, and meditation, the fuss over the appointment continues to seem a spectacular case of much ado about nothing.

What are the advantages of recognition? If we concede the reality of Catholic influence in the world, it would seem wise for us to be able to talk frankly and continuously with the Pope on the most vital and delicate issues of policy. This can be done only through regular diplomatic contact on the highest level. The failure to have such contact has already hampered the conduct of our foreign policy.

To take one urgent example, there is the question of Yugoslavia. The integration of Yugoslavia into the Western defense system is a pressing necessity if we are serious about defending Europe. But one issue above all stands in the way of this integration. That is, of course, the hostility of the Vatican — a hostility bound up inextricably with the case of Archbishop Stepinac. There is solid reason to believe that Tito would be happy to come to some compromise on Stepinac. There is also reason to believe that the Vatican, for whom Tito’s Yugoslavia stands as a shield against the possible Soviet invasion of Italy, might be willing to try for a settlement. But so long as we lack top-level representation at the Vatican, we cannot take the initiative to resolve the Stepinac affair.

Another example is the case of Spain. There have been mounting indications that sections of the Catholic Church are increasingly unhappy about Franco. The Pope, for example, will receive Don Juan, the pretender to the Spanish throne; but he declines to negotiate a concordat with the Franco government. Certain Spanish prelates, above all Angel Herrera Odria, Bishop of Malaga, have been openly critical of the regime: the Catholic Action movement has been agitating about the wretched social conditions under Franco; the International Federation of Christian (that is, Catholic) Trade Unions has denounced the Spanish dictator. All this suggests that the Vatican does not regard itself as irrevocably committed to Franco. Indeed, where it has had the choice in post-war Europe, in France, Italy, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Church has consistently backed the social-Catholic rather than the clerical-fascist alternative. In years past there has been a margin for maneuver in Spain; and, while recent American gestures to Franco have narrowed this margin shamefully, nonetheless the possibility still exists of gaining Vatican support for pressure which might transform the Franco dictatorship in the direction of a constitutional monarchy. But our lack of top representation in the Vatican has prevented us from exploring this possibility.

Of course, to those who suppose Vatican policy to be fixed and monolithic, it will seem idle to talk of bringing U.S. influence to bear on the formation of that policy. But this supposition is plainly false. In the field of politics, the Church’s policy has always been, within limits, flexible and pragmaticwhich is why the Church has survived so long as an institution.

There is ample evidence of factionalism within the Church on political issues. Some elements favor De Gaulle in France, others the MRP; some want land reform in Italy, others prefer the status quo. L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican organ, has been far less reckless in its attitude toward the Soviet Union than most American Catholic journals. As for economic policy, L’Osservatore Romano recently observed of capitalism that “it is atheistic in its nature; and it is inherent in its structure that its god should be money” — a proposition not often heard on the lips of members of the American hierarchy. Archbishop Richard J. Cushing’s singular belief that Tito is “even more Communistic than Stalin and a more diabolical gangster” is not likely to impress European prelates for whom the distinction between the Red Army and those who would be the first to oppose it remains an important one.

The Vatican is constantly in process of making political decisions. These decisions influence great masses of people. It is the injunction of elementary good sense that we should do what we can to make sure that these decisions support rather than obstruct our own foreign policy. It is this fact — and not the overrated and tendentious Vatican intelligence service — which makes the Truman decision, in my judgment, a sensible one — and one which should have been taken years ago. Great Britain, a far more robustly anti-Catholic nation than our own, has had a mission at the Vatican for years. Thirty-seven states currently maintain relations with the Vatican without suffering fatal contamination.

What are the disadvantages of the decision? The argument that the Vatican is a spiritual power and hence does not qualify for diplomatic representation need not long detain us — especially when it comes from the people who in other contexts insist most loudly that the Vatican is a temporal power, up to its neck in world politics. Nor need we linger over the argument that diplomatic relations with the Vatican somehow commit us to approval of the Roman Church. It no more commits us to Catholicism— to Catholic views of papal infallibility or of church-state relations — than diplomatic recognition of Stalin commits us to Communism, or of Franco to fascism. I had hoped that we had by now outgrown the view that the existence of diplomatic relations implies approval. Moreover, I see no issue of discrimination; I would be in favor of establishing diplomatic relations with any other spiritual leader who wields as much temporal power as the Pope.

A more serious argument is that the President’s action, in the words of the National Council of the Churches of Christ, has precipitated “the kind of situation which our forefathers sought to prevent in the interest of the national welfare by constitutional separation of church and state.” As a student of American history, I find this statement astonishing. I know of no evidence that the principle of the separation of church and state was ever considered to preclude the sending of a mission to a foreign potentate who happened also to be a religious leader.

In fact, we had a mission to the Vatican from 1848 to 1868. Anyone impressed by the National Council’s invocation of our forefathers should examine the Congressional debates which led to the termination of that mission. He will find very little about the principle of separation. Mr. Williams, who first moved to strike out Rome from the bill for diplomatic appropriations, said explicitly: “It was on the score of the political insignificance [my italics] of the Papal Government that I moved the amendment.” To this were added a general desire for economy (Mr. Morrill: “It is a useless expenditure, merely to provide a place for someone who wants the position”) and a specific objection to a reported papal ban on Scotch Presbyterian worship in Rome. Separation of church and state is, indeed, a basic American principle, which I am deeply concerned to defend; but its application to the sending of a mission to the Vatican is entirely a latter-day novelty. It finds no warrant in the thoughts or actions of our forefathers.

The other argument advanced by the National Council of Churches is even less impressive. This argument, in essence, is that the President’s proposal makes a lot of good people mad, and that therefore the President should not disrupt national unity by going ahead with it. This is the identical argument which Senator Smith of New Jersey made against the appointment of Philip Jessup to the United States delegation to the United Nations; it is the identical argument which thousands of Southerners make every day against the civil rights program. When any President begins to flinch from making wise decisions because they will enrage a section of the population, he might as well resign.

The professed arguments are so feeble that one can hardly believe they are the real arguments. Behind them lurks, I suspect, a feeling that the diplomatic relationship will give the Vatican a new and powerful voice in American foreign policy. This feeling represents the sheerest defeatism about America’s role in the great world. It is a hangover of the old feeling that innocent and idealistic Americans will always be outsmarted by foreigners. If our representatives in the Vatican do not go there to assert and advance the national interests and influence of the United States, they have no business to go at all; and we have no business to have a Department of State.

On the contrary, the proposed relationship would give us what we have so long lacked and needed — that is, an opportunity to have direct and continuing influence on Vatican foreign policy. Properly carried out, it will strengthen the purpose and unity of the free world.