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John L. Allen Jr.

US, Vatican aren’t exactly BFFs

Two men painted a mural of Pope Francis in New York last month. AFP/Getty Images


Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye did not have the odd-couple relationship between the United States and the Vatican specifically in mind when he coined his famous distinction between “hard” and “soft” power. But he easily could have.

As the world’s leading economic and military colossus, the United States is hard power incarnate. The Vatican, with no economy or standing army and a mere 108 acres of physical space, nonetheless punches well above its weight as a voice of conscience in global affairs.

Clearly, no pope can afford to ignore Washington if he wants to get something done. Equally, however, no president can dismiss a church with 1.2 billion followers around the world, including 70 million Americans who represent one-quarter of the country and a critically important voting bloc.

The bond between these two world powers will take center stage as Pope Francis visits D.C., New York, and Philadelphia Sept. 22 to 27, becoming the first pope in history to address a joint meeting of Congress.


What the past tells us is that when popes and presidents meet, history can change.

By stopping in Cuba before he reaches the United States, Francis is offering a timely reminder of that very point. Back in 1962, both US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev credited Pope John XXIII with helping to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis, just as 52 years later both US President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro would hail Pope Francis’ role in ending those Cold War tensions.

In general, US/Vatican relations can be divided into three categories: broad geopolitical matters, domestic church/state issues in America, and routine state-to-state cooperation.


Technically, nobody has diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Rather, the formal relationship is with the Holy See, which refers not to the physical space of the Vatican city state but rather the papacy’s sovereign status as head of the Catholic Church.

Formally speaking, the United States and the Holy See have had diplomatic relations only since 1984. There’s a long history of interaction prior to that point, however, beginning with a 1788 letter from Pope Pius VI to Benjamin Franklin, George Washington’s ambassador in France, asking to appoint a bishop in the new country called the United States. (Washington’s brief reply, relayed by Franklin, was that the pope could appoint whomever he wanted, since the American Revolution was partly about religious freedom.)


The United States likes to think of the Vatican as an ally, a nation with Western roots committed to the same basic values of freedom and human rights. Often that’s indeed how things play out, with the strategic partnership during the 1980s between the late Pope John Paul II and US President Ronald Reagan vis-à-vis Communism the best-known example.

American journalist Carl Bernstein and Italian Marco Politi famously called that partnership a “holy alliance,” crediting John Paul with helping to set the dominoes in motion that led to the collapse of the Soviet empire by inspiring and supporting Poland’s Solidarity movement.

Yet the truth of the matter is that popes and presidents collide as much as they intersect.

During the 1990s, the Vatican and the Clinton administration fought titanic battles during two United Nations conferences, one in Cairo in 1994 on population control and another in Beijing in 1995 on women. The issue was whether access to abortion ought to be recognized as a right in international law, and in both cases the Vatican, leading a coalition that included several majority Muslim states, prevailed in holding the line against it.


In 2003, John Paul II, now recognized as a saint, was also the leading voice of moral opposition to the US-led war in Iraq, even dispatching a special envoy in a vain attempt to persuade the Bush administration to back down.

Today, there’s a basic consensus that Francis and Obama see eye to eye on a wide range of issues, including antipoverty efforts, the rights of immigrants and refugees, and the fight against climate change.

On the other hand, Francis also has made a personal bête noire out of what he calls “ideological colonization,” by which he means efforts by Western governments and NGOs to make population control a condition of development aid. Though the pontiff rarely says so explicitly, it’s clear the United States is in the mix of places he blames.

More broadly, Francis is known for his critique of 21st-century-style capitalism, which he faults for a “globalization of indifference” to the poor. In that sense, while Francis certainly does not come to America as an enemy — he is not, despite some of his press clips, Hugo Chávez in a cassock — it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to style him as America’s BFF either.

Domestic church/state relations

Although the Vatican generally defers to local bishops on matters of domestic policy, it can’t stay entirely out of the fray when broad questions of policy are at stake, especially when the pope comes to town.

In the United States, the defining church/state tension in recent years has been the standoff between the Catholic bishops and the White House over the so-called contraception mandates, meaning the requirement that private employers cover both contraception and certain treatments the church regards as abortion-inducing.


When Obama traveled to Rome to meet Francis in March 2014, the president tried to play down the dispute, saying it “really was not a topic of conversation.” Yet a Vatican statement insisted that the pontiff had indeed pressed Obama “on questions of particular relevance for the church, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection” — all coded language for the fallout from the mandates.

The issue is still very much alive, prompting 56 different lawsuits, including one involving the Little Sisters of the Poor, and may well be headed to the Supreme Court. In that light, it’s difficult to imagine it won’t come up in some fashion when Francis and Obama have their tête-à-tête in Washington.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in June in favor of gay marriage may also surface, not only at the broad level of policy but also the practical issues it raises, such as the recent case of Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis and whether people of faith have a right to conscientious objection should their positions require them to sanction a same-sex marriage.

Even if those matters don’t necessarily represent personal priorities for Francis, every pope feels obliged to back up the bishops of the country he’s visiting. Francis likely will not want to send a signal that he’s giving Obama a free pass despite their agreement on other matters.


State-to-state cooperation

Washington doesn’t have to worry about negotiating economic or military deals with the Vatican, and there’s no real trading activity to speak of, which means that a lot of routine statecraft elsewhere is not part of the United States/Vatican relationship.

On the other hand, Washington and Rome recently have engaged in considerable back-and-forth on one critical area of Francis’ agenda: financial reform.

Shortly after Francis took over in March 2013, yet another embarrassing financial scandal broke out in the Vatican, this one centering on a priest-accountant who allegedly took part in a $30 million cash smuggling scheme straight out of a John le Carré novel involving a private Gulfstream jet and a former agent of the Italian equivalent of the CIA.

The revelations built on a long reputation of financial skullduggery at the Vatican, with American investigators over the years warning that the Vatican Bank in particular risked becoming a financial pariah potentially providing cover to bad actors — con men, organized crime bosses, perhaps even terrorists.

Francis has pursued an aggressive reform program, beefing up a watchdog unit called the Financial Intelligence Authority, or AIF, and creating an entirely new Secretariat for the Economy to impose budgeting controls and accountability, led by the no-nonsense Australian Cardinal George Pell.

In May 2013, the Vatican and the US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network signed a memorandum of understanding to facilitate the exchange of information in tracking transactions. In July 2014, AIF inked a similar deal with the US Comptroller of the Treasury.

In June 2015 the Vatican signed on to the US Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, allowing US officials to go after Americans who try to evade their tax obligations by hiding assets in the Vatican Bank. The Vatican’s foreign minister, English Archbishop Paul Gallagher, called it a historic event.

The US contribution to the pope’s cleanup effort is notable in ways large and small. California native Juan Zarate, for instance, a Harvard graduate who pioneered antiterrorist financing investigations for the Bush administration, now sits on AIF’s board.

At one stage in 2014, there were so many American consultants from firms such as McKinsey and Promontory working in various aspects of Vatican reform that one Italian writer jokingly suggested the pope relocate from Rome to New York for a year to save them all the commute.

While those measures probably won’t come up at any level of detail when Francis and Obama meet, Vatican insiders say that the push for greater financial transparency and accountability under this reforming pope may well be among the most important long-term elements of his legacy — not to mention one of the most active fronts for US/Vatican partnership on his watch.

John L. Allen Jr. is associate editor of the Globe and Crux, the Globe’s website covering Catholicism. He can be reached at john.allen@globe.com.