Although American himself, Pope Francis has never visited the largest country in the Western Hemisphere that 70 million of his flock call home. When the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires comes to the United States later this month that won’t be the only papal first: before making his way to Philadelphia the Holy Father will address a joint meeting of Congress, making him the only pontiff to ever so do[i].
The history-making appearance will be a capstone of sorts to an often rocky diplomatic journey that has reflected both our country’s historical wariness toward the Vatican city state and then, when internal and global politics argued for consummation of formal ties, a rush to embrace it. Indeed, it was not until an Ash Wednesday in 1984 – when the U.S. Senate confirmed President Reagan’s nomination of William A. Wilson as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Holy See – that official diplomatic relations were established between the most ancient “personality in the community of nations” and the world’s oldest democracy.
From our earliest moments as a nation, the U.S. kept open lines of communication and even consular relations with the pope and the Papal States. But in 1867, in the grip of anti-papist fever, Congress prohibited the use of funds to maintain a mission to the Holy See. The subsequent influx of Irish and Italian immigrants gave fire to nativist cries the country would be overrun by “rum, Romanism and rebellion,” putting further distance between the two international actors. It wasn’t until a looming war in Europe – and the need to have ears in a critical listening post – that Franklin Roosevelt was compelled to name U.S. Steel chairman Myron Taylor as his man in Vatican City, the first time in half a century that an American president would appoint so much as a personal envoy to the pope.
Yet Roosevelt declined to seek the ambassador status for Taylor that would require senatorial approval and congressional funding. When President Truman floated the idea of formal ties in 1951, it met with strong political resistance. Eisenhower felt no compunction to pick up the ball and John F. Kennedy, the first and only Catholic president, was understandably disinterested in advocating closer US-Vatican ties.
Into the 1970s there was little energy around normalizing relations, but in 1977 the Vatican’s influence on the global stage took on far greater weight with the election of the little-known Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, as Pope John Paul II. In fact, the political repercussions of his selection were viewed with such concern by the leadership in Poland and the Soviet Union that some suspected a carefully orchestrated plot by their enemies in the West.
Since the start of the Cold War, the Church had been a bulwark against communism in the pivotal Catholic countries of the Soviet bloc, Poland in particular. The Solidarity free trade union movement that rankled state officials had close ties to the Church, and Wojtyla himself had tangled with the communists as he rose through the clerical hierarchy.
So deep-seated was their uneasiness with the charismatic Polish pope, and so real was the fear of an anti-Soviet alliance between the Vatican and the U.S., the KGB seriously considered that a conspiracy had been hatched by President Carter’s Polish-born national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.
As a graduate student researching these events I asked Brzezinski about his alleged plot in picking the pope. “I do know that there was some sort of analysis by them to the effect that I instigated the election,” he recounted. “That I did it by mobilizing [Philadelphia Archbishop] Cardinal Krol, that he, acting under instruction from me, then … set in motion the process of electing the pope.”
Brzezinski noted that later he and Pope John Paul II had a good laugh about all this. Carter still opted not to take relations to the highest level.
Then came Reagan. Many converging factors gave Reagan impetus to codify U.S.-Vatican relations, and faith may have been one of them. While the president was not Catholic (his father was Irish-Catholic but Reagan was raised in his mother’s Protestant tradition), he surrounded himself with a coterie of high-powered Catholic advisors including CIA director Bill Casey, Secretary of State Al Haig, National Security Advisors Richard Allen and William Clark, and Ambassador-at-Large Vernon Walters. These ranks included William Wilson, an old California friend and convert to Catholicism who had been appointed Reagan’s personal representative to the Vatican.
Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan – spiritual optimists both – shared an antipathy toward communism rooted in the belief that no ideology so contrary to personal dignity and liberty and religious belief could or should endure. Their rapport was also boosted by the common experience of surviving assassination attempts within months of one another. This special bond, strategic imperatives – applying pressure to a weak spot along the Iron Curtain – and Wilson’s influence ultimately led to the decision to send his nomination to the Senate for formal recognition.
From a domestic political standpoint, while Reagan was surely eager to boost his already strong standing among Catholic voters in anticipation of his 1984 reelection bid, it isn’t clear church goers were concerned much with diplomatic nuances. From 1977 to 1984, Catholic registration in the GOP had grown nearly 70 percent.
Today, Catholic voters tend to reflect the diverse complexion and voting patterns of the country itself, with white Catholics leaning Republican and Hispanic Catholics toward Democrats. At 20 percent of residents, Delaware’s Catholic population is about on par with that of the country.
As Pope Francis looks out on his congressional audience, nearly 31 percent of the elected members will be Roman Catholic, including the House Speaker responsible for the historic invitation. Five of the nine members of the Supreme Court are members of his church.
The Pope will no doubt talk of the refugee crisis created by the butchery of a multi-party civil war in Syria and the ongoing slaughter of Christians with traditions older than Rome – a people in grave need of mercy and prayer.
[i] It should be noted the Pope is addressing a joint “meeting” and not a joint “session” of Congress. A meeting requires both houses going into recess, and is the usual setting for speeches from anyone other than the president. Only twice have foreign dignitaries been invited to address a joint session of Congress. One of those was French Ambassador Andre de Laboulaye (May 20, 1934), to mark the centennial of the death of the Marquis de Lafayette. Ironically, Lafayette himself was the first foreign dignitary to address Congress when he spoke to a meeting of the House in 1824, with a smattering of senators in attendance. It is not apparent that other religious leaders have appeared for Congress in similar settings, although the Dalai Lama once did serve as honorary Senate Chaplain, offering an open prayer “devoted to Buddha and all other gods.” Click here for a complete list of foreign dignitaries who have appeared before a joint meeting of Congress.