Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.


Establishing Relations with the Holy See

The Catholic Church has been a political force in Europe for more than a millennium and more than a fifth of all Americans were either raised or are practicing Catholics. Bilateral ties with the Papal States were established in 1848 but lapsed in 1867, in large part because of increasing anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States, which was fueled by the conviction and hanging of Mary Surratt, a Catholic who was part of the conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

Re-establishing relations with the Vatican turned out to be a long and often bumpy road, as many Americans, including some Catholics, opposed bilateral ties on the grounds they would somehow undermine Constitutional separation of church and state. The United States and the Holy See finally announced the establishment of diplomatic relations on January 10, 1984 during the Reagan Administration.

In a 1995 interview, Ambassador to the Holy See Thomas Melady gives a brief summary of the long and complicated history of U.S.-Vatican relations leading up to this establishment of permanent relations.

Peter Murphy (interviewed in 1994 by William Morgan) describes the struggles he faced as Deputy Chief of Mission at the newly established embassy at the Holy See. Despite these challenges, Murphy also discusses the vital role that the mission at the Vatican plays in collecting intelligence about other countries across the world.

Read about how U.S. embassies were established in Papua New Guinea and Mongolia. Go here to read about Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa.


A Brief History of U.S.-Vatican Relations 

Thomas Melady, Ambassador to the Holy See, 1989-1993

MELADY:  The United States recognized the Papal States, first in a cautious way with consular officers, but then full diplomatic officers from 1848 to 1867. Up until the unification of Italy, the territory of the Pope actually met the criteria of a sovereign state. They had land, they had a government, they had an army, they had currency.

In 1867 the United States Congress passed the no-funding act. In Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution is quite clear. The President appoints with advice and consent of the Senate, and that was done. But the House of Representative got the purse strings, and said no more money for a mission accredited to the Pope. So our mission to the Papal States closed….After 1867 there was a long interregnum, which coincided with a period of anti-Catholicism in the United States.

Along came the first 30 some years of [the 20th] century and FDR, seeing that the clouds of war were gathering in Europe, wanted some sign of contact with the Vatican. FDR was convinced that the Vatican was a great source of information.

So President Roosevelt announced on Christmas eve, 1939, after the war had started in Europe, that he was sending a personal envoy who would represent him, not be a government official.

Soon after Myron Taylor, his long-time friend, a leading Episcopal laymen and retired head of U.S. Steel, went off to Rome as the Special Envoy. There was some opposition to it, but there was no focus for debate because it did not require Senate confirmation.

Whatever goals FDR had for Myron Taylor, it certainly exceeded the goals. It was a gold mine. As things went on in ’40-’41 there in the heart of Italy was Myron Taylor (pictured), operating in Rome outside of Vatican walls. After Italy declared war on us, he went inside Vatican walls. So significant was the information [Taylor obtained] some of it is still classified [as of 1995]. That was the office of Special Envoy. FDR died, Mr. Taylor continued through the first several years of Truman’s administration. He was an older man then, and then he retired.

In 1950 Truman concentrated on the Vatican assignment, and he saw what a gold mine of information came out. Information — there wasn’t much strategy, but information. He, without much consultation, decided that we ought to have an ambassador. So he nominated General Mark Clark in 1951 to be the United States Ambassador to the Vatican…But he didn’t do much advance research on it and it raised a great storm. The nomination got stalled. It was quite apparent it wouldn’t get through, and it died in that session of the senate, and Mr. Truman did not resubmit it. 

The three succeeding presidents — President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, and President Johnson — never re-instituted the Special Envoy business.

President Nixon reinstituted the Special Envoy, and did what President Truman did, selected a prominent American. He selected Henry Cabot Lodge (pictured), who had been a previous U.S. Senator, and a previous Ambassador to Germany and Vietnam. He served throughout Nixon’s term as well as the two years of President Ford. President Carter continued the Special Envoy.

[Then] along came President Reagan. People didn’t notice at the time, but President Reagan in the first week or 10 days after his election, [a period where] announcements were [historically] only made about major appointments — Secretary of State, members of the Cabinet — announced that his long-time friend, William Wilson, a well known Republican, civic leader, with other corporate interests, and a member of President Reagan’s kitchen cabinet, would be his Special Envoy.

In 1981 President Reagan decided he wanted to see Pope John Paul II after he made his first trip to Poland, and in an address that was ignored by the American newspapers, the Pope said, “Soon Eastern Europe will be free” (of this domination), and Western Europe and Eastern Europe, because of their common heritage, will have a community in Europe.

The Pope and President Reagan met alone. President Reagan gave him that quote, and Reagan said, “When do you think it will be?”

And the Pope said, “In our lifetime.”

At that point the President grabbed his hand and said, “Let’s work together.”

They talked about how to help each other, and the President said, “We’ll do everything we can.” The Pope emphasized it should be a non-violent transition from his analysis of the situation in Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland. The Pope felt that you could maneuver the transition through tactics, and strategy. He then, as in the Gulf War later, opposed the use of war to solve problems. I think he recognized that in a political pact there might very well be a riot, but not war.

It was a very important meeting and the President returned to the United States and instructed the State Department to work closely with the Vatican. [The meeting] was clearly the deciding factor when President Reagan said, “I want to establish a full-fledged embassy.”

In January 1984, President Reagan announced the nomination of Mr. Wilson as our U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See.  And that set in motion the normal procedure; the Senate must confirm.

There were some organizations that were quite strong in opposition. The American United for Separation of Church and State, ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). Actually the Baptist Association, the Southern Baptist group of which [prominent evangelist] Dr. [Billy] Graham [was] a member, was opposed to it. And some Catholic organizations, not major ones, but several were also opposed. That went on for about three weeks, the public hearings. And to make a long story short, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee by a strong vote, voted in favor.

Then, of course, it went to the floor of the Senate. The confirmation got 80-some votes, I think 12 were opposed, and one or two weren’t there, so it was a landslide confirmation.

Mr. Wilson took the oath and went off to Rome as the first Ambassador of the United States to the Holy See.

“I was left to sink or swim” 

Peter Murphy, Deputy Chief of Mission, The Vatican, 1984-1988

MURPHY:  I recall that [Ambassador] Bill Wilson and I met at the end of July 1984 in Florence to discuss [my new] position (Deputy Chief of Mission) at the Embassy. It must have been about the 10th of August when I drove into the Eternal City from Genoa to take up my new position.

I spent a day and a half with Bill Wilson at the “temporary” Chancery, which was at that time located in as small two-bedroom apartment in Piazza Citta’ Leonina, just outside St. Peter’s Square. The building was one of several in the city of Rome owned by the Vatican. It was very tight quarters.

One of my first tasks was to start looking for adequate quarters for the Chancery, residences for the staff and also space for the Marine Security Guard contingent which was scheduled to arrive in Rome any day.

The mission at that time consisted of three officers, plus three secretaries, and one Italian security guard. That was the extent of the Mission. The three officers were the Ambassador, the Deputy Chief of Mission, and a Political Officer.

At the beginning of our second day together in the office, Bill said, “Well, Peter, Betty and I are leaving Rome for about a month and a half. We’re going to California. So you’ll be in charge, of course.”(Wilson seen here with Pope John Paul II)

I was absolutely floored. Here it was — the month of August in Rome….not a soul about; only the ever-present cats in the Forum and Coliseum. I had no idea where the offices of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State were located; I had no identification to get into Vatican City; I had been introduced to no one connected with the Vatican…. the Foreign Minister or any of my colleagues in the diplomatic corps. In effect, I was left to sink or swim. 

There was no one I could ask in Washington — or even at the post – how one proceeds. No one had any experience official dealings with the Vatican. Thank God for Mirella Giacalone and Wanda DiAngelos, two local Americans who had worked in the office before the mission was raised to the status of an Embassy. They were very helpful in helping me find my way. I couldn’t have begun to function without their assistance and guidance

“There was a detectable undercurrent of animosity directed against our fledgling Embassy…” 

All my friends at Embassy Rome were very kind, of course, [but] they didn’t know much about the Vatican. [The U.S. Embassy to the Holy See] is completely independent of our Embassy to Rome. We have nothing to do officially with the Embassy…… although all our administration support comes from the Embassy. By that I mean our classified communications, financial support, personnel support in general, all administrative support.

In fact, there was a detectable undercurrent of animosity directed against our fledgling Embassy emanating from Embassy Rome. This stemmed directly from the rivalry between [Ambassador to Italy] Max Rabb (pictured) and Bill Wilson but also extended to the Embassy’s Political Section where it was felt that the Embassy to the Holy See was unnecessary and should never have been established. 

Ideologically, several officers — including the then-Political Councilor Charles Stout — did not think the United States government should have recognized the Holy See. It was the old “Church-State” constitutional conflict.

I did all I could to unify the two diplomatic missions. I attended Embassy Rome staff meetings from time to time to give an overview of what we were doing at the Vatican. I also spoke to all newcomers to the Embassy at regular Welcome Meetings to explain what we did and how we could be of assistance to them or their visiting relatives who wanted to visit the Vatican.

In spite of professional loyalty, everyone has their own individual ideas on such a prickly subject. I certainly found this to be very true in my dealings with all entities of the U.S. government, both overseas and in Washington, during my years at the Vatican.

I frequently encountered animosity towards the post itself – from the American public, from members of Congressional delegations and, especially, from my colleagues back in the State Department. During my first year at the post, we averaged at least 8 – 10 hate letters a week. At first, Bill Wilson felt obliged to reply with a four or five page reply. I convinced him eventually that it was a waste of time and paper.

The opposition was not entirely from the part of non-Catholics. Believe it or not, it also came from some Catholic bishops. I recall vividly at a reception an American bishop from the mid-West came up to me and said, “Would you tell me what you people are doing here? Why don’t you close up your shop and go home? You’re interfering with the communications between the American hierarchy and the Vatican.” 

In addition to thinking him extremely rude, I thought that there must be many people like him in the United States who think that the Embassy is there in Rome to somehow influence the Vatican in its dealings with the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“One distinguished American General started telling the Pope about the terrible pastor he had in his parish”

During my four plus years of service at the Vatican, several topics were always out of bounds for discussion between officials of the Vatican and our Embassy.  Sometimes the line is quite fine: during the Reagan years, when we at the Embassy were attempting to convince the Vatican on the necessity of somehow coming out with a public statement approving our Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), we had to be very careful not to appear to be lobbying the Vatican against the Peace Pastoral being written by the American Bishops Conference at the time.

Caution had to be exercised that no member of our staff criticized to the Vatican the actions of any American citizen, cardinal or layman. As a result, the entire Embassy staff was very, very careful in our relationships with members of the American hierarchy — both those in the United States as well as those stationed at the Vatican itself.

I frequently met American priests, laymen, [and] noted political figures who brought up the subject of the Catholic Church in the United States. I would be obliged to gently redirect the conversation. Why, I recall, at the end of a private audience regarding sensitive political matters, one distinguished American General started telling the Pope about the terrible pastor he had in his parish in the Northern Virginia area. I was aghast…but the Pope took it in stride, telling him not to worry….the priest couldn’t last forever.

Another time I recall a Cabinet member asking how I could go about facilitating the issuance of an annulment of her marriage in the Sacred Roman Rota, the Vatican’s marriage tribunal. I let this lady know in no uncertain terms that such matters were far from the scope of our mission at the Vatican and that her local bishop back home would be the person to contact in this matter.

“It was really a job setting everything up…from soup to nuts”

My first year was very active because there was so much to do to get a new Embassy up and running as an embassy should. In the administrative realm:  looking for a new Chancery, gathering a staff. Many of the ordinary functions of an embassy were not in place. For example, I opened some of the file cabinets – and what did I find:  classified and unclassified reports mixed together – and in unlocked cabinets. It was completely understandable; there were no guards and no one who knew the practices of a normal embassy. So it was really a job of setting everything up, establishing precedent, from soup to nuts.

I [also] began getting to know my colleagues in the other 120 embassies at the Vatican. Not much on a protocol level had really been done at this new post. In fact, during my call on the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps to the Holy See, the Ambassador of the Ivory Coast, he greeted me with “I am most pleased to meet the first American diplomat to the Vatican. I sincerely welcome you and your nation.” I later discovered that Ambassador Wilson had never made a formal call on the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps — a major faux pas in a place where they are so hung up on protocol.

The mission had been there four months but, up to that point, not much had been done by the Embassy in the way of protocol. The Vatican is very, very protocol conscious. This is even true for most of the diplomats assigned there because of the fact that for a European or Latin American or even an African, an assignment to the Holy See is perhaps about the pinnacle of their career.

An example:  while I was in Rome, the French Ambassador to the Holy See went on to become the Under Secretary for Political Affairs in Paris and his successor was the former French Foreign Minister. The Colombian Ambassador was formerly President of his country for seven years while the Belgian Ambassador (Baron Alexandre Paternotte de la Vallee) was the third in the line of his family to hold the position of Ambassador to the Holy See. The German Ambassador’s (Mr. Peter Hermes) previous assignment was as German Ambassador to Washington. Thus we were dealing with diplomats who knew a thing or two; they had many years of service in their nation’s diplomatic corps and were very proud of their present postings. 

The Pope is one man; there is no Vice Pope

We had a Vatican Desk Officer at the State Department who was very good at his job. He was a focal point in Washington for our Embassy; coordinated policy papers; communications between various Washington agencies of government and assisted with visits from officials in Washington – Congressional, White House, State.

Whenever we had visitors to Rome, a very difficult logistical situation was created. This was especially true when the President, Vice President, Secretary of State or other high ranking government official was involved. The problem was simply the fact that the visitors wanted to call on Italian government officials — as well as the Pope – thus involving very close coordination and cooperation between the two U. S. Embassies in Rome as well as the Vatican and Italian Foreign Office. The Italian government was quite used to this logistical problem but it drove us and some of our colleagues at Embassy Rome mad.

Of course, Advance Teams from the White House NEVER understood this problem. The main difficulty was in pinning down the Prefect of the Apostolic Palace to set a time — and even date sometimes — for a Papal audience. Sometimes we received a confirmation the very day before an official visit.

You can imagine how this threw the Italian program into confusion. Official Italian calls had to be rescheduled, so did luncheons and dinners and receptions; motorcades had to be re-routed through the streets of Rome. Admittedly, the Pope is one man; there is no Vice Pope. Since there were, at the time, 120 embassies to the Vatican, the problem was monumental. All these nations had Presidents, Ministers and Legislators, all of whom wanted to be received by the Pope. You can be assured that ours was not the only embassy having similar scheduling problems. We were always most relieved when our official party left Rome….

A gold mine of Information from around the world

Communications within the Vatican and from the Nunciatures [Papal Embassies] abroad is remarkable. I was always amazed at the detail information regarding complex political situations which was known within the Vatican. Their communications, however, are certainly not as speedy as ours. In fact, on several occasions, in matters involving the life or death in certain countries, I authorized the sending of Vatican communications through our system, resulting in the saving of several lives. To have relied on the Vatican communication system would have resulted in disaster on several occasions. In effect, the Vatican utilizes the local postal system, sending their official classified correspondence in the old-fashioned five-letter groupings and in Latin, to be decoded at the local Nunciature. 

The Vatican has, in addition to its Nunciatures abroad, a great resource which we don’t have and which no other secular government I know has as a resource. Within the set-up in Rome, there exists various “Congregations” which we could equate to ministries. Most off these have to do with the daily operation of the church — Clergy, Oriental Churches, Sacraments, Religious, Saints, etc.

There is, for example, a Congregation titled “Propaganda Fide,” or the “Propagation of the Faith”. This large office supervises all the missionary activity of the Church worldwide. It is headquartered in Piazza di Spagna in Rome — just next to the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See. Within this Congregation worked some 300 men and women. The Congregation is divided into “country desks” — similar to our State Department desks — but Propaganda Fide only concentrates on the Third World, the non-Christian missionary lands. This arm of the Vatican deals simply with the evangelization of undeveloped or non-Christianized lands.

The information gathered by these missionaries who work for and report to Propaganda Fide is absolutely mind-boggling. For a foreign diplomat, it is without a doubt a gold mine of information.

I, for example, would visit the Congregation frequently and discuss local situations – say – with the cleric responsible for affairs in Angola.  In a few moments, I would have the latest information on what the missionaries located out in the boondocks of Angola had reported back to the Rome. Such information was invaluable at the time when we had no diplomatic relations with Angola and a civil war was in progress. I received valuable information on several other areas of the world where we were lacking such information.

It was most difficult for our small mission to keep up with all the work. In point of fact, our political reporting (judged by cable traffic) to Washington far exceeded in volume that of the Embassy to the Republic of Italy and the constituent posts around the country. Our mission was indeed worldwide [while] Embassy Rome’s centered on Italy.

“When working with the Holy See, one is dealing with ‘diplomacy’ at its finest”

The influence of the Holy See throughout the world is considerable. Whether you agree with this influence or not, it is a fact of political life. This influence exists and millions upon millions of people follow the policies set by the Holy See.

Diplomacy is, of course, not just a one-way street. While we were trying to influence the Holy See, the Holy See was trying to place its stamp on United States policies.

A few such instances come to mind:  the activity of the Holy See on the international debt problem of Third-World nations; the political situation in Lebanon – and the entire problem of the Middle East; pressing for assistance in improving human rights for members of the oppressed Catholic Church in various parts of the Soviet Union and Eastern European nations as well as in China with the problems of the nationalistic “Patriotic Catholic Church.” 

When working with the Holy See on matters involving worldwide political situations, one has the feeling that one is dealing with “diplomacy” at its finest. The Vatican has had many centuries of experience in diplomacy and the Vatican is never in a rush. There always seems to be time to wait, say, for a change of government or a political figure.