The Vatican and the United States

Published October 12, 2004

The Catholic Difference

John Allen is my friend, so I’m a suspect witness in his case. Still, like FDR at his first inaugural, “let me assert my firm belief” that Allen, the National Catholic Reporter’s man in Rome, is the best English-language Vatican reporter ever. Allen may not have the theological sophistication of the late “Xavier Rynne,” Fr. Francis X. Murphy, C.SS.R.; but neither does he spin everything in the liberal/conservative terms that Rynne/Murphy ruinously invented. And Allen is immeasurably superior to the late Peter Hebblethwaite, the Englishman who did more to distort the meaning of John Paul II in the Anglosphere than anyone else.

Allen’s new book, All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks (Doubleday), is an interesting read for Vatican amateurs and veterans alike; it’s particularly effective in dispelling what he calls the “top five myths about the Vatican.” The first of these is that there is, in fact, one entity that can be understood as “the” Vatican. The second myth is that “there is a computer terminal deep within the Apostolic Palace and whoever’s at the keyboard is running the Church.” The third myth is that an ultrasecretive Vatican is impenetrable to reporters and scholars. The fourth is that the Vatican is fabulously wealthy. And the fifth myth is that the Vatican is dominated by careerists who live by the motto, “Have ladder, will climb.”

As helpful as this demythologizing is, though, it was the tail end of All the Pope’s Men that really caught my attention. After reviewing the difficult period in U.S.-Vatican relations in the year or so before the Iraq War, John Allen offers this arresting paragraph:

“Though no Pope and no Vatican diplomat will ever come out and say so, the bottom line is that despite great respect for the American people and their democratic traditions, the Holy See simply does not think the United States is fit to run the world. As a country it is too rich, too narcissistic, too shortsighted and voluble, too young, to be entrusted with the quasi-unfettered power that twentieth-century history entrusted to it. To be sure, there aren’t many countries around that the Holy See would approve for such a role…[and] if the Vatican had to choose between a world run from Washington, D.C., and one run from Islamabad, or Beijing, there’s little doubt they would opt for Washington. Yet that doesn’t strike most Vatican thinkers as an especially appetizing choice. Thus the Holy See’s diplomatic energy in coming years will have as a central aim the construction of a multilateral, multipolar world…”

That strikes me as about right: the general view in the Holy See is that the U.S. isn’t fit to run the world. What some Vatican diplomats and thinkers might not realize, though, is that most Americans agree: moreover, most Americans aren’t terribly interested in running the world. But Americans have come to understand, however reluctantly, that power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Perhaps no one can, or should, “run the world.” But someone will take the lead in shaping world politics. That someone can’t be the United Nations as presently configured. And it can’t be those western European countries who are reviving the failed appeasement strategies of the 1930s. Absent American leadership, the world will not be calm and orderly; the world will be chaotic – lethally chaotic.

John Allen concludes by arguing that “despite strong agreement on a host of issues, the relationship between Rome and Washington seems destined to be complex and sometimes strained.” That, too, is probably right, and it raises yet another question for Catholic voters this year.

A Kerry administration would align the U.S. against the Vatican on a host of international moral issues: family-planning; abortion as an “international human right;” the best response to the AIDS pandemic in Africa; the legal definition of marriage. Holy See officials may deplore what they call (rather inaccurately) the Bush administration’s “unilateralism;” but Washington and the Vatican are on the same side of the life issues in world politics, as they are on international religious freedom. Which administration is more likely to facilitate the crucial dialogue between the world’s leading political power and the world’s leading moral authority?

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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