In 1984, President Ronald W. Reagan proposed that the United States begin an exchange of ambassadors with the Vatican – kind of.
What Reagan actually proposed was that America exchange ambassadors with the Holy See – the international headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church – not Vatican City State, a 110-acre compound in the heart of Rome.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State was predictably alarmed. In a country where religion and government are supposed to be separate, a formal diplomatic relationship with one church – a relationship that could in no way be duplicated with any other denomination – struck many people as problematic, indeed unconstitutional.
When the Senate overwhelmingly backed U.S.-Vatican diplomatic ties, approving William Wilson’s appointment as ambassador 81-13, AU went to court to block the move.
In Americans United v. Reagan, AU specifically noted that the United States has diplomatic relations not with Vatican City but with the Holy See, the pope’s office and church headquarters. (The National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches the American Baptist Churches, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Unitarian Universalist Association and the National Coalition of American Nuns and many individual clergy signed on to the legal action.)
The argument was compelling: How could a country where church and state are divided maintain an official relationship with a church headquarters?
Unfortunately, that issue never made it to court. The suit, filed in Philadelphia, reached the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which dismissed the legal action, holding that AU and its allies lacked “standing” – the right to sue. The central issue of the lawsuit, whether official U.S.-Vatican ties violate the First Amendment, never got a hearing. The Supreme Court later refused to hear the case.
The issue of the United States and its official relationship with the Vatican can be confusing to people. Despite its small size – the Vatican is only about half the size of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. – many people tend to think of it as a state.
The Vatican provides some of the trappings of a nation. It prints stamps and mints coins; its buildings are flanked by a pseudo-army of colorful Swiss Guards.
It makes for a picturesque backdrop, but make no mistake, our diplomatic relationship isn’t with this colorful patch of land; it’s with the pope himself as head of the church.
How did this come about? Hundreds of years ago, the Vatican owned extensive lands in Italy called the Papal States. The church lost that land 150 years ago when, in 1860, about 17,000 square miles of church territory was subsumed into the Kingdom of Italy. Rome was annexed 10 years later.
The fiction of the Vatican as a state got its biggest boost in 1929 thanks to an unlikely church ally: Benito Mussolini. Serving as prime minister at the time, the future fascist dictator engineered the Lateran Treaty, which, among other things, recognized Vatican City as an independent entity. In exchange, church officials agreed to officially recognize the Italian kingdom.
Pope Pius XI signed off on the treaty, which included a generous cash payment to compensate the church for its loss of territory. With a little property to call their own, the men of the Holy See could pretend with straight faces to be a sovereign state. Two dozen or so countries had recognized the landless pope, but that number escalated dramatically when he became sovereign over 110 acres in Rome.
The United States was reluctant to follow suit, finally giving in under Reagan (who may have been motivated in part by a desire to woo Catholic voters in an election year).
Since then, every president has appointed ambassadors to the Holy See. Although people speak informally of “U.S.-Vatican ties,” what they really mean is our nation’s official diplomatic relationship with a church that, when it suits its purposes, likes to pretend to be a state.