On December 17, 2014, Alan Gross flew home. This journey wouldn’t normally be notable. But Gross is American, and he flew home from Havana, Cuba, where he had been in prison for five years – with a decade longer to go.
The saga of Gross’ imprisonment and later, the efforts to free him, is principally a tale of the fraught relations between two nations: the United States and Cuba. The former USAID worker had been convicted for his role in an alleged plot to supposedly overthrow the Castro regime. Gross, who maintained his innocence, was freed as part of a deal to end a Cold War-era standoff between the two countries.
But there’s a supporting actor who played a role in Gross’ release: Pope Francis. According to the parties involved, the Holy See facilitated negotiations between the United States and Cuba and helped create a deal that would result in renewed diplomatic relations between the nations.
“His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, urging us to resolve Alan’s case and to address Cuba’s interests in the release of three Cuban agents, who’ve been jailed in the United States for over 15 years,” President Barack Obama announced in an official statement.
The deal Francis brokered included freedom for Gross, whose health had reportedly begun to deteriorate behind bars, and 53 other Cuban political prisoners. For its part, the United States released three Cuban agents and will allow restricted travel to the country; a bipartisan group of senators is also pushing for a total end to America’s 55-year-old Cuban trade embargo.
It’s a remarkable development, and one that has highlighted the pope’s role as a diplomat. It’s a role that Francis has indicated he intends to take up with greater frequency in the years to come. The results this time were positive, but not everyone is convinced that diplomacy tinged with religion is a good thing.
The New York Times credits Francis’ Argentinian background as a contributing factor to the Vatican’s emerging status as an “independent actor in diplomacy.” According to the Times, Francis is “less tethered” to the European political concerns that preoccupied previous occupants of the Holy See. Latin America is also a Catholic stronghold, a fact that significantly bolsters Francis’ reach in the region – and likely motivates him to pursue diplomatic endeavors of interest to its inhabitants.
But in order to understand why Francis helped Gross go home, it’s necessary to take a brief look at the Catholic church’s political history. The Holy See is no stranger to diplomacy.
As the spiritual heart of Catholicism, the Vatican, which occupies just 109 acres in the center of Rome, doubled as a political entity long before the Italian Lateran Treaty created a micro-state, Vatican City, around it in 1929.
At the height of its power in the Middle Ages, the Holy See owned large amounts of land and commanded armies. It also boasts the oldest diplomatic corps in the world: Its foreign service dates back to the 11th century. For most of its history, the Vatican showed no reluctance to mix the divine with the profane in order to wield immense influence over European affairs, and it often did so via its diplomats.
Its power is more restricted now; dynasties no longer rise and fall on the pope’s authority. By its very nature as the ultimate spiritual authority for more than one billion people, it still has political influence, but that influence is now largely limited to spiritual matters and, more recently, to humanitarian issues.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Vatican didn’t move to significantly influence U.S. foreign policy until the 20th century. But since then its diplomatic efforts haven’t been particularly consistent. Both its approach to foreign affairs and its level of diplomatic activity have varied from pope to pope; Benedict XVI, pope emeritus, gained a reputation for being reluctant to pursue diplomacy. Francis, in character with his reputation as a reformer, seems poised to initiate a significant directional shift.
A historical opponent of communism, the Vatican often finds its interests aligned with those of the United States, and this perhaps explains why President Ronald W. Reagan formalized diplomatic relations with the religious micro-state in 1984. (An earlier effort to establish formal U.S.-Vatican diplomatic ties by President Harry S. Truman in 1951 ran into such stiff resistance that it was dropped.)
Since then, America has appointed an ambassador to the Holy See, a practice that troubles advocates of church-state separation since the Vatican is the headquarters of a church; there is also an informal policy that U.S. ambassadors to it be Catholic.
The United States’ decision to have formal diplomatic relations with a church did emerge as a culture war flashpoint. Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit to end the practice; at the time, its executive director, Robert L. Maddox, accused the Reagan administration of committing “a callous act of disregard for American history.” A number of religious groups joined the lawsuit, but a federal appeals court dismissed Americans United v. Reagan on technical issues.
Decades later, America’s ties to the Vatican are still controversial. Allegations have surfaced that the church has used diplomatic immunity to shield clerics accused of pedophilia or to place embarrassing documents beyond the reach of the law.
In 2013, erroneous reporting that the United States planned to shut its Vatican embassy unleashed a wave of outrage from the Religious Right. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush questioned if the move was “retribution for Catholic organizations opposing Obamacare.” The National Republican Senatorial Committee even briefly hosted a petition on its website demanding the reinstatement of the embassy. Vatican officials, for their part, told press they had no problem with what turned out to be merely a move to new quarters, and the controversy eventually spluttered to death.
Now, news that the pope played a significant role in ending the U.S.-Cuba stalemate has reinvigorated debate over the church-state implications of American relations with the Vatican.
Dr. Gerald Fogarty, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, spoke to Church & State about Vatican diplomacy, and how it’s likely to look under Francis.
“This pope is certainly shaking things up,” he said. “It’s a new age of the church and the world, so it’s hard to tell what his role will be.”
According to Fogarty, the pope’s decision to facilitate negotiations between the United States and Cuba was motivated by human-rights concerns. The Vatican maintains diplomatic relations with the communist state, and intervened in response to concerns raised by the Archbishop of Havana, Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino.
That’s typical for the Vatican. Fogarty explained that since the early 1960s, its major diplomatic interventions attempted to resolve international tensions. That includes the Cuban missile crisis: Pope John XXIII pled for peace on Vatican Radio, after being prompted by then-President John F. Kennedy.
The Vatican also attempted to intervene in Vietnam, at the Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s behest, and during the Iran hostage crisis, again on behalf of the United States.
But papal interests don’t always align with U.S. policy.
“The Vatican opposed the invasion of Iraq,” Fogarty noted, and added that the war had arguably contributed to the precarious status of the country’s Christians. That opposition, of course, didn’t deter the George W. Bush administration from pursuing its intended course of action, and Pope John Paul II lacked the political authority to levy sanctions or other diplomatic consequences for the deed.
The Vatican also often opposes American interests at the United Nations. During UN deliberations, the Vatican has worked to oppose greater access to contraceptives in the Third World and stood steadfastly against population-control measures.
On these shores, the church’s threat to separation of church and state comes mainly from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the church’s lobbying arm. They’ve diligently opposed the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act, demanding significant religious exemptions to the law that, critics say, undermine its attempt to provide contraception coverage to women. They also demand tax support for church schools, promote extreme anti-abortion laws and push to stop any expansion of gay rights.
The Vatican’s band of lobbyists, who, under U.S. law aren’t required to report how much they spend attempting to influence legislation, are usually warmly welcomed on Capitol Hill. Church lobbyists also have a presence in many state legislatures as well.
As the church works to build a greater presence on the international stage, it may encounter some resistance. Not everyone is a fan.
“It’s archaic in the extreme for the Vatican to act as a peer in diplomacy between sovereign states,” Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, wrote recently. “And it was inappropriate in the extreme for the U.S. to have treated the Roman Catholic Church as this sort of peer. Even if Pope Francis played an indispensable role in opening discussions between the U.S. and Cuba, the White House should have seen to it that once begun, the negotiations unfolded without an unqualified player continuing to be involved. That would have been the secular thing to do.”