Answer Man: The pope wasn't always our friend

News-DemocratApril 19, 2014 

Q. In a recent Today in History column, it stated: "In 1984, the United States and the Vatican established full diplomatic relations for the first time in more than a century." I can't remember our country ever being on the outs with the Vatican. Can you explain?

-- R.L.C., of Belleville

A. If you follow the news, you're well aware of the continuing outbreaks of anti-Semitism around the world. The recent Kansas City, Kan., shootings and the Nazi-like leaflets in Ukraine are just the latest examples.

Well, back in the 1800s, there was similar widespread hatred of Roman Catholics in the United States, which helped spark a break in diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1867.

It didn't start out that way. In 1797, Italian native Giovanni Battista Sartori asked newly elected President John Adams to initiate contact with the Holy See.

Adams, however, reportedly was wary of full diplomatic relations, concerned in part about the power papal diplomats might wield here. But he knew some relations were necessary for three self-serving reasons: The Vatican, which at the time also ruled a number of other states on the Italian peninsula, was a good source of intelligence on international affairs; the Papal States were a potential customer of U.S. goods; and a representative in Rome could aid American tourists.

So Adams compromised: He named Sartori a consul, who, while not considered a full diplomatic agent, could represent U.S. interests in a limited way. Then, in 1848, President James Polk established formal diplomatic relations thanks to the popular policies of newly elected Pope Pius IX. Six years later, Franklin Pierce strengthened ties further by elevating the position from charge d'affaires to minister resident.

But back in the United States there was growing fear and hostility over the massive influx of Catholics from Ireland, Germany and elsewhere. Prominent Protestant leaders, such as Lyman Beecher, attacked the Catholic Church as theologically unsound and an enemy of republican values.

In his "Plea for the West" in 1835, Beecher asked Protestants to exclude Catholics from Western settlements. On Aug. 11, 1834, an Ursuline convent in Charlestown, Mass., was burned. Mob violence and killings followed. Even writer Mark Twain in his "Innocents Abroad" wrote that he had "been educated to enmity toward everything that is Catholic."

Tensions came to a head in the 1860s. On Dec. 3, 1863, Pope Pius IX angered many by responding to a letter from Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The short note simply made a plea for peace but addressed Davis as "Illustrious and Honorable President."

Many Northern Protestants also felt the Vatican was too silent on the slavery issue, leading to talk that it may have even supported Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Rumors also surfaced that the pope had forbidden Protestants to worship at the American minister's home in Rome, which was vigorously denied in a lengthy letter from Rufus King, the ambassador.

So, as of June 30, 1867, the United States Congress voted to end all support for an American legation in Rome. When the Vatican lost its Papal States during Italy's reunification three years later, diplomatic relations ceased.

It wasn't until 1939 that new ties were made when President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Myron Taylor as his personal representative to Pope Pius XII. To answer Protestant protests, FDR replied that it was nonofficial and was needed for intelligence from war-torn Europe. However, when President Harry Truman nominated former Gen. Mark Clark to be the U.S. emissary to the Holy See, it raised so much stink that Clark withdrew.

Relations began to thaw with the elevation of John XXIII to pope and the election of John F. Kennedy, the nation's first Catholic president. Still, the practice of naming only personal envoys continued through the Nixon, Ford, Carter and first Reagan administrations.

Finally, on Nov. 22, 1983, Congress lifted the 1867 prohibition of diplomatic relations. On Jan. 11, 1984, Reagan announced he would nominate William Wilson, a California industrialist and real estate developer, as the first U.S. ambassador to the Holy See in more than a century.

As you might guess, the move was not universally popular. Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., called it a violation of the first amendment. Even today, you can find groups on the Internet still railing against U.S.-Vatican ties. But so far, at least, Reagan's decision has held sway:

"We respect the great moral and political influence which (Pope John Paul II) and the Vatican exercise throughout the world," White House spokesman Larry Speakes said 30 years ago. "We admire the courageous stands he takes in defense of Western values."

Today's trivia

In Genesis, what did God do on the seventh day? He rested -- just as I'm going to do for the next week. See you back here April 29.

Answer to Saturday's trivia: I certainly hope high school students had or will have a grand time at their proms this year -- because that's about what the annual spring gala is going to set them (and their families) back. According to Visa's annual survey, families will spend an average of $978 to see that their kids do it up right. But here's some good news: The cost is down more than 14 percent from last year's all-time high of $1,139, and the average cost in the Midwest was a more frugal $835, 25 percent less than the West Coast's $1,125. Results were based on 4,000 interviews by telephone.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or or call 618-239-2465.

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