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With the latest controversy in Germany and the ongoing scandal over priests charged with sexual abuse, it is clear that the Catholic Church, being a human enterprise, occasionally falls short, and its leaders sin greatly. But these lapses do not overshadow the good the church has accomplished in the past and — more to the point — can accomplish in the future.
Although the church has been disparaged at times throughout its long history, and sometimes for good reason — critics can point to instances in which its power has been misapplied, from the Crusades through the Inquisition, right up until today — it is important to contextualize historical actions. Rather than apply contemporary standards to, for example, the twelfth century, we must align actions in a given period with the social and political mores of that time and thereby create a balanced perspective.
Why is the power and influence of the Holy See underestimated?
Today, the church serves mankind in many good ways. The church is one of the leading advocates and providers for the poor in the world, fights against the scourge of human trafficking, and advances the cause of human dignity and rights more than any other organization on earth. The Holy See also plays a significant role in pursuing diplomatic solutions to international problems, whether promoting peace between Israel and Palestine, for example, or helping end the civil war in Lebanon, or obtaining the release of nearly 100 political prisoners from Cuba in 2010. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Holy See has continued to play an important role as a diplomatic force while maintaining formal relations with 179 countries, a number surpassed only by the United States.
The power and influence of the Holy See is often underestimated, partly because it is an extraordinarily complex and unique institution and is therefore easier to dismiss than to understand. A benevolent quasi-monarchy tucked into a corner of a modern democracy, the Holy See is at once a universally recognized sovereign — representing more than a seventh of the world’s population — and the civil government of the smallest nation-state on earth. It has no military and only a negligible economy (the Vatican’s fungible assets are worth about a billion dollars, a mere drop in the bucket compared to, say, Harvard University’s $27 billion endowment), but it has greater reach and influence than most nations.
Given our mutual respect for human rights, it is natural, even inevitable, that we should be friends and collaborators.
On the whole, the church is a powerful and unique source of “soft power,” to borrow a phrase coined by the political scientist Joseph Nye. Soft power is noncoercive. It moves people to do the right thing by appealing to ideals and shared values, rather than to fear and brute force. Soft power is sometimes dismissed by hardcore “realists” as a distraction, but who wants to think and act as if hard power is the only answer in a nuclear twenty-first century? When the master of realpolitik diplomacy Henry Kissinger notes in his recent book, On China, that a “congruence on values” is “generally needed to supply an element of restraint” in international relations, he is giving a nod of respect to soft power. My friend Dr. David Abshire, former ambassador to NATO and special counselor to President Reagan, has spoken of a form of soft power that he and others call “people power.” This is a phenomenon that became quite interesting and visible during the “Arab Spring” of 2011, when hundreds of thousands of protestors were mobilized by social media sites like Facebook. People power is really nothing new. The Holy See has been supplying it for centuries. Even now, the Catholic Church is more powerful as a source of people power than any new technology. This is evident in the church’s ability to reach out and appeal to its faithful. The communication flows the other way, too. The Vatican is a top-down hierarchy, but it’s also a grassroots organization, with deeply embedded sources from which to extract different views of events and attitudes around the world. Its extensive and reliable network of clergy and parishes, of nuns and leaders of Catholic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) give it a clear understanding and granular feel for world events, sometimes to the surprise of the U.S. State Department or CIA.
Natural Collaborators: The Catholic Church and the United States
Some Americans still question U.S. diplomatic relations with the Holy See. They do so by either citing the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — that it is unconstitutional for the U.S. government to accord diplomatic status to a religious body — or assuming that, as a matter of realpolitik, the relationship is inconsequential.
Those views are mistaken. President Reagan established full diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1984 because, among other reasons, he realized that he could have no better partner than Pope John Paul II in the fight against communism — and he was right.
The Vatican’s fungible assets are worth about a billion dollars, a mere drop in the bucket compared to, say, Harvard University’s $27 billion endowment.
Whatever challenges and changes each faced, the United States and the Holy See remained two of the most significant institutions in world history, one a beacon of democracy and progress, the other a sanctum of faith and allegiance to timeless principles. Despite the obvious differences between the first modern democracy and the longest surviving Western monarchy, both were founded on the idea that “human persons” possess inalienable natural rights granted by God. This had been a revolutionary concept when the Catholic Church embraced it 2,000 years ago, and was equally revolutionary when the Declaration of Independence stated it 1,800 years later.
Given our mutual respect for human rights, it is natural, even inevitable, that we should be friends and collaborators. Yet, because of our respective histories, it took nearly 200 years for us to establish formal diplomatic relations. Both the United States and the Holy See had to overcome deeply held convictions and perceptions — entrenched anti-Catholicism on the part of Americans; antidemocratic, monarchical reflexes on the part of the Holy See — and neither managed to do so until the latter half of the twentieth century. “Congress will probably never send a Minister to His Holiness,” wrote John Adams (great-grandfather of Henry Adams) in 1779, voicing the opinion shared by many of his compatriots. Nor, added Adams, should Congress accept a nuncio from the pope, “or in other words, an ecclesiastical tyrant which, it is to be hoped, the United States will be too wise ever to admit into their territories.”
Right vs. Might
The word “catholic” originates from the Greek word katholikos, meaning universal. Today, the church remains a singular supra-national force, operating effectively in more places and cultures than any other international body, with the possible exception of the United Nations. Actually, I would argue that the Holy See has the longer, deeper reach. Unlike the United Nations, which often imposes itself on local cultures from the outside, the Catholic Church is a part of any place it is present, whether a Nigerian village, an Ecuadorian farming community, or a middle-class American suburb.
Some Americans still question our diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
It’s not simply the number or variety of people that the Holy See represents that gives it relevance; it’s also the moral influence of the church, still considerable despite secularization and scandals. The Holy See advocates powerfully for morality in the lives of both Catholics and non-Catholics, and in both individuals and nations. One may disagree with some of the church’s positions and yet still recognize the value — the real and practical value — of its insistence that “right” should precede “might” in world affairs.
The historian Arnold Toynbee has made the argument that it is religion, specifically Christianity and its organized framework for defining and advancing moral principles, which distinguishes Western civilization from prior ones, driving it forward and preventing its degeneration into amorality. The universal Catholic Church continues to provide such a framework. The world, I would argue, is better off for it.
Francis Rooney served as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See from 2005 to 2008.
This article is adapted from Rooney’s new book, The Global Vatican: An Inside Look at the Catholic Church, World Politics, and the Extraordinary Relationship between the United States and the Holy See, and reprinted with the permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Illustration by: BORTEL Pavel – Pavelmidi / Shutterstock
The Catholic Church has been disparaged at times throughout its long history, and sometimes rightly. But while it has occasionally fallen short of its ideals, that does not overshadow the good it has accomplished — and can accomplish in the future.
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