JPRI Critique Volume 22 Number 12 (November 2016)
Vatican-U.S. Relations on the Eve of the Presidential Election in the United States
Massimo Franco



Whoever wins the Presidential election in the United States on November 8, 2016, there is already a potential loser: the Vatican and American bishops. It has seldom happened that the Holy See has been faced with two candidates to assume leadership of the White House who are so clearly remote from its values and geostrategic vision. Both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump are aliens of a kind, and for different reasons.

Hillary, the Democratic candidate, is viewed by the Pope’s inner circle and by almost all U.S. bishops, as a “beacon of secular culture and ideology,” as one influential cardinal puts it. She mirrors a long cultural battle between the Democratic Party and the Vatican and U.S. Bishops on issues of abortion, gay rights, and the role of women. The fight between Vatican representatives and Hillary Clinton on the role of women—at the conferences on population and development in Cairo in 1994 and Beijing in 1995—left a cultural scar in their relationship.

Gaffe with Sanders

Telling is that during the present presidential campaign, Democratic candidate and Clinton opponent Bernie Sanders was invited to speak at a conference in Vatican City, organized by the Pontifical Academy of Social sciences. Strange move. But a stranger move was his “casual” meeting with the Pope at 6 a.m. in front of Casa Santa Marta, the hostel and papal residence inside the Vatican, as Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio) was about to head to the airport. It was a political and diplomatic gaffe, unprovoked by the Vatican Secretariat of State, which was taken completely by surprise. They knew of Sanders’ arrival only three days earlier, and the Pope himself explained that he had bumped into Sanders by chance.

It had been the informal network around the Pope, led by monsignor Marcelo Sànchez Sorondo, the Argentinian bishop and conference organizer, who had invited Sanders. But that is not important anymore. Whatever the dynamic, the casual encounter didn’t add to good relations between the Pope and the Clintons. “They’ll make us pay a price for that. We don’t know how and when, but it will happen,” a Vatican official very close to the Pope admitted afterwards.

The Clintons

I refer to the Clintons, plural, as there is a long history of tensions and misunderstandings since Bill Clinton served as U.S. president. The struggle with John Paul II on so many fundamental values, such as abortion, was apparent and quite public. And in the last 18 months or so, Bill Clinton tried twice to get a private meeting with Francis in Casa Santa Marta. And twice he received a courteous but firm refusal of a face-to-face conversation. He could be admitted with other dignitaries, the Vatican explained, only to the kiss-hand ceremony in St. Peter’s Square because protocol didn’t allow for a different procedure.

Furthermore, in the September 2015 visit of Pope Francis to the United States the papal entourage noticed that Hillary didn’t show up even to greet the Pope. And that episode was viewed as the confirmation of a cold relationship.

Divided by Putin

Another Clinton leading the White House will be problematic for U.S. bishops who fear a legislative push to further a secular vision of American society. It is quite intriguing that just one week after the White House elections, a new president of the conference of U.S. bishops will be appointed to succeed Joseph Kurtz. It will be quite interesting to see the tone of the Catholic bishops that emerges towards the new U.S. presidency.

The fact that Hillary is considered a hawk in foreign policy (with a very assertive approach on issues like the Middle East, the Syria crisis, and Russia) might signal tensions with Vatican diplomacy and the Latin American Pontiff himself. Clinton supported the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq. She is esteemed and praised by many neoconservatives. Some analysts predict that she will side with the Sunnis and with Saudi Arabia against Shiite Iran, and that she will be more confrontational with Russia.

Thus Hillary Clinton might become the symbol of a new Cold War with Russia, while for Pope Francis the Russian Federation and Putin personally are objective allies in the Syrian struggle to defend Christian minorities from the persecution by Isis. Furthermore, Putin is key to a dialogue between the Vatican and the Orthodox Church, and he doesn’t hide his role. On the contrary, he does nothing to conceal his influence on Patriarch Kirill.

But the Pope knows quite well the advantages and limits of this alliance. When I asked him if there was possibly a strategic convergence with Russia in policy on the Middle East and on the consequence of the bombing of Libya, Francis interrupted me and made clear that although there are some shared goals, Russia has its own agenda that is different from that of the Holy See. The Pope added that when dealing with Russia, one must never forget that in Russian blood there are always drops of its past empire. He was not referring to the former Soviet Union, in my view, but to czarism.

Trump as an Unchristian Christian

With respect to Trump, the distance is less subtle. It became public in February 2016, when Francis was accused by the Republican candidate of being an agent of the Mexican government on immigration. The reason, Trump indicated, was a trip the pontiff had made to the U.S.-Mexico border, where he had celebrated a Mass on Mexican territory and repeated that bridges, not walls had to be built to unite rather than divide people.

“Whoever thinks that walls and not bridges should be built is not a Christian,” the Pope said, provoking a blunt response from Trump. And, as an Italian cardinal admits confidentially, “nobody knows what remained in Trump’s soul after those words, so unusual for Vatican diplomacy.”

A Disoriented Catholic World

The concern is evident. But it is not a problem connected to the religion of Trump or even of Clinton. Trump is a Protestant Presbyterian, and Hillary is a Methodist. But this is not the point. The “Catholic vote” as homogeneous bloc no longer exists in the United States and elsewhere. This is underscored by the fact that since 1972 the majority of U.S. Catholics voted for the candidate who won the elections. Furthermore, anti-Catholicism is more outdated than in the past in the United States.

The problem with Trump is rooted deep inside the Catholic world itself. The concern of the Pope stems from the fear that Trump might become the champion of an international xenophobia: a beacon of racism, of an exclusive version of Christianity, of white supremacy, attracting many conservative Catholics as well. The phenomenon is already on the rise across western and eastern Europe, with the rise of populist forces. And the peculiarity of the present situation is not only that the number of racists have grown, but rather that demagogues such as Mr. Trump are reaching beyond their natural base of voters to attract disillusioned people who are neither racist nor anti-Islamic. The prospect that the United States might elect a president who is openly against immigration from all of Latin America, and also against Islam, is viewed as a nightmare by an Argentinian pontiff who is struggling to improve relations between North and South America as well as explain to Catholic conservative circles that Islamism cannot be associated with terrorism.

This trend represents a cultural battle, fought apparently against Trump, but de facto well underway inside the Catholic world. An alliance between European populism and Mr. Trump’s racism might prove devastating. Whatever the outcome of the U.S. election, the Holy See is worried that the United States will emerge from the presidential campaign a country divided—bitterly split on fundamental values, and with xenophobic and secular positions both radicalized.

The problem is worsened by the approach of Francis to problems like gay rights and marriages, and marriage of divorced individuals, which in general constitutes a very inclusive and intermittently disorienting interpretation of Catholic doctrine. In many western dioceses Francis’s words are not always understood, and time after time are silently disputed or even refused. His recent choice of 17 cardinals from all over the world, but not from Europe and Italy, even if coincidental, has confirmed doubts about Francis’ enduring lack of confidence towards Europe. It is a cultural divide: Francis is a Latin American, and to him the Old continent is aging, secular, and not in tune with his idea of the Catholic church rooted in the peripheries of the world. The hegemony of the West, in general, is far from his vision of the future. If the Catholic church is a field hospital, as he labelled it at the very beginning of his pontificate, the West is a field hospital as well: a reality and a model of societies in decline, with values in need of being updated or reshaped totally.

The Diplomacy of Mercy

But such a strategy brings strategic implications. Francis is against the West-East divide. To him the Cold war be it the old or a new one, is a concept difficult to understand and to accept. The Pope is the major strategist of the “diplomacy of mercy,” as editor in chief Antonio Spadaro wrote in La Civiltà Cattolica, the quarterly of Italian Jesuits, in the 13 February 2016 issue. Spadaro is a loyal interpreter of the Pope’s thought. The Argentinian pontiff envisions a foreign policy where the Holy See aims at “direct and fluid relationships with superpowers, without joining a preordained network of alliances and influences.” There is a refusal “to divide the world between victims and executioners.” Even in front of terrorism, Spadaro wrote, “Francis’s reaction is dismay, not just taking sides….”

It is easy to guess the difficulty in making such an approach acceptable to a portion of western public opinion that is frightened and horrified by Isis terrorist attacks and murders, and to circles of the Catholic world which live with economic crisis, immigration, and terrorism as threats from which to defend themselves. Francis is still hugely popular, but he is swimming against the tide. And the United States might prove the strongest tide to swim against.

“Our strategy can only be that of the lesser evil,” a close adviser of the Pope says. There are many fields where dialogue can be a substitute for confrontation. But the impression is that the first impact will be tough. And in March 2013 it was the United States that was obliged to understand what had happened in the Conclave that elected Bergoglio. Now it is the reverse: it is the Vatican that needs to understand what Clinton and Trump mean to the Holy See and to the world. It is a challenge from which the two parallel empires might emerge transformed and possibly more distant than in the past.


Massimo Franco is a political columnist for Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s leading newspapers. Since 2002 he has been a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in the United Kingdom. He is also the author of many books, including The Crisis in the Vatican Empire: From the Death of John Paul II to the Resignation of Benedict XVI (Mondadori, 2013) and Parallel Empires: the Vatican and the United States—Two Centuries of Alliance and Conflict (Random House, 2009; an updated edition has just been published by Il Saggiatore in Milan). This JPRI Critique is based on a paper delivered at IISS Arundel House, London, on October 18, 2016.





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