Marc Nadeau: The Pope and the Presidents

Roundup: Talking About History

Marc Nadeau, in the Ottawa Citizen (4-9-05):

[Marc Nadeau is a PhD student in theology at the Universite de Sherbrooke ( Quebec), where he researches the influence of religion in the administration of George W. Bush.]

John Paul II's pontificate revamped, as one of its major achievements, a rather modest relationship between the Vatican and the United States. Generally distant from one another, the two states interacted sparsely during the decades following the Italian unification of 1870 right up to the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan as U.S. president.

Historically, American public opinion was fervently opposed to the U.S. government being intertwined with the papacy. Catholics were negatively perceived as sharing a dual loyalty to Rome and to Washington. But there were eloquent exceptions. During the Second World War, the U.S. established channels with the Vatican in the interest of defeating the Axis. In the aftermath, president Harry Truman and pope Pius XII joined hands to defeat the Communist party during the Italian legislative elections of 1948. "Stronger ties were being sought with the Vatican, which seemed ideologically to be America's staunchest ally,'' wrote historian Donald R. McCoy. In 1951, president Truman tried to establish official diplomatic relations with the Vatican, replacing the unofficial method of sending a presidential envoy. Facing blatant disapproval throughout the United States, Mr. Truman backed down.

In the historic month of October 1965, when Lyndon Johnson was president, pope Paul VI made the first visit by a pope outside of Rome in a century when he went to New York to address the United Nations and to meet with the Democratic president. Two years later, on his way back from a visit to American troops in Vietnam, President Johnson called on Paul VI in the Eternal City. A fervent anti-communist since his youth, the pope privately sympathized with the agenda of the Johnson administration in Southeast Asia, while publicly investing himself and the apparatus of the Vatican to find a negotiated solution to the Vietnam War.

These historical notions constituted the backdrop of the convergence between John Paul II and Ronald Reagan. The Polish pope intended to walk in the footsteps of Paul VI on the international scene. For his part, the Republican president was an admirer of Harry Truman, the staunch anti-communist. The priest and the politician not only shared many characteristics, but also nourished the same philosophy about the "evil empire.''

Peter Schweizer, author of a study detailing the origin and evolution of Ronald Reagan's activism in opposition to communism, explains that "John Paul II seemed to have a particular hold on (Reagan), perhaps because this pope had grown up under communism and had retained his Catholic faith.'' For his part, the pontiff could only marvel at a president who was determined to shoulder the wheel against the Soviet empire.

It came as no surprise that the Vatican and Washington then showed a clear intention to depart from the established foreign policies of their respective chancelleries, which at this point were comfortable in the climate of detente with Moscow. The pope and the president expressed and maintained a firm and confrontational attitude towards the builders of the Iron Curtain.

Sharing a profound revulsion toward the atheistic doctrine and an intention to modify the status quo between East and West, the two figures employed themselves to destabilize the communist diktat. In Poland, they notably supported the uprising and resistance of Solidarity. Over time, events in the pope's motherland, coupled with the president's agenda of provoking the collapse of the Soviet economy by forcing the Kremlin to match U.S. investments in the military race, would bring communism to its knees. The climate was favourable to the establishment of official relations in 1984.

After the Bill Clinton interval, a period when the trajectories of the Vatican and Washington parted ways on issues such as abortion and family planning, George W. Bush took over where Ronald Reagan left off. Mr. Bush shared many priorities of the Vatican concerning "the culture of life.'' Abortion, abstinence, stem-cell research, euthanasia and the definition of marriage are the best examples of the areas in which John Paul II and George W. Bush shared a communion of views.

Of course, the rapport between the Vatican and Washington in the Bush years was not the same as it was during Ronald Reagan's mandates. The war in Iraq, and the vocal opposition of the curia to this military operation, is an illustration that even generally harmonious alliances can encounter difficulties.

All in all, however, in the last 26 years, John Paul II often counted on American allies to support and promote his vision. Whether about communism or moral values -- two of the defining aspects of his pontificate -- the pope's voice was heard on the banks of the Potomac.

Ironically, those who responded to these expectations could be found in the Republican party, a political vehicle that was not the traditional political home of Catholics, who historically preferred Democrats.

The legacy of John Paul II will be a prolific source for historians and other specialists for decades to come. For now, John Paul II's death raises questions about how the Vatican and the United States will interact in the future....

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