Helms Was Lone Objector
All the news lately about the corruption of Vatican leaders over recent decades, as Catholic priests worldwide were actively protected from local prosecutions and canonical investigations, got me wondering how and when the United States recognized the Holy See as a sovereign state.
I mistakenly thought there was a treaty between the two, and I've learned that the president has the authority to appoint an ambassador under Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, with no treaty necessary.
The Catholic Historical Review, in a fascinating, lively and lengthy article from October 2009, explained the very complicated history between the U.S. and the Vatican. The key focus was how formal relations were established in the early 1980s, under President Ronald Reagan:
The first step that had to occur was for Congress to repeal the 1867 law that prohibited the expenditure of funds for a diplomatic mission to the Holy See. On June 30, 1983, Representative Clement Zablocki (D-WI), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced just such a resolution (H.J.Res.316). Several factors motivated Zablocki to pursue this course of action.
First, in June 1981, at the funeral of Cardinal Stefan Wyszinski of Warsaw at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Zablocki was irked that [American envoy to the Vatican WilliamWilson] was not seated with the other ambassadors. Second, many countries had already established diplomatic relations with the Holy See, including several communist ones. [...]
This particular Senate amendment was added to the State Department appropriations bill on September 22, 1983 (S.1342), which subsequently passed by a voice vote on October 20.
In November the Senate-House conference committee met on the State Department bill, hammered out the differences, and submitted the bill to the Senate and House for a final vote. The bill was passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president on November 22, 1983.
Repeal of that 1867 prohibition took a single, very long sentence:
Public Law 98-164
In order to provide for the establishment of United States diplomatic relations with the Vatican, the Act entitled "An Act making Appropriations for the Consular and Diplomatic Expenses of the Government for the Year ending thirtieth June, eighteen-hundred and sixty-eight, and for other purposes", approved February 28, 1867, is amended by repealing the following sentence (14 Stat. 413): "And no money hereby or otherwise appropriated shall be paid for the support of an American legation at Rome, from and after the thirtieth day of June, eighteen-hundred and sixty-seven.
Thus began America's unfortunate and formal diplomatic recognition and reciprocity with the Holy See.
Establishing relations meant we needed to exchange ambassadors, and a member of Ronald Reagan's California kitchen cabinet, William Wilson, was nominated for the position. In February 1984, after rudimentary Congressional hearings, according to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, and little debate, Wilson's appointment was endorsed by the Senate, except for one holdout:
''I just can't bring myself to vote for any ambassador to the Holy See,'' said Senator Helms to the Foreign Relations Committee as he cast the only vote against Mr. Wilson, a California entrepreneur and friend of President Reagan. Helms said he opposed recognizing anything ''other than another government.'' [...]
''My only regret,'' said Helms, ''is there was not a full-fledged discussion'' when the Senate passed the law that permitted establishing diplomatic ties with the Holy See. [...]
I'm horrified to write these words, but I wish Helms had succeeded. He was such a homo-hater without an ounce of compassion for people with AIDS, who I will always loathe, but on this single foreign matter, I agree with Helms that America should not have created diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
There also should have been robust debate in Congress over all of the ramifications of diplomatic recognition of one religious sovereign state, that went beyond the popularity ratings at the time of Reagan and Pope John Paul II.
A lawsuit challenging the establishment of diplomatic recognition, exchange of ambassadors and expending of federal funds to operate a Vatican embassy, was filed by Americans for Separate of Church and State, et al.
In a 1986 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, dismissed an appeal by the plaintiffs after a lower court rejected their claim to legal standing:
Applying the teaching of these [earlier] cases, we hold that the "direct and palpable injuries" alleged by the plaintiffs are legally insufficient to establish standing to challenge the funding and diplomatic-recognition actions of which they complain. [...] The district court did not err in dismissing the complaint. The judgment appealed from will therefore be affirmed.
Now would be a good time to examine the factors behind our diplomacy with the Vatican, and to ask if and how we may want to adapt our relations to the concerns of today.
Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Holy See have operated rather quietly since then, and as I far as I know, there have been no other legal or Congressional attempt to re-think or reject American recognition of the Vatican.