America and the Vatican are like two cousins who have gone in very different directions, but, having common roots and overlapping agendas, keep running into each other.

The relationship at its various political, cultural and social levels swings between estrangement and familiarity.

In looking at the institutions of governance, and also at important individuals involved in this complicated relationship, Massimo Franco never loses sight of the fundamental difference between the two powers in Parallel Empires. America, at its heart, is a Protestant country, and the Vatican is the heart of Catholicism.

Anti-Catholicism has often been alive and well in the United States, refreshed by new arrivals from Europe who brought negative experiences and views with them: “These settlers brought with them a heavy burden of bitter memories of a Europe divided by a pitiless and bloody religious conflict,” with alienation between, for instance, Catholics and German Lutherans in 19th-century Cincinnati.

Franco ties together particularly well the social and cultural context of mainly Protestant America with higher-level relations between Washington and the Vatican. He tells the fascinating story of a Vatican diplomat, the apostolic nuncio to Brazil, Cardinal Gaetano Bedini, and his visit to America in 1853. Since Bedini was nuncio to Brazil, Washington did not have to follow diplomatic niceties, so it didn’t.

Americans, even Catholic Americans and some of their bishops, were concerned about the separation of church and state. Bedini spent weeks traveling through the country and faced hostile reactions from anti-Catholics who feared that American Catholics could never give their whole hearts to their country because of the influence of the papacy.

The diplomat’s “nightmare visit,” which he recorded and sent to Rome, “betrays the fear and dismay of someone who has come face-to-face with an alien, baffling, and even menacing world,” a place with “a passionate, anti-papist sentiment he had never before experienced.”

Franco gives a fascinating account of the contrast between egalitarian, democratic and even skeptical America and the heavily traditional, hierarchical Church. That contrast, as well as the deep American desire to separate church and state, heavily complicated Vatican-American relations until Ronald Reagan.

Yet a visit to the 1892 Chicago World’s Fair by Archbishop Francesco Satolli, to oversee a loan of ancient and Renaissance artifacts, was an unexpected success. Satolli toured the U.S. much as Bedini had years earlier, trying to convince people that Rome did indeed respect America’s political system. “He showed no fear of American liberty; rather, he embraced it and declared that the Roman papacy now shared the same principles.”

Franco’s fascinating tale continues until about midway through the book, including the important details of American-Vatican relations during the Second World War and during Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan’s battle to open up the Iron Curtain, during which the “normalization” of relations between the two states is discussed.

After this point, Franco gets bogged down in the politics and spin surrounding George W. Bush’s wars in the Middle East and the Vatican’s responses. Do we really need to know all about Bush’s hard drinking days and a lengthy discussion on those pesky neocons in the White House?

While Parallel Empires is an interesting and good read at this time, its imbalance means that it will become dated quickly, given the rate of political change.

Brian Welter writes from

Burnaby, British Columbia.