Cheney's Rome Trip Is More Than a Diplomatic Whistle Stop

VATICAN CITY — Vice President Dick Cheney's Jan. 27 visit to the Vatican wasn't just another stop on the endless diplomatic circuit.

The vice president doesn't travel very much. Unlike many of his predecessors, who were frequently dispatched to far-flung conferences and high-profile funerals, he prefers to stay close to home as the most powerful vice president in recent memory.

His European trip in January was only his second overseas visit as vice president; the last time he was in Europe was almost two years ago, in spring 2002, on an early mission to build support for the American position on Iraq.

Cheney was in Italy principally to thank the Italians for their support in Iraq and to reinforce the strong links between Italy and the United States. There is tremendous affection for Americans in Italy, not least because of their role in liberating Italy in World War II. Indeed, Cheney's visit included the 60th anniversary commemorations of the Allied landing at Nettuno and Anzio in January 1944.

That background helps explain why, in contrast to a year ago, the climate in Rome was much warmer toward the United States.

While the Vatican opposition to the Iraq war in particular and the concept of “preventive war” in general has not abated, there has been a marked effort to remedy the damage done by the intemperate and even anti-American tone that characterized many Vatican officials in the months preceding the war.

Key Relationship

The Holy See considers its relationship with the United States of primary importance given American power in the world. In addition, the Bush administration is a key international ally of the Holy See on a range of issues, and there is a desire to move past whatever damage was done by the Iraq war.

During his meeting with Cheney, the Holy Father read a brief address that stressed the “the growth of international cooperation and solidarity” in dealing with international conflicts — a plea that American power should work in concert with the international legal framework and the United Nations.

In the weeks before the visit, the new Vatican “foreign minister,” Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, indicated in interviews that he understood the desire in some cases for preventive war, a key doctrine of the Bush's administration's post-Sept. 11 foreign policy.

However, that preventive force should occur under the auspices of the United Nations, according to Archbishop Lajolo.

The shift was more one in tone than substance but was clearly a move away from last spring's outright condemnation of the concept.

Cheney made no comment on his meeting with the Holy Father, but papal spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls said the two men discussed not only Iraq and the Holy Land but also the global situation regarding the “the defense and promotion of life, the family, solidarity and religious freedom.”

That list indicates why the Holy See-U.S. relationship has healed so quickly after what some feared was a major breach last spring. On the life issues, the defense of marriage and the family as well as religious liberty and human rights, the Holy See has few stauncher friends than the Bush administration. On many issues — ironically enough often at U.N. forums — the American delegation is on the side of the angels in the view of the Holy See.

“The American people have always cherished the fundamental values of freedom, justice and equality,” John Paul added in his prepared remarks, underscoring the values he wished America would bring to the world stage.

U.S. Perspective

On the American side, there was never an expectation that the Holy See would endorse the Iraq war (it didn't endorse the first Gulf War in 1991, which was a clearer case of resisting aggression), and there was an appreciation that the Holy Father was determined the war would not be seen as a clash between Christianity and Islam.

The frustration was that those positions were often articulated in a way that suggested America was an impetuous actor who hadn't thought through the implications of its own actions. Comments last spring from Cardinal Angelo Sodano, secretary of state — who also met with Cheney — fueled that frustration.

But the climate is clearly open to dialogue and the relationship is healthy. To the end of engaging Vatican officials on the changes in American foreign policy, James Nicholson, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, is sponsoring a conference on “International Law and New Threats” tentatively scheduled for March 26.

Nicholson tried last year a similar approach, inviting theologian Michael Novak to Rome to present the moral case for war. That initiative had mixed results, with Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, snubbing Novak by refusing even to see him.

This year, a better result is expected in a climate of warmer relations.

Father Raymond J. de Souza served as the Register's Rome correspondent from 1999-2003. He writes from Kingston, Ontario.