"Provocative" Look at History of U.S.-Vatican Relationship

VATICAN CITY — Italian journalist Massimo Franco is the author of the new book Parallel Empires: The Vatican and the United States: Two Centuries of Alliance and Conflict, 1788-2005. The Italian edition of the book, which will be published soon in English by Random House, was launched in Rome Nov. 18 in the company of Cardinal Pio Laghi, former Vatican envoy to Washington, Francis Rooney and James Nicholson, the current and former U.S. ambassadors to the Holy See, Italian Finance Minister Guilio Tremonti and Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni.

Franco, who is a political columnist for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, spoke Nov. 19 with Register correspondent Edward Pentin about the complex relationship between Rome and Washington.

Why did you choose the title Parallel Empires?

First of all, because they are concepts that both the Vatican and the United States refuse to attribute to themselves, so it's a provocative title. But it is also quite true in the sense that both the Vatican and the United States have a world geopolitical projection, they are the only two to have this.

Of course, the United States is a sort of symbol of “hard power” while the Vatican, as part of its constitution and identity, is just the opposite, the symbol of “soft power.” But with its network of seminaries, nuns and missionaries, that makes the Vatican, in my opinion, an empire without a territory. It's not an official empire, but it is an empire.

About the United States: Although they refuse this definition, they are an empire. There are parts of their establishment who will say they are the new “Old Roman Empire.” So I think this is a provocative parallel but I think it's credible.

What do you hope to achieve from your book?

Usually I write books to study something I don't know well. I was stimulated to write about this subject by Giulio Andreotti [former Italian prime minister] who gave me this booklet by James Nicholson [now Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs] about the long road between the two states. So it was just intellectual curiosity.

I wanted to understand it better because it was astonishing that the U.S. and the Vatican only opened full diplomatic relations in 1984, which is really strange. So I wanted to find out why, and that led me to study all the history over the last centuries.

It's been said that caution and reluctance have marked the history of Vatican-United States relations, and that the Cold War was a temporary disruption when the states became allies. Do you agree with that view?

Yes, I do. Pope Pius XII and [U.S. President Franklin] Roosevelt, with Cardinal Spellman as a very good mediator, understood very well that there was common interest in the future of Europe against communism. They understood that the British Empire was over and that the United States was to be the next empire. So Pius XII, when war was finishing, already understood that Europe had to be built not with a Christian mentality but with an eclectic, mixed mentality against communism.

You go into some detail in the book about the irritation of certain members of the Bush administration with the Vatican in the months leading up to the Iraq War.

Firstly, I report in the book about a meeting between four American cardinals with Condoleezza Rice shortly before Cardinal Laghi's visit with Bush. This is very interesting because it gives you a real perception of the impossibility of any dialogue. There was much discontent surrounding this [Laghi's] visit. Laghi explains that when he was at the White House and he tried to convince President Bush, there was also no room for dialogue. And when he gave a letter he had brought from the Pope, Bush took it and just put it on the table without even opening it.

Laghi was very alarmed by the conversation. When he was escorted out in the garden of the White House, he was accompanied by Gen. Peter Pace, who is now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At that time he was vice-chairman. He patted the cardinal's back, and told him: “Your Eminence, don't worry. What we're about to do will be done quickly and well.”

At that time war had not been declared, but he told him that war was a decision that had already been made. So there was a very big miscalculation about what the consequences of the war would be.

What else did you discover when writing the book?

When former Secretary of State Powell met Laghi during the same visit, before the war, Laghi found him quite depressed and he told him about the dangers such a war would expose. Powell answered with a laconic smile: “You're telling me this? I'm a general, I know what war's like.” This is all written in the book.

Is this the first time such revelations have come to light?

I've never read it before. For instance, on the comments of Peter Pace, I remember Laghi telling this story to Catholic News Service but he didn't reveal the name of the person. But it was Gen. Peter Pace, then vice-chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States. It wasn't just a lieutenant. He was a chief of the American Army saying, “No problem, the war would be over quickly.”

What do you relations are like now between the Holy See and the United States?

There is a strong alliance on moral values, abortion, bioethics, “gay marriage” — with the government, this administration, but not the United States as a whole. This alliance has obscured all the tensions over war and peace.

This is why I think there's a parallel concern of the Vatican and the United States. The Vatican thinks there is a very deep crisis in Christianity, and they fear a double negative influence stemming from an invasion of Islamism and from inside because there is secularization of Europe and possibly in the United States. The U.S. sees Christianity as a barricade, not just against Islam but also against moral decay.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.