Vatican Interested in the US Presidential Election — but Only as an Observer

Vatican officials and former U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican tell the Register that Pope Francis is likely to maintain the Vatican’s traditional policy of political neutrality.


VATICAN CITY — As Donald Trump wins enough delegates to become the Republican presidential nominee, and Hillary Clinton looks set to be his Democratic opponent, the Vatican is looking upon the November presidential election not only with a mixture of puzzlement and surprise, but also with hope that whoever wins will be able to work with the Church on certain key issues.

Opinions on this year’s unusual election naturally differ from one Vatican official to another, there is no single Vatican “line” on any candidate, and, as in the past, both Pope Francis and the Holy See will try to refrain from intervening directly in the vote.

“The Vatican always has a keen interest in U.S. presidential elections,” said Jim Nicholson, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See during the first term of the George W. Bush administration (2001-2005), “but, prudently, it doesn’t get involved.”

That doesn’t prevent individual officials from having their own personal opinions, however. A rough delineation can be made between how Italian and other Western European officials and their U.S. counterparts view the election.

From various conversations in and around the Vatican, it’s clear that Italian officials have yet to really engage with this election, as it has been mostly about preparing candidates; and, therefore, many have yet to develop a firm set of ideas. The Italian media have also yet to discuss the election in any kind of depth.

But so far, many seem to be mystified by the process, especially how two very controversial and polemical candidates could come to prominence. Some, however, have a good grasp of what is happening — usually officials in the Secretariat of State, which encompasses the diplomatic arm of the Holy See.

“The Vatican usually, in my experience, accurately perceives what is happening — they’re not ignorant,” said Nicholson. “They’re not surprised by what is going on, are kept well informed, and watch it with a keen interest, because it’s very relevant.”

Generally, Italian officials, who form the majority of Curial staff, appear to have more sympathy for Clinton than do their U.S. counterparts, because her policies align more closely with Western European views on social-justice issues such as immigration and welfare. The culture wars are less of an issue in Italy.

But these Curial officials also have a sense of being “once bitten, twice shy,” following their widespread public sympathy for a largely unknown Barack Obama and their wish to see the U.S. have its first black president. Their support soon backfired, especially when the extent of his radical views on abortion became clear.

Compared to what happened with Obama, “there is no such bandwagon with Clinton,” one official told the Register on condition of anonymity. He added that Trump “shocks some priests” — both American and Italian — “with his crassness,” but some Italians, in the Curia as well as outside of it, like Trump because he reminds them of recent Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose non-affiliation with the political class endeared him to voters. Trump is seen “as a celebrity character, a good deal-maker,” the official said.

One senior Vatican official said he supported Trump because “he’ll protect Christians from Muslim attacks.” And while some U.S. officials have difficulty understanding and trusting the presumptive Republican nominee, others have sympathy for the billionaire property mogul but fear saying so openly because of possible retaliation from their superiors.

Kishore Jayabalan, Rome director of the Acton Institute and a former Vatican official, noted that because this year’s presidential election is quite different from previous ones, the usual assumptions no longer hold.

“Populist nationalism is on the rise in the U.S., even if it is an ideologically mixed bag,” he said, referring to the popularity of Trump and Democratic contender Bernie Sanders, who both have tapped into that sentiment. “Globalism vs. nationalism, rather than conservative vs. liberal, may be the defining issue in 2016.”


Hands-Off Approach

But what individual Vatican officials think about these issues, especially if they are not of a senior rank, is of limited importance, as the Vatican tends to never involve itself in elections.

“The Vatican does not directly intervene in the political process of any nation,” said Miguel Diaz, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See during much of Obama’s first term. “Church leaders (lay and ordained), however, strongly encourage Catholics to exercise their political and civic duties, including voting and participating in democratic processes, within the context of an informed conscience.”

Jayabalan said the Vatican stays out of U.S. elections “partly because of the way Church and state interact in America, compared to the different arrangements found in European history.”

But he added that, like the rest of Europe, “the Vatican is very interested in what happens because they all know how much U.S. politics directly affects world affairs.” Some officials may preach about “creating a multi-polar world,” he said, “but no one really believes this is the case” at the current time.

Robert Royal, president of the Washington-based Faith and Reason Institute, has been in the U.S. capital for at least half a dozen elections, but he cannot recall the Vatican or the Church becoming much involved in any of them.

Perhaps the only exception, he said, was when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote a letter to U.S. bishops during the 2004 election campaign, stressing that Catholic politicians in favor of abortion should not present themselves for Communion, nor should priests give them the Eucharist after they have been warned.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, then archbishop of Washington, only partly communicated the letter to the U.S. bishops, which caused an uproar because John Kerry, a Catholic who continues to favor abortion rights, was running as the Democratic nominee for the presidency against incumbent George W. Bush.

Furthermore, Cardinal Ratzinger stressed in the letter that questions on issues such as poverty and inequality are moral questions that require differing prudential approaches and could not be used to justify voting for someone who was for abortion. “Clearly, that message has never really gotten through,” said Royal.

Neither of the two expected presidential candidates in November’s election is Catholic, but that 2004 episode is a reminder of how problematic it can be for the Vatican to involve itself in an election, even if the grounds for doing so are seen as legitimate.

“Even if the Vatican wanted to influence [the election], I doubt it would have much effect,” said Jayabalan, who believes that U.S. bishops and priests “ought to emphasize basic things like attending Sunday Mass and learning the contents of the faith before holding forth on other matters.”


Pope Francis

Some critics contend that Pope Francis has nevertheless involved himself more in this election than most. After his trip to the U.S. last year, a number of reports suggested his visit offered a helping hand to Democrats.

Then in February, the Holy Father told reporters on the papal plane back from Mexico — without naming Trump explicitly, but responding to a journalist who was referencing Trump’s views on immigration — that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel.” Trump has made building a wall on the Mexico-U.S. border to keep out illegal immigrants a key policy proposal.

Then, in April this year, the chancellor at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Bishop Marcello Sanchez Sorondo, also controversially invited Sanders to address the academy on the dangers of capitalism at a conference commemorating Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum). Sanders briefly met the Pope the following morning, which the Holy Father insisted was simply a courtesy.

The Vatican has never given a U.S. presidential candidate such a platform at the height of a campaign, and the Holy See sought to distance itself from Sanders' visit, stressing that the invitation was made by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, not by the Pope or the Vatican collectively.

Despite these episodes, Royal thinks it “very unlikely” that Pope Francis will involve himself in this election any more than he has.

“It’s not his way,” he said. “To judge by things he has said about pro-abortion politicians in Italy, he tends not to intervene on such questions.”

Francis’ comment about Trump’s wall was also “a general remark about his preferences for people coming together and building bridges,” Royal noted.

“If you look at his actual words, he’s even careful to say that the Vatican would have to look into what Trump’s actual views are,” Royal said. “He didn’t say that Trump was not Christian, but that a rigid separation of people was non-Christian — not a very clear position, to be frank.”

He predicted that if Trump and Clinton “do engage in the kind of contest that exaggerated their positions — Trump becoming even more xenophobic, Hillary becoming even more open to refugees and immigration — we may see some indirect remarks by the Vatican.”

But he said it would be “quite unusual if Pope Francis himself were to get involved,” except perhaps on general questions concerning “transnational solidarity.”


Ambassadors’ Assessments

Similarly, Diaz said he couldn’t conceive of the Pope or the Vatican endorsing or rejecting a candidate. But he remains concerned that either of the candidates will favor policies that explicitly undermine politically “the teaching of Pope Francis on a number of issues that this pope considers fundamental to the survival of the human family.”

And even without any conscious involvement, Diaz believes Pope Francis’ influence on the outcome in November cannot be easily dismissed. He believes that on issues such as immigration, globalization and respecting the dignity of all life, Pope Francis “has the potential to significantly impact the upcoming presidential election.”

For his part, Nicholson stressed that the Vatican and the Church in the U.S. have some “very smart people” who, despite not predicting the current turn of events, will ensure that the Holy Father is well informed. He added that he “would tend to think the Pope would be more supportive of Sanders” because he probably views him as more sympathetic to the Holy Father’s “single-minded” focus on the poor. 

But whether or not that’s the case, Nicholson not only doesn’t see the Pope “getting involved” in this year’s election, he predicts that the Pope’s views will have “minimal influence” on the outcome.


Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.