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What’s next for US-Vatican relations in a post-American world?

September 14, 2017
Massimo Faggioli
La Croix International

The ecclesial gap between the pope and the United States is going to be as persistent as the geopolitical one – perhaps even more. There is a clear and undeniable rift between the Vatican and the Trump administration on a long series of issues.

Just a few days after the inauguration of U.S President Donald Trump, I spoke of the need for the Vatican to forge a new “Westpolitik” in its geopolitical relationship with the United States and the rest of the Western world. “This would be parallel with the Vatican Ostpolitik towards communism in Russia and Eastern Europe between the early 1960s (John XXIII and Vatican II) and the fall of the Berlin Wall (John Paul II and Reagan-Bush I),” I wrote.

But several events of the last eight months have shown that creating a “Westpolitik” is not one of Pope Francis’ priorities.

His speech to heads of state and government of the European Union on March 24, marking the 60 years of the Treaty of Rome, once again demonstrated his very real pragmatism and non-romantic Europeanism. His creation of five new cardinals last June – from Mali, Laos, San Salvador, Sweden and Spain – confirmed that Francis is redrawing the global Catholic Church’s map by giving greater emphasis to “new” churches. And in a message published over the summer for the First World Day of the Poor, Francis showed that the preferential option for the poor also entails a geopolitical map.

“Tragically, in our own time, even as ostentatious wealth accumulates in the hands of the privileged few, often in connection with illegal activities and the appalling exploitation of human dignity, there is a scandalous growth of poverty in broad sectors of society throughout our world,” he said in the message.

All this amounts to a historically remarkable shift. The Vatican, which for centuries had a privileged focus on the West, is now practically leaving this part of the globe orphaned. In this, the American question stands out. Over the past year tensions between the United States and Pope Francis, evident since the beginning of the pontificate, have become even clearer.

The years between 2014 and 2016 were a kind of an interlude. It was a transition from strains in the early period of Francis’ pontificate, which concentrated mostly on the issues of bio-politics – the pope’s position on the sometimes exclusive focus on life issues and homosexuality, as well as the debate on family and marriage at the bishops’ synods of 2014 and 2015.These two years were also focused on preparations for the papal visit to the United States in September 2015.

Despite the famous in-flight press conference when, in reference to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, the pope said building walls “is not Christian,” the Vatican tried to remain silent about the 2016 U.S. election (though clearly hoping that Trump would not win).

The new year marked a significant shift that clarified the positions of the two sides and illustrated the gulf that divides them. The now well-known article published last July in La Civiltà Cattolica by the editor Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ, and Marcelo Figueroa was much more a diagnosis of a pre-existing condition than the cause of tensions between the Vatican of Francis and some sectors of white evangelicalism and conservative (or, more accurately, traditionalist and neo-integralist) Catholicism in the United States.

Now the question is, “What’s next in U.S.-Vatican relations?” It’s essential to ask because current tensions are likely to endure, given the lack of changes in the foreseeable future, both on the geopolitical side and on the ecclesial side. Geopolitically, the Vatican knows that Trump’s position is more solid than many imagine. The president and his administration still have the support of his base and of the Republican Party, and given the current chaos of the Democratic Party, it is far from certain that the GOP will lose one of the two chambers of Congress in the midterm elections of next year. Moreover, there are no big events on the horizon that offer the chance of bolstering transatlantic relations. It is not imaginable that Francis will soon (if ever) be making another trip to the United States. And Mr. Trump is not expected to visit the Vatican in the near future.

The most important element is that Francis sees the world geopolitically from the perspective of the global south. The map of his next foreign trips speaks volumes. He’s going back to Latin America (Colombia, Chile and Peru), and will continue to place particular focus on Asia, where his visits to Myanmar and Bangladesh are meant to be a message to the two giants of the region, China and India.

The other giant the Vatican is engaging at the highest levels is Russia, which includes increased dialogue with both the government and the Russian Orthodox Church. Cardinal Pietro Parolin was the first Vatican Secretary of State since 1999 to visit the Eurasian country, but his visit to Moscow last month is not even the pinnacle of Russian-Holy See contacts. “President Vladimir Putin has visited the Vatican five times and has already had two private conversations with Pope Francis, in 2013 and 2015. He is expected to meet him again next January when he comes for the opening of a Russian art exhibition in the Vatican,” reported America magazine.

The bottom line is that on Francis’ world map the role of United States is not at the center, if not for the Korean situation, which the pope addressed on June 2 in an address to the Korean Council of Religious Leaders. The ecclesial gap between the pope and the United States is going to be as persistent as the geopolitical one – perhaps even more. There is a clear and undeniable rift between the Vatican and the Trump administration on a long series of issues. They include immigrants and refugees, the environment, the protection of the poor and marginalized, foreign policy and issues of war and peace.

The rift between Francis and American Catholic conservatism is obvious. But also notable is a persistent, if quietly expressed, dissatisfaction that American Catholic liberals and progressives have with this pontificate. First, there is dissatisfaction over what the pope says and does, for example, about women in the church and about LGBT people. Just as conservatives question Francis’ “Catholic orthodoxy,” progressives believe he has gone “not far enough” to bring about change in the church.

But there is a bigger and deeper rift between the Vatican and United States at this particular moment. The Vatican’s take on the vast North American nation also poses a problem for American liberals who see their homeland as a beacon of individual rights and a benevolent empire of moral tutelage that indicates the shining path, showing the rest of the world the way. This strain of moral-high-ground liberalism and progressivism has been strengthened as a reaction to the Trump phenomenon. But from a cultural and religious point of view it does not coincide with Pope Francis’ opposition to the U.S. president; rather, it actually contributes to caricaturize his pontificate in an ideological way.

The fact is that the Vatican is a particular kind of, but surely part of, that “abroad” which American culture – not just conservative culture – is trying to deal with in this post-American world. As an American journalist put it in a recently published memoir, “Americans are surprised by the direct relationship between their country and foreign ones because we don’t acknowledge that America is an empire.”

This also applies to the extremely complex relations between the Vatican and the United States – and it will continue to do so even beyond this pontificate.

La Croix International is the English language website of the European independent Catholic daily La Croix.

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