By CINDY WOODEN, CNS | Published April 7, 2005
Often presented as a face-off between the world’s remaining superpower and the world’s premier moral authority, U.S.-Vatican relations under Pope John Paul II in reality included major moments of collaboration.
In the same way, relations between the Vatican and Catholics in the United States often were painted as stormy, but U.S. Catholics’ participation in church life, their financial support of charitable projects around the world and their admiration for Pope John Paul also won recognition.
Even at the height of the crisis surrounding clerical sex abuse in the United States and threats of Catholics withholding money from their dioceses as a sign of dissatisfaction, U.S. Catholics led the world in the amount of money given to the pope’s discretionary Peter’s Pence fund.
In the early 1990s and again 10 years later, many U.S. Catholics were frustrated with what they felt was a lack of understanding on the Vatican’s part regarding the scandal of clerical sexual abuse and the failure of some U.S. bishops to deal with the problem quickly and decisively.
Addressing U.S. cardinals, officers of the U.S. bishops’ conference and Vatican officials at a Vatican meeting in April 2002 to discuss the sex abuse scandal, the pope said, “There is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.”
The meeting and an assembly of the U.S. bishops two months later led to a Vatican-approved process to deal with the scandal and make it easier to remove guilty priests from ministry.
In 2004, as Catholics in the United States continued to deal with the crisis and as several U.S. dioceses were forced to file for bankruptcy protection in the face of lawsuits tied to the cases, Pope John Paul urged the bishops to reach out to victims, stand by the majority of faithful priests and work to regain the confidence of their faithful.
In September 2004, he told a group of bishops from New England, “The church in your country has been chastened by the events of the past two years, and much effort has rightly been expended on understanding and addressing the issues of sexual abuse which have cast a shadow on her life and ministry.
“As you continue to confront the significant spiritual and material challenges which your local churches are experiencing in this regard, I ask you to encourage all the faithful—clergy, religious and lay—to persevere in their public witness of faith and hope,” the pope said.
While the sex abuse crisis was a major issue in Vatican-U.S. Catholic relations at the end of Pope John Paul’s papacy, the relationship between the Vatican and the U.S. government continued to reflect the powerful role both played in the world.
Under Pope John Paul and President Ronald Reagan, the United States and the Vatican established full diplomatic relations in 1984, putting a formal seal on contacts, which stretched back decades.
The pope visited the United States seven times during his pontificate, making the country his most frequent foreign destination after his native Poland.
He met with each U.S. president in office during his pontificate. In the meetings, at the Vatican and on U.S. soil, the pope consistently praised the U.S. commitment to democracy and freedom and challenged the country to use its strength to uphold human rights around the globe.
While he regularly had his ambassadors to the United States plead in his name for clemency for prisoners facing death sentences, Pope John Paul’s strongest pro-life pleas were for the unborn. His condemnations of legalized abortion in a nation generally known as a leading defender of human rights were part of each visit he made to the United States and most speeches he gave to visiting U.S. presidents.
“If a person’s right to life is violated at the moment in which he is first conceived in his mother’s womb, an indirect blow is struck also at the whole of the moral order, which serves to insure the violable goods of man,” the pope said during a Mass in Washington during his first papal visit to the United States.
“I do not hesitate to proclaim before you and before the world that all human life—from the moment of conception through all subsequent stages—is sacred, because human life is created in the image and likeness of God,” he said during the 1979 visit to Washington.
Like any diplomatic rapport between two strong states, Vatican-U.S. relations were not always smooth. Pope John Paul and other top Vatican officials voiced loud opposition to the U.S.-led 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 war in Iraq, and they consistently criticized long-term economic embargoes against Cuba and Iraq.
In public international forums, such as major U.N. conferences in the 1990s focused on population and on women, the Vatican and United States found themselves outspokenly on opposite sides of debates about contraception and abortion.
Yet cooperation and mutual praise were just as much a part of U.S.-Vatican relations during Pope John Paul’s pontificate, especially in the areas of relief and development aid, the fight for human rights and religious freedom—particularly in China—and efforts to stem human trafficking.
Within the Catholic Church, U.S.-Vatican relations had a similar pattern of areas of strong cooperation and points of tension.
The Catholic Church in the United States won notice for its obvious support of the pro-life movement, its commitment to providing emergency and development aid around the globe, its financial contributions to the rebuilding of the church in Eastern Europe, its high rate of church practice and its well-developed religious education and sacramental preparation programs.
But there were hints that Pope John Paul thought too many U.S. Catholics believed the church’s doctrine and moral teachings, particularly regarding sexuality and reproduction, provided them options for a multiple-choice faith.
Pope John Paul was especially tough on priests and theologians who seemed to fuel that attitude among the faithful.
In 1986, the Vatican told U.S. Father Charles E. Curran, a moral theologian, that he could no longer teach as a Catholic theologian. In the same year, Pope John Paul limited the authority of Seattle Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen after a Vatican-ordered investigation raised questions about adherence to church teaching in the archdiocese.
In the 1990s, though, the public profile of interaction between the Vatican and the church in the United States softened. If the Vatican had concerns about what was happening in the United States or U.S. bishops were puzzled by statements coming from the Vatican, the issues tended to be resolved through letters or meetings.