Dr. Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of politics at Ripon College, recent Fulbright scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and author of The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future, among other books. You can find out more at lamontcolucci.com.
"Habemus Papam. We have a Pope," was declared on March 13, 2013 proclaiming Francis I as the 266th pontiff. His Easter Message on Sunday, Urbi et Orbi, promoted peace and reconciliation in places like Syria and the Korean peninsula and also deplored world poverty, violence and selfishness. From St. Peter to today, the man in this office has influenced international relations and foreign policy almost like no other. From the ancient Roman Empire to the empire of liberty of the United States, the papacy has shaped, changed, and altered international affairs.
The role of the church has shifted in international affairs from high points, such as when Alexander VI (of HBO's Borgia's fame) in 1493 issued the Inter Caetera Papal Bull dividing the new world between Spain and Portugal, to the denigration of the Roman Catholic Church by Josef Stalin in 1944 when he sarcastically asked Prime Minister Winston Churchill "how many divisions does the Pope have?" as the Soviet leader plotted the subjugation of Poland. It must seem strange that an institution that is millennia old with over one billion members, which possesses the oldest diplomatic service in the world, struggles for relevancy in international relations. I recall a lunch where a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense was asked by a colleague of mine how much influence the church's declarations concerning nuclear weapons had on U.S. policy, to which the former official bluntly responded, "none."
Americans cannot take for granted the role that the papacy plays regarding U.S. foreign policy. U.S. diplomatic relations with the Vatican started in 1797 but ended in 1870 due to a combination of anti-Catholic feeling in the United States and the loss of the bulk of the papal territories by the Pope. Full relations weren't restored until the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
In some ways the Vatican seems to oppose traditional U.S. foreign policy interests, such as a robust nuclear deterrent and certain aspects of economic development and trade. United States foreign policy would be complicated should Francis I allow himself to be embroiled in Argentine aggression regarding the Falklands. However, the papacy was a strong advocate for the allied cause during World War II and posed a dagger point against the communists globally, but especially Eastern Europe. The role of John Paul II contributing to the victory of the West against the Soviet Union should not be underestimated, nor the value of the papacy in that fight which promoted vital American foreign policy goals.
The areas that need the most work between the United States and the papacy are the global war on terror, and the future possibility of war with rogue regimes such as Iran. As much as the papacy is committed to peace, exemplified in the 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, the papacy needs to be reminded about the full ramifications and circumstances surrounding "just war," and how modern threats combined with contemporary technology requires constant modernizing of just war doctrine. Neither the papacy nor the United States benefit from the hypersecularization of the West, and Francis's most difficult task may be this, especially in Europe.
There are three areas where both Washington and Holy See can cooperate and campaign: Middle East peace between Israel and her neighbors, human rights in China and the plight of persecuted Christian minorities globally. Further, the pivotal role that Catholic theologians have played in the development of natural law and human rights is a shared value between the United States and the papacy that can only benefit from partnership. Just as the United States represents a moral force posed against tyranny, terrorism and extremism, so does the church writ large, and the Roman Catholic Church specifically.
Christendom may be dispersed through denominational arguments, but the message of the Church in international affairs should be united as one. God's law is natural law, and from our founding to today, nothing makes America more exceptional than our adherence to this order.