Analysis: the American-Vatican Divide
Abuse Crisis, War on Iraq Revive Historical Distance between Divergent Cultures

By John L. Allen Jr.
National Catholic Reporter [Rome]
May 30, 2003

Although the shooting in Iraq may be over, the war of words between Rome and Washington continues, as the Vatican has once again criticized American policy in remarkably strong terms. As things turn out, the "clash of culture" most exacerbated by the Iraq war may not be between Christianity and Islam, but between the Holy See and the United States.

If so, it would mark not a new chapter in relations between the United States and the Vatican, but a return to the ambiguity that has long characterized attitudes in Rome toward the superpower across the Atlantic. This reserve has been rekindled in recent months not only by the war, but also by the American sex abuse crisis, both of which have suggested to Vatican observers that the ghost of John Calvin is alive and well in contemporary American culture.

The vehicle for the latest critique was the Jesuit-edited journal CiviltÓ Cattolica, whose pages are reviewed by the Vatican Secretariat of State before publication. In the lead editorial of its May 17 issue, the journal asserted that "the United States has put international law in crisis."

The editorial said the U.S.-declared war on terrorism has generated strong anti-American sentiment in Europe. Especially repugnant, it said, has been the decision to hold 600 Taliban, including five teenagers between 13 and 16 and five men over 80, at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba without recognizing them as prisoners of war.

In another explosive charge, the editorial said the rebuilding of Iraq seems "chancy" because "the Western countries that should make it happen seem more interested in exploiting Iraqi oil than in the reconstruction of the country." It is not the first time CiviltÓ Cattolica has suggested that oil interests are driving American policy.

The editorial bluntly said the war was unjustified.

Noting that Iraq's army was weak, and that weapons of mass destruction have not been found, the editorial said these facts "have clearly shown that there were not sufficient reasons for moving against Iraq, because the country did not constitute a true threat for the United States and its allies."

The editorial said the most urgent task now is to "reestablish international legality, wounded by the 'unilateralism' of the United States." It called for the United Nations, not the United States, to direct the post-war work in Iraq.

"It's a matter of relaunching the spirit of the United Nations charter, based on cooperation, rather than on competition among enemy states and on domination of an imperialistic sort by the hegemonic superpower."

Many Americans have been surprised to hear this sort of language, which calls to mind harsh anti-American broadsides of the European left.

Likewise, key officials in the Bush administration were initially taken off guard by the depth of Vatican opposition to the war. Condoleeza Rice was not being disingenuous when she told the Italian weekly Panorama that she "didn't understand" the Vatican's argument. That incomprehension was widely shared among American personnel both in Washington and in Rome.

This surprise, in part, reflects the fact that the political psychology of many Americans, including key Bush administration officials, took shape in the Reagan years. During the Cold War there was a clear intersection of interests between the United States and the Holy See in support of anti-Soviet resistance in Eastern Europe, above all Solidarity in Poland. Some American Catholic thinkers, most eminently George Weigel and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, saw this "holy alliance" as a harbinger of a broader global partnership between America and the Catholic church, based on shared values (pro-life, pro-family) and on political objectives (pro-human rights, pro-free trade and democracy).

The project, on this theory, was delayed by eight years of Clinton liberalism, but the election of Bush put things back on track. And indeed, there was a "Catholic honeymoon" in the early days of the Bush administration, as the president's elimination of public funding for abortion, his restrictive decision on stem cell research, and his two visits to the pope all played to positive Catholic reviews.

From this point of view, the rift over the Iraq war would be a temporary disruption of a natural alliance, and the needle will eventually swing back into place. In fact, however, history suggests another hypothesis --that Cold War politics made temporary bedfellows out of the Vatican and the United States, and what is reemerging now is the diffidence and coolness that have always characterized Vatican attitudes about America.

Papal reservations about the superpower across the Atlantic are well-documented, from Pope Leo XIII's Testem Benevolentiae, condemning the supposed heresy of "Americanism," to Pius XII's opposition to Italy's entrance into NATO, based on fears that the alliance was a Trojan horse for Protestant domination of Catholic Europe. Key Vatican officials, especially Europeans from traditional Catholic cultures, have long worried about aspects of American culture -- its exaggerated individualism, its hyper-consumer spirit, its relegation of religion to the private sphere, its Calvinist ethos. They worry about a world in which America is in a position to impose this set of cultural values on everyone else.

The last 18 months have confirmed many Vatican officials in these convictions. Two episodes have been key: the sexual abuse crisis in the American Catholic church, and the Iraq war.

On the crisis, many Vatican observers have been shocked at what they see as the harsh and unforgiving response to priestly misconduct in American culture. Certainly no one in the Holy See defends the sexual abuse of minors, and most realize that the church left itself vulnerable to public anger because of its history of covering up clerical wrongdoing. Still, the clamor for permanent removal from the priesthood of men with even one offense, potentially decades in the past, cannot help but seem excessive to many in Rome. Even more puzzling was the decision of the American bishops in Dallas to craft policy based on this unforgiving standard. One Vatican cardinal recently asked a delegation of Americans visiting Rome, "How could your bishops adopt a policy so removed from the gospel?"

The war has similarly awakened traditional reservations about America. When Vatican officials hear President Bush talk about the existence of evil in the world in the form of terrorism, and the American mission to destroy it, they sometimes sense a kind of dualism implied in such remarks. They can suggest a sense of election, combined with the depravity of America's enemies, that appears to justify endless and absolute conflict.

In the view of some in the Vatican, underlying both the harsh American response on sexual abuse and its dualistic approach to foreign policy is the legacy of Calvinism. The Calvinist concepts of the total depravity of the damned, the unconditional election of God's favored, and the manifestation of election through earthly success, all seem to shape the cultural context of both events.

After Cardinal Pio Laghi returned to Rome from his last-minute appeal to Bush just before the Iraq war began, he reported back to John Paul II, telling the pope that he sensed "something Calvinistic" in the president's iron determination to battle the forces of evil.

Recently I was in the Vatican on other business, and happened to strike up a conversation about the war with an official eager to hear an "American" perspective. He told me he sees a "clash of civilizations" between the United States and the Holy See, between a worldview that is essentially Calvinistic and one that is shaped by Catholicism.

"We have a concept of sin and evil too," he said, "but we also believe in grace and redemption."

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago made a similar statement during the Synod of Bishops for the Americas in November 1997. George said that U.S. citizens "are culturally Calvinist, even those who profess the Catholic faith." American society, he said, "is the civil counterpart of a faith based on private interpretation of scripture and private experience of God." He contrasted this kind of society with one based on the Catholic church's teaching of community and a vision of life greater than the individual.

One can of course debate this line of cultural analysis. Right or wrong, however, it is widely held in the Vatican, and has been significantly strengthened by reflection on the sex abuse crisis and the war.

This does not mean relations between the United States and the Vatican are in dire straits. The Vatican is realistic enough to understand that if it wishes to exert influence on world affairs it needs to work with the Americans, and the Bush team continues to desire the moral legitimacy it believes Vatican support can lend its policies. At a personal level, Bush's emissaries to the Holy See, especially Ambassador James Nicholson and his staff, are liked and respected in the corridors of the Apostolic Palace. None of this is likely to change.

What is increasingly clear, however, is that this is not the "special relationship" enjoyed by America and Britain, two historical allies linked by a common culture, language and view of the world. The Vatican-United States relationship is a dialogue between two institutions with some common interests, but also divergent cultures that will from time to time flare up into sharp policy differences.

No one should be shocked, in other words, the next time CiviltÓ Cattolica takes America to task.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent.


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