When Maryland tavern keeper Mary Surratt was hanged for her alleged part in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln her Catholic faith led to charges that the Vatican was somehow also behind the plot.
Naturally it was blamed on a woman. A Mary no less. Mary Surratt was a middle aged Maryland tavern keeper who had just got herself hung as one of the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the attempts on the lives of the Vice President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of War. John Wilkes Booth and associates met at her tavern to plot their revenge for the Confederacy. Surratt’s son John, a Confederate courier and spy was actively engaged with Booth in an earlier attempt to kidnap the President, but was in Elmira, New York when the foul deed was done and may not have had anything to do with the assassination plan. John fled the country after seeking refuge in a Catholic Church and eventually ended up in Rome and enlisted as a Papal Zouave. Mary was nabbed and stretched. Because she of her faith longtime Catholic haters stirred up rumors that nefarious Papists were behind the plot.
Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Catholics had served faithfully and often with notable heroism and distinction in the Union Army including members of the famed Irish Brigade and several regiments of solid, reliable German Catholics, Congress was quick to take the bait. Congress was dominated by ardent Protestant abolitionists now known as the Radical Republicans. Among the most influential in their ranks were New England Unitarians who were also rabidly anti-Catholic, a long festering prejudice that had grown deeper as wave after wave of Irish and other Catholic immigrants had washed up on American shores.
There was also a good solid political reason to slap the Catholics—they tended, at least in the big cities where they piled into the slums, to be Democrats and they were now present in sufficient numbers to begin their rapid rise to political power.
Congress took up a proposal to sever relations with the Vatican, which was opposed by the Grant Administration. Such decisions of foreign policy were the prerogative of the Executive Branch and relations with the Holy See were approved by George Washington himself in 1787. As debate in Congress went forward, rumors hit the Capitol that the Pope had suddenly ordered an end to weekly private Protestant services conducted at the American Legation inside the walls of the Vatican. With that alleged slap in the face, Congress voted to end all funding for diplomatic relations with the Holy See. They couldn’t order a direct end to recognition, but they could make it impossible.
Grant, who had other fish to fry with the Radicals in Congress, was not willing to go to the mat over his envoy to Rome. Besides, he shared some of the prevalent anti-Catholic bias even if he was not so vitriolic about it and lost no love for Democrats. On February 28, 1867 he signed the legislation that effectively ended formal relations with the Vatican. They would not be fully restored until 1984, almost 114 years later.
Pope Pius VI accepted the diplomatic attentions of the George Washington administration.
As his second term was winding down, Washington had very good reasons to want to deal with the Vatican. The Holy See remained influential in European affairs. It could potentially provide an avenue for secret and secure communications with Spain which controlled territory (Florida) on the U.S.’s southern and western (Louisiana) borders. West of the Alleghenies frontier settlements were always brewing plots and plans to break away from the U.S. and swear loyalty to the Spanish to gain an outlet to the sea for their crops and livestock at New Orleans. Also the French Revelation had quickly taken an anti-clerical turn and the Vatican’s hostility to the revolutionary regime was shared by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton who had eclipsed ardent republican Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson as the President’s most trusted advisor. Washington opened up relations with the Papal States at the consular level. John Adams continued the relationship.
In 1848 as the Mexican War was winding down, James Knox Polk elevated relations to accredit an envoy to the Pope himself in his capacity as Head of the Papal States. Although short of the rank of ambassador, envoys held a rank equivalent to a chargé d’affaires for the next 19 years.
After the formal break in relations several Presidents found it inconvenient not to have official representation at the Vatican which could be helpful in issues ranging from immigration to war and peace. Some relied on back channel contacts through other legations or by using Catholic American tourists or business men to pass information.
Beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, Chief Executives sent semi-official personal envoys to the Holy See. The first was Postmaster General James Farley, the highest ranking Catholic in the administration who visited Pope Pius XI and dined with Cardinal Pacelli, who was to succeed to the Papacy in 1939 as Pope Pius XII.
Millionaire businessman Myron Charles Taylor, seen here with Swiss Guards at the Vatican, was the Personal Representative of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman through World War II and the turbulent early post-War period.
The year that Pius XII assumed the Papal Tiara Roosevelt dispatched another special envoy, multi-millionaire industrialist and inventor Myron Charles Taylor as his “Peace ambassador.” Despite his unofficial status under U.S. law, when he arrived the Vatican recognized him with the rank of Ambassador. When they got wind of that even at this late date American Protestants went berserk. Preachers thundered from pulpits. Raging editorials clogged the pages of Protestant press. Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists all registered official protests. In Congress Republicans foamed at the mouth.
Roosevelt was undeterred. Taylor had important business to conduct—his first assignment was trying to enlist the Pope to keep Italy from joining Nazi Germany in the recently launched war. That cause was lost, but Taylor was more successful in keeping fascist Spain out of the conflict. Taylor stayed through the war and dealt with seeking Vatican help for Jewish refugees and refuge and covert support for American and Allied air crews that had been shot down—after he convinced the Pope the Allies were going to win the war and he no longer could afford to lend tacit support to the Axis. Later he would help convince the Allied high command not to heavily bomb Rome. When Roosevelt died, Taylor stayed on under Truman concentrating on humanitarian post war relief and recovery.
Still, despite the fruitful relationship when Taylor retired Truman tried to nominate General Mark Clark who had commanded the Italian campaign, to be an official emissary. Once again Protestants rose up in protest and Democratic Senator Tom Connally of Texas led a ferocious onslaught in Congress largely because Texans blamed Clark for a division made up of Lone Star National Guard units being terribly mauled in Italy. A humiliated Clark withdrew his name from consideration on in January 1952. He soon found himself employed as United Nations Commander in Korea.
Other Presidents continued need to deal with the Vatican, especially when the Church was seen as the main opposition to Soviet occupation and Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan all appointed personal envoys to the Pope.
Finally in 1983 the Lugar Act repealed the ban on official establishing official diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Lugar was the Republican ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was able to do what Democrats had failed for years to accomplish. The next year in 1984 the Senate confirmed William A. Wilson as the first Ambassador to the Holy See. He had served as Ronald Regan’s personal envoy since 1981.
The Vatican is represented in Washington by an Apostolic Nuncio.
Despite differences over abortion and the continued U.S. use of drones and military action, Pope Frances was unusually warm in his welcome to President Barack Obama on an official visit to the Vatican in 2014.
George W. Bush resented the Vatican’s criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the conservative Republican coalition had become increasingly dependent on the Church’s mobilization of the anti-abortion activists in the US. Barack Obama felt the same sting on the continuing war and international human rights violation, but became the first President to meet the Pope in the Vatican when he had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. In 2014 he had a warmer visit with Pope Francis
In 2015 the United States and the Holy See concluded their first ever inter-governmental agreement which aimed at curtailing offshore tax evasion through automatic exchange of tax information. The highly technical pact was achieved with little fanfare and without heavy Congressional opposition.
The future of official relationships between the United States and the Vatican may once again be at risk, at least as long as Francis is Pope. The right wing is no longer shying away from accusing him and the church of being socialists, even Marxists. Donald Trump and his supporters are in a rage because of Francis’s support of immigrants and comment that “those who build walls instead of bridges cannot call themselves Christian.” American culture warriors feel that Francis and the Church have gone soft on abortion, contraception, same gender marriage, and gay rights in general. Old, long suppressed anti-Catholic rhetoric is boiling up again in elements of the right. With Trump in the White House catering to the most extreme elements of the Evangelical Right Republican repeal of diplomat relations is no longer unimaginable. Especially if Pope Francis wounds the hyper-tender ego of the Cheeto in Charge