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The Ups and Downs of

U.S.-Vatican Relations

A Bridge Across the Ocean: The United

States and the Holy See Between the

Two World Wars

Luca Castagna, Washington: The Catho-

lic University of America Press, 2014,

hardcover, $49.95, 193 pages.

Reviewed By John Grondelski

U.S.-Holy See relations have certainly

had their ups and downs. Several Amer-

ican consuls served in the Papal States

during the first half of the 19th century,

but the Senate prohibited funding for

representation there in 1867.

Relations were not finally normal-

ized until 1984. In the interim, there

were only informal contacts or the occa-

sional presidential representatives.

Castagna’s pioneering book treats

bilateral contacts during the 25 years,

roughly, between the beginnings of the

First and Second World Wars—a histori-

cally significant swath of time from the

viewpoint of international, domestic

and ecclesiastical events.

Internationally, the interlude brack-

eted by the two world wars saw the rise

of totalitarianism in Germany, Italy and

Russia. Domestically, America’s rise

to world leadership at the dawn of the

20th century led, first, to neutrality and

then to an activist Wilsonian crusade to

“make the world safe for democracy.”

America recoiled from that in its “return

to normalcy” and, later, experienced the

Great Depression.

Ecclesiastically, the Catholic Church

in the United States had just ceased

being treated as missionary territory but

still remained devoid of policy experi-

ence or political connections in the

public square.

Wilsonian progressivism was also

coupled with a strong nativ-

ist strain: the 28th presi-

dent was as anti-Catholic

as he was anti-black and


Residual anti-Catholi-

cism would color U.S. poli-

tics through the rise of the

second Ku Klux Klan in the

1920s and the Catholic-baiting

of Al Smith in 1928. Catholics

found a place in the political

sun only within FDR’s New Deal


Against this background, Castagna

shows how the Catholic Church, under

Pope Benedict XV, hoped to engage with

the neutral United States to promote

papal peace and arbitration efforts dur-

ing World War I.

The anti-Catholic president, who

had his own visions for world order,

regarded the Church as pro-Central

Powers and, now bereft of territory

following Italian unification, seeking

its temporal interests as a non-State at

the expense of Allied Italy. As active as

the Holy See’s efforts were, they found a

deaf ear in the Wilson White House.

Harding, Coolidge and Hoover,

while doing nothing special to upgrade

bilateral contacts, were at least more

receptive to the Holy See’s concerns.

Herbert Hoover’s election, following a

general campaign filled with anti-Cath-

olic prejudices, left a bitter taste; but

the 1929 Lateran Treaty, establishing

the Vatican City State, ended the

issue of papal territory.

Changes in U.S.-Vatican

relations would await two

new figures in the 1930s.

FDR’s 1932 election, with

heavy Catholic ethnic

support, allowed him to

hawk his New Deal as an

embodiment of Catholic

social teaching. His

growing concerns with

European fascism found

resonance in Eugenio Pacelli, papal

nuncio to Germany and later Vatican

Secretary of State.

Pacelli’s 1936 visit to Hyde Park

paved the way for closer bilateral coop-

eration as war approached and, when

Pacelli became Pope Pius XII in 1939,

provided a personal tie to the White

House. The growing contacts led even-

tually to the unofficial Myron Taylor

mission during the war years.

Castagna weaves diplomatic and

ecclesiastical sources together into this

first book-length treatment of U.S.-Holy

See relations during a critical quarter-

century of world history.

Highly readable

, A Bridge Across

the Ocean

demonstrates how politics,

prejudice and pragmatism all shaped

our contacts with the papacy between

1914 and 1939.


John M. Grondelski is an FSO who has

served in Shanghai, Bern, Warsaw, London

and in Washington, D.C., on the Russia


Wilsonian progressivism was also coupled with a strong

nativist strain: the 28th president was as anti-Catholic

as he was anti-black and anti-immigrant.