CONCLAVE ON AIR FORCE ONE
They knelt side-by-side in Saint Peter's Basilica, a frieze of American presidents past and present, united in a last tribute to Pope John Paul II. The solemn funeral of a pontiff is a landmark in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, but the presence of the three American leaders--George W. Bush; his father, George Herbert Walker Bush; and William Jefferson Clinton--had a historical significance of its own. It was not just that the presidents of the world's most powerful democracy had traveled halfway round the world to honor the head of a global faith that has never specifically recognized democracy as the only acceptable form of government, and a pontiff who in temporal terms was Europe's only remaining absolute ruler. A seismic gap had opened in the surface of relations between the United States and the Vatican. On one side was the historic position of past American presidents whose successive attitudes toward the Roman hierarchy had ranged from keeping their distance to--occasionally--cautious collaboration. On the other side was this recognition by the leadership of the United States that in an increasingly dangerous world the common bonds of Christianity mattered more than the differences of its component parts. And so the cornerstone American principle of the separation of church and state had been momentarily set aside for this symbolic act. Four decades earlier, John F. Kennedy had found himself on Italian soil in June 1963 at the death of a previous pope, John XXIII, and the installation of Paul VI; the president had deliberately delayed his arrival in Rome to avoid any hint of submitting to Rome by being seen at a pope's funeral or a new pope's installation in Saint Peter's Basilica.
"Here's the man who can tell us who's going to be the next pope." Bill Clinton's remark cut through the general conversation in the main cabin of Air Force One, focusing attention on the new arrival, James Nicholson, United States ambassador to the Holy See from 2001 to 2005, and after that secretary for veterans' affairs until October 2007 in the second Bush administration. Nicholson said: "I can't answer that. I don't know. Sorry, I don't have a direct line to the Holy Spirit." Even as he spoke Nicholson realized that his attempt to shrug off Clinton's implied question would not suffice. After spending nearly four years as the Bush administration's eyes and ears in the Vatican he knew he was expected to do better than that. Clinton was not going to let him off the hook that easily. "Come on, Jim," the former president urged the onetime ambassador. "What do you think is going to happen in the conclave?"
Nicholson glanced around him and quickly realized that Clinton was not the only person in the Boeing 747's salon waiting to hear what he had to say. Deployed around the comfortable space at 35,000 feet above the Atlantic were the rulers past and present of the American empire, en route to Rome for the papal funeral. Traveling with President Bush were his wife, Laura; his father, former president George H. W. Bush; and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Clustered behind them was a group of distinguished Americans to complete the exceptionally large delegation going to pay the nation's last respects to the dead pontiff on behalf of the people of the United States. Nicholson, whose time in the papal state had spanned in quick succession the terrorist attack on New York and Washington of September 11, 2001, the pedophile priests scandal, and the start of the Iraq War, recounted how in his most recent reports from Rome on the papal succession the names of some cardinals came and went from the list of papabili--the most likely candidates--while others remained as fixed stars in the firmament. And immovable at the top of the list, Nicholson went on--pausing for dramatic effect--was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, perhaps partly because he was the senior member of the College of Cardinals. Clinton nodded thoughtfully, and then (as Nicholson was to recall later) strolled off to the back of the plane with studied nonchalance to join the traveling White House press corps and shoot the breeze about who was likely to be the next pope.
The flight across the Atlantic is a journey through space and time. There is the fact of traveling from one point to another; and there is the change of time zones, of having to put the human clock backward or forward, depending on the direction of the journey. The leaders, past and present, of the United States were time travelers in another sense too. Their eight-hour flight put some distance between current-day America and two centuries of prejudice and suspicion in the country about the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church. How many of those on board Air Force One grasped the wider meaning--indeed, the magnitude--of their mission? Their journey represented a reversal in historic attitudes toward the papacy that would have been unthinkable for the Founding Fathers. That the president--actually three presidents--would attend a pope's funeral was a mark of John Paul II's global impact, first, but also of his success and that of his predecessors in persuading successive administrations that papal wishes coincided with American strategic interests.
The final link between the two parallel empires of the West was about to be forged in Saint Peter's Basilica, as one "emperor" paid tribute to the other. It was to be hoped that past suspicions of popes trying to subvert American democracy, and nineteenth-century Protestant depictions of Vatican officials as diabolical agents of a foreign power, would now be consigned to the dustbin of history. More than two hundred years of long, tortuous diplomatic negotiations, of promises made and broken, of Protestant and Catholic machinations--that is, a certain type of American Protestant mentality matched against a certain type of Vatican mentality--would fade from the memory. Even the little "pre-conclave" initiated by Clinton at Nicholson's expense fed into this image of a changed world: Nicholson's diplomatic role was accepted as valid and natural. Thirty years earlier, the notion of creating such a role had stirred public protests in America.
Never before had a president of the United States attended the funeral of a pope. On this occasion, the jostling to be there was almost unseemly. Jimmy Carter, who had been the American "emperor" in 1978, the year of Pope John Paul II's election, had also wanted to attend, but was left out because the Vatican, besieged by governments wishing to be represented, had insisted that no official delegation could consist of more than five top members. With Laura Bush and Condoleezza Rice in the official party, Carter would have made a sixth.
As far as the Vatican was concerned, Carter's absence meant less than did the formidable, highest-level American presence. Senior prelates had anticipated a qualitative leap over the usual United States funeral delegation, but this turnout was beyond their expectations. The first hint had come when in the immediate aftermath of the pope's death a senior cardinal in Rome had received a phone call in the middle of the night from an old Washington friend expressing his sorrow and the sorrow of all Americans. The friend was former president George H. W. Bush. But such changes are not sudden, and this one had been maturing for some time, and certainly throughout the long pontificate that had just come to a close. The irony is that had the pope passed away two years earlier amid the flurry of forceful Vatican challenges to the invasion of Iraq, publicly denounced every Sunday by the pope himself from the window of his study overlooking Saint Peter's Square, and with the pedophile priests scandal raging at its most virulent, the American delegation to the funeral most likely would have been less exalted. But as John Paul's life passed very slowly into death, resentment and alienation gave way to compassion, and, for the American leadership, Rome seemed somehow the only place to be.
President George W. Bush had watched in amazement the extraordinary images of a vast, unending river of humanity shuffling patiently forward for a last glimpse of the dead pope lying in state in Saint Peter's Basilica, free of any incidents and apparently unconcerned about any terrorist threat. In the United States, it was wall-to-wall coverage on the television networks, with interview after interview with Americans of every race and creed from among the waiting crowd in Saint Peter's Square. The president's inner circle recognized it as a Christian event--not Catholic or Protestant, but Christian--a welcome phenomenon in a Europe they regarded as a secularist desert.
Hence the kneeling leader, symbol of a fusion back home between Catholic conservatives and the Evangelical churches that had once been mortal enemies. The Economist magazine captured this development when it labeled the U.S. Supreme Court "the papal court." With the appointment of John Roberts as Chief Justice and of Samuel Alito as the newest Associate Justice to replace Sandra Day O'Connor, five out of the nine members of the bench were now Roman Catholics. Yet in 1853, the first Vatican "secret agent" (actually an apostolic--or papal--visitor) sent to the United States to get the measure of the place reported to his superiors in Rome that, surprisingly, the chief justice of the Supreme Court was a Catholic. At the time, however, that fact was a temporary anomaly rather than an indication of any progress made by American Roman Catholics on the long road of their integration--an anomaly bobbing precariously in a sea of prejudice that would cause the pope's visitor, Gaetano Bedini, to have to leave America in a hurry.Chapter 2
THE CARDINAL WHO HUNTED HERETICS
AMERICA IN THE VATICAN ARCHIVES
"Not long ago there arrived from the United States of America an article published in the newspaper The Express in which we read that leading anarchist fugitives from Italy and Europe who have sought refuge there tried to lend credibility to their lies against the Pontifical Nuncio Mons. G. Bedini by naming fifty individuals whom they claim were persecuted, tortured, and finally executed by the Nuncio's orders during the period when he was governor of the four Pontifical Legations (districts) as Special Commissioner. In addition, they listed their ages and the date of their sentencing, hoping this mass of evidence would convince that distant people that the Nuncio was, and is bloodthirsty, cruel, and vindictive, thereby bringing upon him universal disrespect and contempt and paralyzing his mission."
The yellowing page from Vero Amico Supplement Number 12 in the files of the Vatican Secret Archives belongs to an America and a papacy that are no more. But in 1853 it reflected two worlds, one so culturally and geographically distant as to be almost incomprehensible, and the other on the verge of an abyss.
The Vatican state was still recovering from the short-lived revolutionary Republic of Rome. Five years earlier that government had forced Pope Pius IX to flee to Gaeta, until he was restored to power by the combined armies of Austria, France, and Naples. America was an exotic place, and among that "distant people" were political refugees from the brutal suppression that had followed the papal restoration. Even without the additional element of failed Italian revolutionaries, to many Americans the pope was an insidious enemy, feared for his unchecked power and for the papacy's sinister secretiveness. He was someone to be kept at a distance from the paradise of the New World, to avoid contamination with the oppressive practices remembered from the old one. Documents conserved for over two centuries in the Vatican Secret Archives, which make up the cumulative memory of the papacy, tell the story of a religious war not with the Muslim "infidel" but against the protestantici, as the Vatican in those days called the protestanti, the Protestants, many of whom had carried in their baggage to America the residual hate for the Catholic Church that had driven them out of Europe in the first place. This was particularly true of citizens who had sought refuge from religious persecution and from bloody conflicts fought in the name of the Church and of the Protestant Reformation.
The visit to the United States of Monsignor Gaetano Bedini, titular archbishop of Thebes and apostolic nuncio in Rio de Janeiro at the imperial court of Pedro II of Brazil, became a sort of metaphor for the divergences and lack of understanding between the two "Wests" on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The prelate was sent by Pius IX to establish a diplomatic mission in Washington, but the White House and American public opinion, and even some of the American Catholic bishops, saw the prelate's assignment as an assault on the constitutional separation of church and state that would in turn upset the delicate religious balance, jealously protected by the United States as a key element in uniting their young immigrant society. The reports from America in the Vatican Archives resonate with the vehement anti-papist rhetoric of the refugees from the Roman Republic and the German-language newspapers of Lutheran immigrants in America, and provide a taste of what Bedini was up against.
THE BEDINI REPORT
The most complete description of the situation comes from Bedini himself. His report of what degenerated into a nightmare visit is preserved in the Vatican Archives in a light blue folder secured with tape in the Cardinals and Curia Officials files of the Secretariat of State. The thick notebook with its marbleized cover could well have contained a high school assignment; instead its contents are of historical significance. The language is dry and stiffly formal as befits a diplomatic report, but every page betrays the fear and dismay of someone who has come face-to-face with an alien, baffling, and even menacing world. Bedini describes America in the mid-nineteenth century for the benefit of Curia officials. In page after page written in black ink the prelate writes of courteous, respectable middle-class Protestants and a dirty and often malodorous Catholic underclass. He also reports a passionate anti-papist sentiment he had never before experienced.
What jumps out at the reader is that Bedini is observing a world he doesn't understand. "My mission encountered vigorous opposition from refugee revolutionaries from Europe led and incited by an apostate." He does not reveal the identity of the "apostate," but more on him later. Bedini goes on to refer to himself in the third person, expressing relief that he survived every attack. "Answering every calumny with silence, the Nuncio earned more admiration from the Catholics." He spoke of the "Catholic Religion" making "admirable progress" in America.
"The population of the (United States) is about twenty-four million. Two million are Catholics, and of the remaining twenty-two a good seventeen million can be said to have no real religion at all. Therefore, the activists who challenge the two million Catholics are about five million. The seventeen million are almost pagan, or at least indifferent to religion, and are little cause for concern: they do not share the anti-Catholic prejudice of the Protestants."
Possibly to tell his superiors something they would like to hear, he said the Protestant faith was "reduced to nothing . . . a sentiment shared even by those who practice it." Being a Vatican official who had experienced the dangers facing the established order from the new revolutionary fervor in Europe, he quotes a Protestant senator who expresses his fear that the same desire for liberty was spreading in his country, and Bedini states that "the Catholic Religion is the foundation for real authority, and indispensable for any government." He had transferred his own fears to the senator to describe a country that he perceived to be on the brink of anarchy.
Bedini was shocked by the way in America "the vote, public sympathy, indeed, popular whim is everything: there is a willingness to sacrifice any conviction to win an election, or to gain favor with the press. The power of the street is more exigent than the oldest, the most powerful, and even the most tyrannical monarchy. That is the conclusion one reaches in the land of liberty."
Popular whim. Power of the street. It's the language of a member of a ruling class living in the past, a denizen of a system of authoritarian power shaken out of his sheltered life by this sudden encounter with the brash novelty of popular suffrage. In the Old Continent the top echelons of the Church identified with, and generally were drawn from, elite society and identified with the monarchical system. In the United States, on the other hand, the Catholics were "the Irish, who perform the most menial work, live in abject poverty, and retain for the longest time the meanest and sometimes repellant appearance. One cannot help but come to the conclusion that Catholicism is the religion of the poor." The nuncio's disdain was clear, as was his envy for the privileged position and prosperity of American Protestants who had a lock on public sector employment and held the most prestigious and remunerative positions. "Catholicism is not popular," Bedini concluded to the Vatican, "in the sense that it is not attractive to the general public; and in that republic everything depends on public opinion, which means the uninformed majority led by a clever, very active minority who are never, never the most virtuous."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Parallel Empires by Massimo Franco. Copyright © 2009 by Massimo Franco. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.