Crises, Tidings & Revelations

Vatican-Israeli Link: How the U.S. Helped

By Thomas Patrick Melady

Several days before the announcement on December 30, 1993, that the Holy See and the State of Israel would establish diplomatic relations, a friend phoned me from the Vatican to say that this significant even would occur. My wife and I, in Lithuania at that time assisting the Kaunas University of Technology, waited for the final confirming news. When it occurred, we thanked God and celebrated with a bottle of Lithuanian champagne.

Instructions from President Bush

I had worked on the recognition project during my four years as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See from 1989 to 1993. In a most unusual diplomatic procedure, I received instruction to engage in activities designed to promote the establishment of diplomatic relations between the State of Israel and the Vatican.

On July 19, 1989 I appeared before the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations. There was only one important question at the hearing concerning my nomination. Senator Joseph Biden, who presided, brought up the matter of papal diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel. He urged me to give priority to influencing the Holy See to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. I had no doubt that he was reflecting the sentiments of the U.S. Senate.

I had previously been informed that as soon as I was confirmed and sworn in, I would receive official instructions from Secretary of State James Baker to pursue the goal of the Vatican establishing diplomatic links with Israel.

Consequently I had a two-fold command. Both the Secretary of State, the executive to whom I reported, and the Senate that was elected by the American people, and thus represented them, wanted me to concentrate on obtaining a decision by the Holy See to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. As I worked on the assignment, I found out that the relationships of the Holy See with the Holy Land where Jesus was born and lived, Israel and the neighboring areas, had many complicated nuances.

The assignment was not an easy one but I believed in it. I felt for some time before becoming the U.S. Ambassador in 1989 that diplomatic links should exist between Israel and the Vatican. When I departed Rome in March of 1993 after completing my assignment, significant progress toward accomplishing the goal had been made. Needless to say, I was very pleased that later in the year the goal had been achieved.


The long time delay in papal recognition was rooted in the Vatican’s historical position on the former Palestine and on Jerusalem. In the years preceding, during, and following World War II, the Holy See reasoned that either Arab or Jewish domination would be harmful to Christian interests in the area. By 1989, the concerns of the Holy See about Israel also included the technical “state of war” that existed between Israel and all its neighbors except Egypt. This included a serious concern for the rights of the Palestinian people in the Territories occupied by Israel. While the concerns of the Vatican were genuine, the public perception, frequently expressed to me by Jewish and other visitors, was that the Vatican’s demurral on diplomatic relations was rooted in a lingering prejudice against the Jewish people.

I knew that this was not the case. I also knew that the only way to correct the misperception was to accelerate the process that would lead to diplomatic exchange between the Holy See and Israel. Consequently, I worked enthusiastically to carry out my instructions, and in doing so informed visitors to Rome of all religious backgrounds that the Vatican’s position on Israel was a matter of state, not of religion. Catholic-Jewish relations were, in my judgment, fine. Recognition was a question of relations between the governments of Israel and the Holy See.

Madrid Meeting: Visit of Cardinal O’Connor

There was no real movement for a change in the diplomatic status between the two states until the start of the Middle East Conference in Madrid in October 1991. The Holy See was pleased with the conference and its results. Throughout the conference, I briefed Holy See officials on the proceedings. Several weeks later, while President Bush was meeting with the Pope, Secretary James Baker and I were meeting with Cardinal Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, and with Archbishop Tauran, de facto foreign minister. When Secretary Baker brought up the matter of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel, Cardinal Sodano acknowledged that the Madrid conference had established a “new context” — discussions had begun between Israel and neighboring states about resolving conflicts that had been plaguing the Middle East since World War II.

President Bush also found in November 1991 that the pontiff was pleased with the progress of the Middle East peace negotiations. The President expressed to the Pope his wish that these negotiations would lead to a normalization of Israeli-Holy See diplomatic relations.

A few weeks later, in late December 1991 and early January 1992, Cardinal John O’Connor, as President of the Catholic Near East Foundation, visited Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. Cardinal O’Connor on January 8, 1992, met with Pope John Paul II and briefed him on his successful discussions with leaders of the four countries. We were all aware of the fact that Cardinal O’Connor recommended that the Holy See take steps toward establishing diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. I knew that this recommendation of Cardinal O’Connor would be carefully considered by the Pope because of the Cardinal’s influence at the Vatican.

Visit to Israel

By the spring of 1992, I felt that the time was right for me to undertake a giant step forward to accomplish the assignment given to me by the U.S. government: To influence the Holy See to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The new atmosphere favoring change was generated by the post-Gulf War peace activities, the visit of Cardinal O’Connor, and other developments. Accordingly, the U.S. Department of State gave me permission to go to Israel on a “private visit.” My wife, Margaret, and I were able to arrange to be included in an Italian pilgrimage group that left for Israel on April 6, 1992. It turned out to be a very good arrangement because the group’s one-week visit focused on the Arab-Christian community. I met with Arab-Christian leaders and Israeli government officials. By traveling “privately,” I was able to avoid the complicated aspects of an official visit.

My wife and I also visited Yad V’Shem, the Israeli museum that documents the horrors of Hitler’s genocide against the Jews. This reminded us of our 1990 visit to Auschwitz. A full comprehension of the Israeli positions on the Holy Land, Jerusalem, and related matters requires an understanding of the impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish people. I found suspicions on both sides — Christian Arabs and the Jewish community. I returned to Rome convinced that, if there was to be diplomatic recognition, the Holy father would have to take the lead.

The Joint Commission

In early July 1992, I reported to Washington that reliable sources at the Vatican had informed me that talks were underway with Israeli officials on the establishment of a joint commission to study the possibility of full diplomatic ties with Israel. On July 29, 1992, the Holy See announced that a bilateral commission on Holy See-Israel relations had been established as an “official structure in the beginning of a road which should lead to the normalization of relations.” Several months later, on October 23, 1992, Israeli Foreign Minister Peres met with Pope John Paul II.

Letter of President Bush

In mid-December 1992, toward the last few months of my assignment and in the last few weeks of the Bush presidency, I drafted a letter for President Bush in which the central point was a direct appeal by the President to the Pope to establish diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. There was an almost immediate affirmative response from President Bush. In his letter, the President repeated his praise of the bilateral commission for the establishment of diplomatic relations. President Bush urged the Pope to move ahead with the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.

When I departed Rome in March of 1993, I looked at the list of assignments given to me. At that time, the assignment of having the Holy See and the State of Israel establish diplomatic links had not been accomplished. But significant progress had been made.

Within months of my return to the United States, I learned of the increased concern of the Holy See for the outbreaks of anti-Semitism in Western and Eastern Europe. This factor and continued success in Israeli-Arab peace discussions played a decisive role in pushing the bilateral commission to a successful conclusion when, on December 30, the Holy See and the State of Israel announced that they would establish diplomatic relations.

Thomas Patrick Melady, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See from 1989 to 1993, is now distinguished visiting professor at Saint John’s University.

The Official Double Standard

By Robert Spencer

Arsenault, Lee. ACT-UP … mourns the death of our fellow activist…. While courageously fighting his own battle against AIDS, Lee also fought selflessly for all people living with HIV… [H]e joined others in 1989 invading the headquarters of Burroughs Wellcome and shutting down the New York Stock Exchange to protest the high price of AZT…. We share this great loss with Lee’s lover for over 20 years.

—New York Times, Obituaries, June 23, 1991

“I promised my kids I wouldn’t get arrested,” she sighs. “I have to pick them up from school.” The young woman, a doctor’s wife, stands behind a police barricade watching 400 New York City cops arrest 275 anti-abortion activists who are staging a “rescue.”

National Review, April 7, 1989

Lee Arsenault and the doctor’s wife, soldiers in the culture war, represent choices the nation has been called to make in recent years. The chasm between them is that which divides Americans most bitterly today: the kids or the lover, continence or condoms, discipline or indulgence, self or God. As the chasm has grown wider and the battle lines clearer, an activist group has sprung up on each side: the pro-life Operation Rescue and ACT-UP, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. The fortunes of each illumine the road America has taken: ACT-UP has become the radical chic activists group du jour, subject of admiring news articles that wring hands over the possibility that it is a “victim of its own success.” Operation Rescue has just been dealt a serious blow by the Supreme Court, which voted unanimously that it could be prosecuted under RICO, a law designed to catch Mafiosi.

Although they are spiritual and ideological opponents, ACT-UP and Operation Rescue are kin in significant ways. Both began in 1987 in response to life-threatening crises. Both were founded by baby-boomers inspired by the protests of the 1960s. Both contain people who have given their lives to the movement, people whose dedication is so strong that they will risk arrest, bodily harm, and no doubt even death for their cause. Both used sit-ins to maximum effect, trying, according to Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, to produce “the social tensions that bring about political change.” Both have become, despite vastly differing fates, increasingly frustrated: Austin Vaughan, a bishop and rescuer, noted of abortion that “the politicians, as a group, are ignoring the issue”; Larry Kramer, ACT-UP’s founder, could use the same words for a government he has described as “murderously slow” to facilitate AIDS research.

The government may not respond to Kramer’s liking, but others have. Recently ACT-UP leaders have expressed concern over declining membership, resulting, they say, from the perception that the battle has been won. It has, largely, in terms of money and popular acceptance. Foes melt away; lions become lambs. According to the gay newspaper New York Native, in 1989 ACT-UP “invaded” the headquarters of pharmaceutical manufacturer Burroughs-Wellcome to protest the prices charged for the AIDS drug AZT. Once there, activists “chained themselves to office furniture,” the Native said. ACT-UP members later disrupted the New York Stock Exchange to denounce Burroughs-Wellcome. The drug corporation eventually became welcoming indeed, making a joint announcement with ACT-UP in 1992 of a million-dollar donation to the AIDS cause.

All this is ironic in light of the trouble Operation Rescue has had with RICO, the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The Supreme Court’s ruling on January 24, 1994, exposes rescuers to the possibility of prosecution under this law, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, “Prohibits conducting an ‘enterprise’ in a ‘pattern of racketeering activity’; the pattern can be shown by proving two or more of a long list of underlying offenses such as extortion.” RICO, however, has never been aimed at ACT-UP, even though a savvy lawyer might be able to construct a good case of extortion out of the Burroughs-Wellcome affair.

ACT-UP leaders may not fear RICO because they have grown accustomed to sympathetic, lenient courts. ACT-UP and Operation Rescue have often been charged with breaking the same laws: disorderly conduct, criminal trespass, and the like. Both have attempted the defense of necessity: they were trying to save lives. Rescuers have generally been unsuccessful with this defense, but ACT-UP members were acquitted, in a not unusual case, on grounds of “medical necessity” for illegally distributing clean needles to drug addicts. The penalties each group has received, moreover, have also been sharply dissimilar. One notorious example: the sternest sentence given to 111 activists for charges stemming from disrupting the Mass and desecrating the Sacred Host at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in 1989 was 70 hours of community service. Only four of them received even that. Pro-life rescuers brought to court under the same formal charges were given 15-day prison terms by the same judge, JoAnn Ferdinand.

Elsewhere rescuers have been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars and given lengthy jail sentences. In December 1989, federal marshals seized assets of the original Operation Rescue organization because of its failure to pay fines levied — in a surreal example of legal legerdemain — under the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. Not until January 1993 did the Supreme Court rule that new injunctions against rescuers could not be based on the Klan Act. A new organization, Operation Rescue National, was formed soon after the old one was shut down, but continuing legal harassment took its toll: while 1,647 arrests for rescues were made in New York City in May 1988, there were fewer than 100 rescuers in New York during the Democratic convention in July 1992.

Even some politicians have perceived the anomalies in the legal treatment accorded the two groups. While the Senate was considering a bill last November making the blocking of abortion center entrances a federal offense, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) was able to attach an amendment extending the same protection to churches. But this was too much for the gay lobby, which applied pressure resulting in the House’s passage of this “clinic access bill” without the Hatch amendment. The Senate wouldn’t go alone, and the bill was left to another day. Beatrice Dohrn of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund commented: “ACT-UP is not making an organized effort to discourage church-going, while Operation Rescue is making an organized effort to stop women from using abortion clinics.” Whatever the merits of Ms. Dohrn’s argument, her acceptance of the analogy is interesting: I don’t make an “organized effort” to block your house of worship, and you shouldn’t block mine.

1994 will see more battles in the courts and Congress. Things have deteriorated so much that in January 1994, a rescuer told the New York Times that she was arrested for “praying on a grassy public area” in front of an abortion center, without even blocking the entrance. The Supreme Court is expected to consider whether the abortion gods will really demand that praying to the God of Jesus Christ in front of their temples be deemed illegal. Both ACT-UP and Operation Rescue fight on in what they see as mortal struggles. They both show, in different ways, that sex is far from casual; it is indeed a life-and-death matter. Awakening slowly to this fact, the nation has been moved by the suffering of Lee Arsenault and others like him, who have unwittingly and tragically become casualties in the sexual revolution. Christians may pray that the other victims of this tainted revolution, tiny and innocent, will not forever go ignored.

Robert Spencer is a teacher and writer. This article was completed with the research assistance of Michael Mari.

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