Apostolic Delegation in the U.S.

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Although the Holy See prefers to be represented in most countries by an apostolic nuncio (accredited to the civil government as well as to the episcopate) rather than by an apostolic delegate (having only an internal or religious and not also an external or political mission), an apostolic delegation was established in the United States because a nunciature was found to be impossible.

Preliminary steps. In 1853, five years after Pius IX had received an American minister in Rome, he sent Gaetano bedini, titular archbishop of Thebes and apostolic nuncio to Brazil, to the United States in the hope of preparing the way for a nuncio in Washington and of solving certain purely ecclesiastical problems. When John Hughes, archbishop of New York, addressed an inquiry to a Catholic in the Cabinet, James Campbell, postmaster general, the reply stated that President Franklin Pierce would receive a chargé or minister but only as the pope's political representative, and would prefer a layman. The U.S. government, under pressure from nativists and European exiles, did not deem it opportune to increase its diplomatic relations with the reactionary Papal States (see nativism, american). Nevertheless, Bedini's July 12, 1854, report advised the Holy See to establish a nunciature in Washington at once in order to effect complete unity among the U.S. bishops, to ensure uniformity of discipline, to safeguard the Church's interests in the newly acquired lands of Texas and New Mexico, and to provide a substitute for the primate desired by the First Plenary Council of Baltimore (1852). The U.S. bishops, however, feared that if diplomatic representatives were exchanged mutually, the government might meddle in spiritual affairs and that know-nothingism might assail the Church even more violently. In view of the riots and demonstrations staged against Bedini in Cincinnati, Ohio; Wheeling, W.Va.; and elsewhere, and of the government's failure to accord him the promised protection, the Holy See wisely declined to risk the possibly disastrous consequences involved in any such unilateral action as Bedini recommended. If the U.S. government refused to receive a nuncio who would be an ecclesiastic at this time, it would be even less likely to agree to such a proposal after it ceased, in 1868, to maintain its own minister in Rome and after the pope ceased in 1870 to be de facto a temporal sovereign. Overtures were still made occasionally and secretly, however, on the part of the Holy See; for example, a minor Roman prelate, Paolo Mori, on a visit to the United States in 1886, tried to persuade the government to accredit an envoy to the Holy See, and the bishop of Fort Wayne, Ind., Joseph Dwenger, apparently used his insufficient influence both in Rome and in Washington to have himself appointed first nuncio or delegate.

Apostolic visitators and temporary delegates. In the course of the 19th century, several ecclesiastics were commissioned by the Holy See to act as apostolic visitators or delegates to the United States for specific purposes. In 1820 Joseph Octave Plessis, bishop of Quebec, Canada, at the request of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (the Propaganda), investigated the troubles caused by obstreperous trustees in New York. In 1852, 1866, and 1884 the successive archbishops of Baltimore, Francis Patrick Kenrick, Martin John Spalding, and James gibbons, were appointed apostolic delegates by the Holy See to preside over the First, Second, and Third Plenary Councils of Baltimore, respectively. From time to time, moreover, foreign churchmen were sent to the United States to handle particular cases.

Petitions and recommendations for a permanent delegation. Petitions for an apostolic delegate were sent to Rome mainly by priests who looked to the Holy See for support in their quarrels with their bishops. Thus around 1819, Robert Browne, OSA, who had resisted the legitimate authority of the archbishop of Baltimore, Ambrose Maréchal (and his two predecessors), in his undated report to the Propaganda concerning the Church in the United States, requested the establishment of an apostolic delegation in Washington for the purpose of settling the controversies existing in many U.S. dioceses. Similarly, in 1883 Rev. William Mahoney in a 385-page book entitled Jura Sacerdotum Vindicata. The Rights of the Clergy Vindicated; or, A Plea for Canon Law in the United States, which he published anonymously in New York, asserted with moderation and respect that the necessary remedy for the widespread abuse and "monstrous evil" "of priests being uncanonically dismissed from their dioceses and thrown helplessly on the world, to the infinite degradation of the sacerdotal character and to the great scandal of the faithful" was the appointment by the Holy See of an apostolic delegate who would enforce a just and uniform discipline and insist on the observance of the then unheeded laws. Furthermore, Rev. Edward mcglynn, who had been suspended in 1886 by Michael Corrigan, Archbishop of New York, for supporting Henry George and had been excommunicated for not obeying a summons to Rome, publicly welcomed and vaunted the report of the Holy See's endeavors to send a representative to Washington.

Advice of a similar nature was first offered to the Holy See in 1817, when Jean Lefebvre de Cheverus, bishop of Boston, suggested to the Propaganda that Archbishop Maréchal be appointed apostolic delegate for the United States with power to settle in the first instance all conflicts between the lay trustees and the bishops.

After the First Plenary Council of Baltimore, Rev. Thomas Heyden, of Bedford, Pa., wrote to the Propaganda (Nov. 12, 1852): "What we need is not more bishops and more councils but an apostolic nuncio so that we may speak more often with the Holy Father." In 1857 the Propaganda asked Pius IX to appoint an apostolic delegate to the United States without diplomatic character in order to promote uniformity in the petitions presented to the Holy See and to provide a source of information; the cardinals of the congregation proposed to give the office to a resident American, Archbishop Kenrick of Baltimore, who was practically serving in that capacity already. But the pope feared that the appointment would revive the desire for an American primate and preferred to choose a non-American. In the end nothing was done during his pontificate.

In 1878 George Conroy, bishop of Ardagh, Ireland, and temporary apostolic delegate to Canada, after visiting the United States, expressed the opinion that a delegate should be appointed for that country too, but only for a time, according to need; and not with residence in Washington, where he might be slighted by the U.S. government and the foreign diplomatic corps, but rather in New York. In the same year Francis X. Weninger, the famous Jesuit missionary among the German immigrants, urged the Propaganda to appoint a permanent delegate, "a solid and moderate Italian," not an Irishmanin view of the serious disorders in the U.S. Church and of the caprice with which so many bishops treated their clergy.

Reasons for and against a delegation. In the last quarter of the 19th century, more and more priests turned to the Holy See for the redress of their real or imagined grievances against their ecclesiastical superiors. On the whole, both bishops and priests were extremely ignorant of canon law and, consequently they were unaware of their respective and reciprocal rights and duties. Most of the dioceses lacked a regularly organized tribunal or court, or even a regularly appointed quasi-judicial counsel; hence, the cases were not properly handled in the first instance, and this lack of a proper trial often made it difficult in Rome to evaluate the conflicting testimony and to render a definitive judgment. In a considerable number of cases, the Holy See gave a decision favorable to the priest, because the bishop had failed to furnish the requisite evidence. Some bishops maintained that they were not bound by various provisions of the general law of the Church because of the missionary status of this country. Some priests, acting in good faith, availed themselves of Roman justice and impartiality in order to protect themselves against the arbitrary dispositions of their bishops; others, acting in bad faith, took advantage of Roman leniency and slowness in order to evade due punishment and to prolong their refractory conduct. The Holy See believed that a delegate with his auditor could hear such appeals much nearer the scene of the disagreement, weigh the arguments on either side more judiciously, and pronounce a verdict more promptly.

Another reason for establishing an apostolic delegation was the Holy See's desire to bring the U.S. episcopate into closer union and greater concord with itself. Roman officials had the impression that the Americans were jealous and distrustful of them, were eager to remain as independent as possible in administrative affairs, and were suspicious of a highly centralized government of the Church. The proximate reason, however, was the need to restore harmony among the American bishops themselves. In the last two decades of the 19th century, they were divided on several vital issues: on the rights of national groups, especially of the German Americans; on the founding, location, and support of The Catholic University of America; on the toleration of secret societies that were essentially benevolent associations; and most of all, on the question of parochial or public schools. Only a disinterested observer on the scene could ascertain which of the contrary views were objectively based on fact.

All the bishops, however, with the single exception of John ireland, archbishop of St. Paul, who expected a delegate to sustain his singular position in the school controversy, were as united in their rejection of the proposal of establishing an apostolic delegation in the United States as their predecessors had been in regard to a nunciature. Probably the chief motive for their opposition was the fear that the presence of a delegate (or nuncio) would limit the power and diminish the dignity of the individual bishops and decrease the esteem with which the faithful regarded them. The bishops resented the prospect of having their actions reported to Rome; moreover, they had been annoyed by minor Roman prelates who had visited the United States from time to time without any particular mission but had conducted themselves in an imprudent and officious manner, especially by commenting for the newspapers on problems they did not understand. Not unnaturally, the bishops dreaded the thought of their coming to this country a stranger who would immediately be besieged by a crowd of malcontents and would be unable to appreciate the circumstances or implications of the cases laid before him. They believed that the appointment of a delegate would harm their precarious relations with non-Catholics by confirming their enemies' allegation that the Catholic Church was a foreign religion and paid homage to a foreign power; that it would arouse latent prejudices; and, especially in the 1890s, would pour fuel on the flames of bigotry being fanned by the American Protective Association (APA). In the political sphere, the sending of a delegate, they felt, would embarrass the Democratic party, to which a majority of the Catholics belonged, and thus would help the Republicans. They knew that there was no apostolic delegate in the United Kingdom and perceived no greater need of one in the United States; in fact, there were only seven apostolic delegates in the whole world at that time, and all of them were in predominantly Orthodox or Muslim countries. Hence, the American bishops, individually and collectively, repeatedly endeavored, up to the last minute, to dissuade the pope and his officials from sending a delegate to this country.

As an alternative, many of the American bishops favored the proposal of engaging an American prelate who would reside in Rome and represent them before the Holy See. Such an agent, they believed, could wield more influence on behalf of the U.S. Church than any individual bishop in his own diocese; moreover, he could supply authentic information on American problems and prevent inept legislation. The Roman officials, however, thought that the American bishops envisioned a plenipotentiary such as no other national episcopate had and desired to tie Rome's hands. Hence, when in 1882, Gibbons in his own name and in that of other bishops requested of the Propaganda that an American prelate be established in Rome, no affirmative response was given. Then, after Denis J. o'connell was named rector of the American College in Rome in 1885, he was employed by the bishops who trusted him as an intermediary with the Holy See, but he never received an official appointment from the American episcopate as a whole or any official recognition from the Holy See, even though Gibbons formally asked Leo XIII to appoint him a counselor of the Propaganda. The greatest concession that the American bishops would willingly have made was that one of their own number be appointed delegate, although they could not easily have agreed on the choice of the individual; if the appointee were an American, said Gibbons, the principal objection would be removed. The Holy See, nevertheless, thought that only an Italian could be impartial among the rival national factions in the American Church.

Establishment of the delegation. At last Leo XIII decided to overrule the objections of the American hierarchy. He found a convenient occasion for sending the future delegate when the Holy See was invited by the U.S. government to lend some 15th-century maps from the Vatican Library for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The pope not only complied with this request but also appointed a personal representative to bring the historic materials for the exhibit. This was Francesco satolli, titular archbishop of Lepanto, who also had been ablegate at the celebrations for the centennial of the American hierarchy and the opening of The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., in November of 1889, and who had afterward told the pope that more direct means of communication between the Holy See and the U.S. Church were desirable. He arrived in New York on Oct. 12, 1892 and in the following month announced to the archbishops assembled in that city the pope's desire to establish with their concurrence a permanent apostolic delegation in the United States. All the archbishops but Ireland were unwilling to give their consent because of the "serious difficulties connected with the subject." Throughout that autumn, Satolli was not only attacked mendaciously in the APA press but also treated disrespectfully in certain Catholic quarters. On Jan. 3, 1893, Gibbons in the name of the archbishops signed a letter to Leo XIII in which he declared that a permanent delegate "would not serve the best interests of the Church." In the next few days many U.S. newspapers carried false reports about the ablegate's mission and sensational stories of ecclesiastical intrigue and conspiracy, and the journalists were abetted in creating this confusion by deplorable breaches of confidence among the bishops themselves. Satolli believed that the Jesuits also opposed him because of his approval of Ireland's plan for elementary education (see faribault plan).

On January 10, in the midst of all this discord, the pope ordered the establishment of the delegation and appointed Satolli first delegate; the official documents were dated a fortnight later. On January 21 the prefect of the Propaganda, cardinal Miecislaus Ledochowski, informed the bishops in a circular letter that the decision was made both because it was customary to provide a delegate for countries in which the Church had reached a certain stage of maturity and because the peculiar situation in the United States required special attention. In the instructions drawn up for Satolli, the chief purpose of the delegation was said to be the fostering of a more intimate union of the American bishops among themselves and with the Holy See. He was also directed to see to the organization of episcopal courts and the due observances of juridical procedure in the various dioceses, to settle disputes between bishops and priests in the second or third instance without the right of further appeal, to study the reasons for the existence of so many "tramp-priests" in the United States, to induce the bishops to adopt uniform regulations regarding schools, and to gather information on episcopal candidates.

Confronted with this fait accompli, the American bishops for the most part acquiesced to the pope's will; some even wrote letters of thanks to the pope for the great joy and immense benefit just conferred on the U.S. Church. James Ryan, bishop of Alton, Ill., however, sent three cablegrams of vehement protest to Cardinal Ledochowski, who in reply sternly rebuked him for his "irreverence" toward the pope and demanded "condign satisfaction" under threat of canonical penalties; the bishop made adequate amends but did not change his mind. Gradually the bishops reconciled themselves to the presence of the delegate in the United States. Nevertheless, in the following year John Lancaster Spalding, bishop of Peoria, Ill., published an article entitled "Catholicism and Apaism" in the North American Review [159 (September 1894) 278287], in which he asserted that the delegate was "a source of strength to the Apaists," because this so-called "American Pope though a foreigner, with no intention of becoming a citizen, ignorant alike of our language and our traditions, was supposed to have supreme authority in the church in America." Thereupon Satolli not only reprimanded Spalding directly but also reported him to Rome, and Leo XIII ordered the cardinal prefect to remonstrate with him for his hostile attitude toward the apostolic delegation.

In the apostolic letter Longinqua oceani of Jan. 6, 1895, Leo XIII averred that the apostolic delegation fittingly crowned the work of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, denied that the powers conferred on the delegate would be an obstacle to the authority of the bishops, and asserted that the ultimate aim of the delegation was to strengthen and perfect the constitution of the Church in the United States.


In addition to the functions mentioned in Satolli's original instructions, he and his successors have discharged all the usual duties of an apostolic delegate, including the furnishing of advice to the Holy See on the division of existing dioceses and the erection of new ones, the oversight of religious orders, and the granting of dispensations, and they have exercised certain special powers (faculties) bestowed on them by the pope. They have also consecrated many bishops of American birth and for American sees. Until 1908 the successive delegates were dependent upon the Propaganda; since that year they have been dependent upon the Consistorial Congregation, but have dealt directly with all the proper organs of the Roman Curia; at all times they have remained in close contact with the papal secretariate of state. As the representative of the Consistorial Congregation, the delegate is the ordinary of the Pontifical College Josephinum at Worthington (near Columbus), Ohio, and he assigns its students to the various dioceses at the request of the bishops. The first delegate was assisted by one auditor and one secretary, both Italians; in 1964 the delegate had a staff of five Italian and three American priests.

Satolli was ordered to fix his residence in the national capital. At first he resided at The Catholic University of America, and then on Nov. 16, 1893, he moved to a house in northwest Washington, which had been purchased with money collected by the American bishops and priests. In 1906 and 1907 a new building was erected for the delegation, again through the generosity of U.S. Catholics. The next home of the delegation, a stately edifice on Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., was paid for with similar contributions and was occupied in the spring of 1939.

List of delegates. By 1984 ten ecclesiastics had served as apostolic delegates to the United States. All titular archbishops during their term of office, the first eight were created cardinals at the end of it, and were appointed to various offices in the Roman Curia. Thus the delegation is practically equivalent to a first-class nunciature in the Vatican diplomatic service. From the date of their elevation to the Sacred College until their departure the incumbents are called pro-delegates. The ten delegates included: Francesco Satolli, delegate from 1893 to 1896; Sebastiano Martinelli, OSA, delegate from 1896 to 1902; Diomede Falconio, OFM, delegate from 1902 to 1911, who had been ordained in the United States in 1866, had been rector of the seminary of Allegany, N.Y., and had been naturalized as a citizen; Giovanni Bonzano, delegate from 1911 to 1922, who returned as papal legate to the International Eucharistic Congress held in Chicago in 1926; Pietro Fumasoni-Biondi, delegate from 1922 to 1933; Amleto Cicognani, delegate from 1933 to 1958, who returned as papal legate to the Inter-American Congress of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine held in Dallas in 1961; Egidio Vagnozzi, delegate from 1958 to 1967, who was secretary and then auditor of the delegation from 1932 to 1942; Luigi Raimondi, delegate from 1967 to 1973; Jean Jadot, delegate from 1973 to 1980; and Pio Laghi, delegate from 1980 to 1984. Several of the other auditors and secretaries eventually became cardinals, e.g., Donato Sbarretti, Francesco Marchetti-Selvaggiani, and Paolo Marella.

Archbishop Pio Laghi was the last to serve as apostolic delegate. In 1984, when the United States established formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See, he was appointed pro-nuncio, and the apostolic delegation headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. became the apostolic nunciature.

Bibliography: j. t. ellis, Life of James Cardinal Gibbons: Archbishop of Baltimore, 18341921, 2 v. (Milwaukee, Wisc. 1952). w. j. lallou, The Fifty Years of the Apostolic Delegation, Washington, D.C. (Paterson 1943); "The Apostolic Delegation at Washington," American Ecclesiastical Revue 65 (1921) 447462; rev. ibid. 95 (1936) 576592. t. t. mcavoy, The Great Crisis in American Catholic History, 18951900 (Chicago, Ill. 1957). f. j. zwierlein, The Life and Letters of Bishop McQuaid, 3 v. (Rochester, N.Y. 192527).

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