Another Flashpoint in the Culture War

Who will be Obama’s ambassador to the Holy See?

Choosing an ambassador to represent the United States at the Holy See is usually a fairly straight-forward process. Since formal diplomatic relations were established in 1984, successive US governments have appointed committed Catholics to the position without any public stir. But for Barack Obama, who is considered the most pro-abortion president in US history, the prospect of finding someone suitable to fill the prestigious diplomatic post has become a hotbed of tensions, and threatens to throw the small embassy in Rome into the center of a culture war.

The nub of the controversy is whether Obama, after making a series of appointments and policy decisions in keeping with his radical anti-life stance, will appoint a Catholic with views similar to his own as the country’s representative to the Vatican.

The sensitivity surrounding this issue came into sharp focus after recent claims made by Italian journalist Massimo Franco. The author of Parallel Empires, a newly published book on relations between the US and the Holy See, Franco asserted in a March 10 article in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera that the Vatican had declined two names put forward by the administration because of their pro-abortion position. By the end of the month, Franco said that number had gone up to three and that the administration could not find a prolife Catholic Democrat to fill the post.

The story was given extra mileage when, on April 2, Carlo Rossella of the Italian magazine Panorama wrote that Caroline Kennedy, a pro-abortion Catholic and ardent supporter of the Obama campaign, was one of the names floated by the administration and then rejected. A heated discussion about the controversy then spread across the blogosphere, and continued even after the stories had been officially denied by the Vatican and the White House.

One high-level diplomatic source within the Vatican insisted to CWR that the reports were a “complete nonstory, a tissue of innuendo,” but he did not rule out the possibility that some US bishops rather than Vatican officials might have expressed reservations about certain candidates to the administration.

For his part, Franco, who used to be a reporter for the Italian Bishops Conference newspaper Avvenire, still stands by his story, and argues that the Vatican will not accept a Catholic candidate if that person is, first and foremost, unacceptable to US bishops.


The Vatican, like any other state, does not impose on another state that an ambassador hold certain views, nor does it generally carry out a vetting process on a candidate’s beliefs or ideas. “If that were the case, I think there’d be very few Catholics who would be eligible,” said one senior Catholic diplomat at the Vatican, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I certainly wouldn’t want such criteria for this job as I’m representing my country, not my faith.” He stressed that, like being a diplomat to any other country, it is a secular not a religious posting and religion “is not meant to be a factor.”

He said that sending an ambassador who was “sympathetic” to the Vatican is “good for relations,” but added that the matter needed to be kept “in perspective.” Being a diplomat accredited to the Holy See, he argued, “is primarily a state-to-state relationship.” He also believed that not to allow ambassadors of widely varying backgrounds and beliefs to represent their countries at the Holy See would be copying the intolerant logic of some secularists who want the Holy See banned from the United Nations.

Although the Vatican, like any state, is free to turn down a candidate, it rarely does so, at least publicly. In the past, it has vetoed candidates, usually on the grounds of their irregular marital or relationship status. In two recent cases, the Vatican turned down a divorced Argentine Catholic with a livein partner and an openly homosexual Frenchman.

The Vatican does ask that ambassadors be “in good standing” with their own religion. So the question is: would a Catholic candidate, known to be publicly and vociferously pro-abortion, be “in good standing”?

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said there are “various interpretations” of what “good standing” means, and that it is “a matter that has to be worked out between an individual and his bishop.” Even if a public figure has been denied Communion by his bishop, she said, that wouldn’t automatically exclude him from the category of good standing. “There is no list of rules to do this or to not do that,” she said.

But for some who have served in the post, the idea of sending anyone with a record of publicly supporting abortion to the post is unthinkable. James Nicholson, the former ambassador to the Holy See under the Bush administration, said the appointment of a pro-abortion Catholic to the post would be “offensive and extremely disrespectful.” It would be “like sending a Holocaust denier to be ambassador to Israel,” he added.

Some believe such a controversy could be sidestepped by breaking with the tradition of the past 25 years and appointing a professional diplomat rather than a political appointee as ambassador. “No one should be under any illusions here,” said papal biographer George Weigel. “This is going to be a very difficult bilateral relationship for the next four years, thanks to the administration’s commitment to the widest possible expansion of an international ‘right to abortion.’”

“Under these circumstances,” Weigel continued, “the sensible thing to do is name a career foreign service officer as ambassador, which in fact the Holy See would welcome, as it would ‘regularize’ the position and get the State Department to take it seriously.” Furthermore, he added, “it would take the embassy out of the culture war between the Catholic Church in America and the Obama administration.”


Some diplomats and commentators in Rome believe appointing not only a professional diplomat but also a non- Catholic ambassador would be the best solution as he or she would attract less suspicion and avoid scandal to the faith.

The dilemma over who should fill the position comes at an already tense time in the president’s relations with the Catholic Church. In his first 100 days, President Obama pushed through or proposed a raft of anti-life policies and appointments, including proposing to rescind conscience rights for physicians, permitting the US government to fund abortions overseas, appointing an aggressively pro-abortion Catholic, Kathleen Sebelius, as the secretary of Health and Human Services, and allowing federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. Tensions have been further aggravated by the decision of the University of Notre Dame to invite President Obama to give a commencement address and receive an honorary degree on May 17.

Nevertheless, many Vatican officials, particularly Europeans in the Curia, see the current administration with more sympathy than they viewed the Bush administration. Vatican officials are said to welcome, for example, Obama’s initial embrace of multilateralism, his readiness to dialogue with traditional enemies of the United States, and his pledge to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

With respect to the administration’s relations with the Holy See, some commentators believe the State Department would be making a mistake if it intentionally weakened the relationship in order to somehow lessen the Church’s voice. Like the Bush administration before it, they say the government stands to gain a great deal from the moral legitimacy that the Holy See can lend to policies it has in common with the US. “They don’t want to be seen dissing the Pope,” said Weigel, “and they’re too smart to try and force someone down the Holy See’s throat.”

Ambassador Nicholson also believes the administration should realize the importance of finding common ground on protecting human dignity in the field of humanitarian aid. “The mission is a great opportunity to make advances in humanitarian causes,” he said. “Great compatibility” exists in areas such as “the conflict in the Middle East, human trafficking, world poverty, disease—AIDS and malaria— and, of course, the whole issue of international terrorism.”

But if relations did deteriorate, it wouldn’t be the first time. Even under the pro-life Bush administration, tensions between the Holy See and the US existed, owing to major differences over the war in Iraq. “A fortiori,” wrote John Allen in his book All the Pope’s Men, Vatican officials “worry about a world in which America is in an unfettered position to impose this set of cultural values on everyone else.”

But these concerns can also serve to underline the importance of effective, formal diplomatic relations. One Vatican source pointed to Britain as an example the Obama administration could model if it wanted to build good relations with the Vatican despite major differences. Three years ago, the UK’s very secular Labour government starved the embassy to the Holy See of resources, believing it to be superfluous to British foreign-policy objectives. But thanks in large part to the dynamism of its staff, the embassy ended up working with the Vatican effectively on policies such as poverty reduction.

In 2007, the British embassy to the Holy See was able to tap into the Vatican’s valuable position as a neutral mediator to resolve a dispute over British navy sailors captured by Iran. And, thanks to these closer bilateral ties, the Pope is likely to accept the UK government’s invitation for Pope Benedict XVI to visit Britain in 2010.

The current US government appears in no rush to appoint a new ambassador and, despite its important diplomatic role, this one is likely to take longer than most. “It’s not a high priority for the Obama administration,” said Ambassador Nicholson. “And it’s a potentially meddlesome problem so they’re avoiding it.”


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About Edward Pentin 0 Articles
Edward Pentin is Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register and has reported on the Holy See and the Catholic Church for numerous publications, including Newsweek, Zenit, The Catholic Herald, and The Holy Land Review.