Handicapping the US-Vatican handshake

800px-vaticane_mura_1Who is going to represent the United States as ambassador to the Holy See? In a government headed by a President who is favors abortion rights and has opened the door to broader use of embryonic stem cells for research, this question is getting a lot of attention, both from advocacy organizations and from the press.

As AP religion writer Eric Gorski points out in his well-sourced, careful article on the subject, the job of finding the right Vatican representative has not traditionally been highly controversial.

Gorski avoids most of the traps that often seem to bedevil (well, not literally) Vatican-watchers. He doesn’t stir the tea-leaves of mysterious utterances from unnamed Vatican sources. He doesn’t say more than what he can support with a quote. And he lays out the factors that may influence the Obama Vatican pick without predicting which way the President will go — or cueing the ominous music.

His restrained lede summarizes the points he is going to make:

Since the United States and the Vatican established full diplomatic ties in 1984, little attention has been paid to the process and politics of selecting a U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. That’s changing under a new president whose positions have been criticized by several American bishops and conservative Catholics.

The Obama administration’s search to fill the vacant position is anticipated to bring a level of scrutiny unmatched since the very prospect of diplomacy with the Vatican stirred American fears of papal loyalists swearing allegiance to church over country.

While Middle East peace, U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and relations with the Muslim world loom as shared interests for the military superpower and the religious superpower, the politics of abortion hangs over the process.

What I most appreciated about this article was that readers not got some helpful information about the process, but that Gorski went well beyond the usual suspects when it comes to quoting gurus, thus allowing for a lively debate. Did you ever think of the possibility that the next Ambassador might not be a Catholic (although, as the writer points out, all eight appointed since 1984 have been)?

He relies on the Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, for information, instead of going, as did some very respectable British and American media last week, to those unnamed Vatican sources and foreign news stories. Given the choice between the rumored and what he could say with assurance, he went with what he knew — which seems to me to be the course of wisdom. But I’d like to know where he got this delicious tidbit:

Candidates from other countries have proven problematic not over their positions on issues, but their marital or relationship status. In the past two years, the Vatican has rejected a divorced Argentinian Catholic with a live-in partner and an openly gay Frenchman in a relationship.

Dear me.

There follows a quote from … three guesses. Right you are! It’s the Rev. Tom Reese of Georgetown. In this article however, the omnipresent priest is one of a crowd of sometimes dissenting voices. But it’s mostly what Reese was quoted as saying that stopped me short:

“The Vatican has made clear that they don’t look at a person’s position on issues,” said the Rev. Tom Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “The Vatican doesn’t expect countries to send saints and people in total agreement with the Vatican.”

This is truly an amazing statement, and I wonder whether Reese was challenged on it — or asked to explain it. If issues aren’t important, why have all eight former ambassadors opposed abortion rights? A lack of sensibility about “issues” certainly doesn’t seem to be the view of Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, who says that he feels it’s very important to send the Vatican a “pro-life Democrat. By the way, Democrats For Life has some suggestions.

It’s really hard to write stories on hot-button topics that don’t tip the balance of opinion one way or the other, whether it’s through who gets quoted, the use of particular adjectives, or the kicker quote. Gorski’s kicker quote, from Republican former ambassador Thomas Melady is instructive without being particularly opinionated — in keeping with the rest of the article.

Picture of Vatican wall is from Wikimedia Commons

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  • Ed Mechmann

    It is very tiresome that every news story about the Church quotes all the usual suspects Reese, McBrien, Sowell Cahill, Kaveny, Donohue, et al.) saying all the usual things. Yawn. Haven’t reporters ever heard of people like George Weigel, Carl Anderson, Helen Alvare, Robert George?

  • Dave

    This should be approached like any ambassadorial selection by the US for an influential country with whom we have foreign policy interests in common and differences on core issues. It might be more interesting this time around because Obama seems to be very pragmatic about finding common ground and doing the possible. In other words, imho it’s almost not a religion story, but a diplomacy story.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    My guess, although probably going to end up far afield, is that Mr. Obama won’t name a Vatican ambassador.

  • Martha

    Interesting notion about sending a non-Catholic ambassador; I don’t know about the religion of other countries’ ambassadors to the Vatican and should check that out.

    A Catholic ambassador with ‘problematic’ views would be a problem – how do you disentangle the issue of church discipline of an errant member (divorced and co-habiting, etc.) from interference in the internal governance of another nation (position on abortion law)?

  • Peggy

    Obama’s into “finding common ground” and doing “the possible”? I have not seen any compromise from Obama on any moral, cultural, economic or national security issue before him thus far.

  • Jerry

    I have not seen any compromise from Obama on any moral, cultural, economic or national security issue before him thus far.

    Those are available in various news outlets. I’d suggest starting with a google news search Some selected headlines On Interrogation Policies, Another Delicate Compromise From Obama, White House seeks health plan compromise and even on stem cells

    Obama — by allowing science to proceed “while still granting the embryo a special status” — gives something to each side, he says.


    This does point out the issue with the media dealing with people on both ends of the political spectrum who have fixed ideas about what is going on.

  • Jimmy Mac
  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Some articles and comments I have read have questioned the whole idea of worrying about whether the Vatican likes the ambassador the U.S. sends. But as one other commentator observed–How many women have been sent as ambassadors to very strictly Moslem countries???
    And as Ed Mechmann commented–hearing from the old,tired mostly liberal Catholic clergy is getting boring. The official teachers and leaders of the Church (the successors to the apostles in Catholic understanding)) are the bishops–so why don’t we see at least a few more quotes from them???? This is especially noted in all those TV biblical–history religious documentaries where they have plenty of time to pick interviewees for their piece. Virtually all those interviewed are college professors, many of whom have their own personal orthodoxies they are promoting as though they were the whole and only interpretations possible.

  • Peggy


    Who on earth is Obama compromising with? Cardinal George would hardly consider the reversal of Mexico City or the ESCR policy compromise. I don’t think any GOP Congressoids feel they’ve had any meaningful opportunity to offer input to any policy/legislation thus far. I don’t think any conservative group has had an opportunity to weigh in at all, much less have its ideas considered.

    *I’ve seen Obie meet with interest groups, eg, USS Cole families and Vet groups, and say, yeah, I hear your point, but I don’t give a flying leap. He later backed off the VA issue when political opposition, even from his own party was so great. Obama’s flipped the birdie to Card. George as well, I’d say, thus far.

    *On the torture policy, he’s thrown the Bush administration officials, who were largely attempting to act in good faith, I believe, to the wolves. Obie wants to shift policy, that’s his prerogative, but to try officials who implemented a different policy under a prior president is outrageous. While actual interrogators may not be tried, they are now without many useful tools. [I don't mean to be a torture apologist, but I have found it hard to get too worked up about caterpillars and sleep deprivation. But sucking brains out of tiny babies is moral to this man.] No GOP-er is happy at all about this. Obama has flipped them the birdie too.

    *Health plan compromise? I recently read that the GOP Congress members will be bypassed through “reconciliation” procedures between the House and Senate. Flipping the birdie to GOP Congressoids, with help from Harry and Nancy.

    *If Obie is compromising with any group, it is the less radical wing of the Democratic party, which is not that far from his agenda, all in all. The American “right-of-center” politicians and interest groups are left out in the cold.

    This may be why he can’t seem to come up with a reasonably palatable Vatican ambassador. The Church’s view is so out of the realm of reasonable to him. He can’t compromise with the Church. He seems incapable of respecting those who sincerely disagree with his views. He won, you know.

    I echo that it would be nice to ask the bishops about these matters occasionally.

  • Peggy

    Cardinal Rigali not too happy with the ESCR proposed rules:


  • http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld Tom Heneghan

    There’s nothing amazing about Tom Reese’s statement. In principle, the Vatican, like any other sovereign state, doesn’t demand that ambassadors accredited to it agree with it. Many ambassadors there are not Catholic and this is no professional hurdle. But if the ambassador is a Catholic, then the Vatican also expects him or her to at least not openly oppose Church teaching. That makes it very hard to get Vatican approval for a Catholic who openly advocates abortion rights. I haven’t researched the nominations of all past U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican, but the probability that it would frown on a dissident Catholic seems like a probable explanation for the fact they all opposed abortion rights.

    The stories about the rejected Argentinian and French candidates were widely covered when they came out last year — see here and here and here.

  • Elizabeth

    Hello, Tom –

    Thank you for the links to the stories about the French and Argentinian candidates. It’s great to get the perspective of someone who actually lives in Europe.

    Y’ok, Reese’s statment perhaps was not “amazing.” But from what you say, it wasn’t entirely accurate, either. When it comes to abortion, the Vatican does look at a candidate’s position on abortion — if that person is Catholic. Since up until now, at least, the American ambassadors have been Catholic,either the Vatican has been letting the US know who is acceptable, or the US has been choosing only candidates they know are acceptable. When does a personal belief or lifestyle choice (as with the gay French candidate living in a civil union) become an “issue?” Those lines are rather blurry.

  • http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld Tom Heneghan


    Yes, the lines are rather blurry and that suits the Vatican quite well. That gives it the flexibility to act as a sovereign state, a worldwide religion or a combination of the two. The case of Catholic ambassadors is one where the approach is a combination because a personal litmus test may be added to the accreditation process, which is usually purely diplomatic. But there are nuances here too. It’s hard to imagine the Vatican diplomatic corps has never had in its ranks the occasional gay envoy or a Catholic who was less than 100% opposed to abortion rights. The decisive factor here would probably be how public they were about their private choices. If the Vatican were to accredit an openly gay person in a civil union or Catholic pro-abortion rights activist, that would give scandal (“an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it). It would signal the Holy See saw no problem with these choices. But if personal choices are not public, for example if a nominee is gay but not openly so, this need not block accreditation. Each case would be judged individually. The Vatican guards this flexibility by not making clear in public why it rejects some candidates for accreditation. Argentina’s wannabe ambassador, a divorced Catholic man living with new female partner, was not confirmed for so long that Buenos Aires finally withdrew his name and nominated a traditional family man for the post.