U.S. to Downscale Its Vatican Embassy, Raising Concern Among Catholics—Including Five Former Ambassadors

U.S. to Downscale Its Vatican Embassy, Raising Concern Among Catholics—Including Five Former Ambassadors November 23, 2013

The United States is scaling back its diplomatic mission at the Vatican—making plans to close its Vatican Embassy headquarters, and instead conduct its operations in a smaller building within the walls of the U.S. Embassy to Italy.

The Obama Administration cites “security concerns” following the attack in Benghazi, and claims that they can better protect embassy staff in a consolidated compound.  According to government authorities, once construction is completed in 2015, the Vatican Embassy will have a separate entrance and it will be apparent that it is a completely separate operation.

But many Catholics—among them five former U.S. Ambassadors to the Holy See—strongly disagree, calling the plan a “massive downgrade” in U.S./Vatican relations.

Former U.S. Ambassador James Nicholson, who served as Secretary of Veterans Affairs under George W. Bush and as chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, “It’s turning this embassy into a stepchild of the embassy to Italy.”  Speaking to National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen, Ambassador Nicholson said:

“The Holy See is a pivot point for international affairs and a major listening post for the United States, and to shoehorn [the U.S. delegation] into an office annex inside another embassy is an insult to American Catholics and to the Vatican.”

Ambassador Francis X. Rooney, author of The Global Vatican who served as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican from 2005 to 2008, agrees.   “In the diplomatic world,” Rooney said, “ if you don’t have your own separate space, you’re on the road to nowhere.”

Ambassador Ray Flynn, former Boston mayor and Ambassador from 1993-1997, concurred.  Flynn called the relocation “shortsighted” and told the National Catholic Reporter,

“It’s not just those who bomb churches and kill Catholics in the Middle East who are our antagonists, but it’s also those who restrict our religious freedoms and want to close down our embassy to the Holy See.”

Ambassador Flynn saw the move as illustrative of the Obama Administration’s broader secular hostility to religious groups, the Catholic church in particular.

Former Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, who is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard and who held the Ambassadorship in 2008-2009, noted that both the U.S. and the Vatican are global actors, and their spheres of influence are worldwide.  She insisted that the importance of America’s relationship with the Vatican merits its own location and profile.

Ambassador Thomas Patrick Melady, who served in the role from 1989-1993, told NCR that regardless of the “official” reason for the change, no matter how the Administration seeks to justify the move, it will be perceived in diplomatic circles as scaling back.

Only the two Vatican Ambassadors who were appointees of President Obama—Miguel Diaz and current U.S. Ambassador Ken Hackett—support the Obama Administration’s plan.  Hackett has said that he sees no diminishing in the importance of the U.S.’s relationship with the Vatican, and adds that the two governments have enjoyed a better relationship now, during Pope Francis’ papacy, than they have in quite a while.  And Ambassador Miguel Diaz (2009-2012) defended the company line, insisting that the security issue was a serious matter and that the move would better enable the government to ensure the safety of U.S. diplomatic personnel.  He added that the move would promote collaboration among the three American embassies in Rome, which he saw as advantageous.


First to address the “opportunity for collaboration” cited by Miguel Diaz:  Imagine, if you will, that the nations of Western Europe came together in a single embassy in Germany.  France, Portugal and Denmark all closed their embassies, in order to better “collaborate” with one another.

Would that serve the interests of each individual country? 

Of course not.  Each of the European nations is unique, and each enjoys a unique relationship with the United States.  Each diplomatic relationship faces unique challenges.  It would be absurd to imagine that bringing them together into a single space would achieve positive diplomatic results.

Likewise, the U.S. embassy in Rome and the embassy to the Holy See are unique—in fact, more unique because of the unusual nature of the two governments, that of Italy and that of the Vatican City-State.  Perhaps the U.S. government imagines that Vatican-City, occupying only 109 acres, is a “mini-state” not warranting a full ambassadorial relationship.  In fact, though, the Catholic Church, with 1.2 billion adherents around the world, is a resounding leader in establishing social policy world-wide, not only within its walls.

Perhaps I’m a little sensitive.

The Obama Administration has repeatedly picked fights with the Catholic Church, most notably on religious liberty issues, as well as on abortion and other life issues and same-sex marriage.  I worry that the President’s disdain for Catholic social teaching may affect his willingness to interact on matters of mutual concern.  But I’m just not buying that this is not a radical “downgrade” in U.S. interaction with the Holy See.

The United States and the Holy See did not enjoy a full diplomatic relationship until January 1984.  Before that, due in part to anti-Catholicism in the U.S., this country did not recognize the Vatican City-State as a nation.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Postmaster General James Farley was the first high ranking government official to normalize relations with the Holy See.  In 1933, Farley had an audience with Pope Pius XI and dinner with Cardinal Pacelli, who would succeed to the papacy in 1939.  Between 1939 and 1951, the U.S. had no ambassador but sent an emissary to discuss matters of mutual concern.  Then from 1951 through 1968, the U.S. had no relations with the Vatican.

Presidents Nixon and Carter appointed “personal representatives” to interact with the Holy See in the late ‘60s and ‘70s.  Then finally, on January 10, 1984, the United States recognized the Holy See as an independent legislative body, and established the Vatican Embassy.

There exists a real risk that that long overdue relationship may continue to decline during the Obama Administration.  In 2009, the ambassador position was vacant for an extended period, reflecting U.S./Vatican tensions over abortion and marriage.  During the months that the position was open, Caroline Kennedy and Douglas Kmiec were proposed; but both were ultimately rejected because of differences regarding these important issues.

The seat was vacant again from November 2012 through mid-2013, after Ambassador Miguel Diaz left the office to teach at the University of Dayton.

The current rollback portends a weakening of U.S./Vatican relations.  The move signals to the Church, to this nation’s 78.2 million self-identified Catholics, and to the world that the United States is too busy with other things to bother protecting its embassy in the smallest but arguably the most influential nation in the world.


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  • Dan Li

    Typo alert: “78.2 billion” ought to be 78.2 million at most.

    • kathyschiffer

      Thanks, Dan. I fixed that.

  • moseynon

    If the proposed move involves a downgrading of the US mission to the Vatican, then it is a serious concern.

    According to an article in the National Catholic Reporter, the proposed new site would be in a building separate from the US embassy to Italy. The proposed new location would have a separate address, be entered from a different street, and have separate signage.

    Offhand, it seems as if the two embassies would simply be sharing the same security arrangements in a shared compound.But I don’t know how this would be perceived in diplomatic circles.

    • AtticusinPa

      A thoughtful response. Thank you.

  • Don Schenk

    After the HHS mandate, is there any doubt that Obama is anti-Catholic?

    • Alan Sides

      And diplomacy hasn’t changed anything about that.

    • mollysdad

      What would JFK have saud had he been told that his successor in fifty years’s time would be a Muslim Brotherhood jack-in-the-box?

  • John

    Something similar happened a few years ago, when the Embassy to the Holy See for the UK citing securaity concerns…..The UK Embassy to the Holy See is co-located with the UK Embassy to the
    Republic of Italy at Via XX Settembre in Rome. This follows the closing
    of the UK’s Embassy to the Holy See’s rented building in 2006 which led
    to protests from the Vatican “that senior Holy See officials cannot be
    expected to go to Villa Wolkonsky”, the UK Embassy to the Italian Republic.[10]

  • Alan Sides

    I don’t see any reason to read so much into it. Its an NCR article. How credible can it be?

    • JoFro

      When NCR publishes articles that don’t discuss theological issues, they’re quite enlightening to be quite honest!

      • Alan Sides

        What I don’t get is why otherwise faithful Catholics lend any credibility to the dissident NCR by even reading it, let alone referencing it in main stream Catholic journalism.

        Don’t they care that they may potentially scandalize the faithful but participating in the NCR scandal?

        Especially when (and you may not have been aware but I’m sure Kathy is) it has be denounced by its Bishops for decades:

        In 1968, NCR’s ordinary, Bishop Charles Herman Helmsing “issue[d] a public reprimand for their policy of crusading against the Church’s teachings,” condemning its “poisonous character” and “disregard and denial of the most sacred values of our Catholic faith.”[11] Helmsing warned that NCR’s writers were likely guilty of heresy, had likely incurred latae sententiae excommunications, and because the publication “does not reflect the teaching of the Church, but on the contrary, has openly and deliberately opposed this teaching,” he “ask[ed] the editors in all honesty to drop the term ‘Catholic’ from their masthead,” because “[b]y retaining it they deceive their Catholic readers and do a great disservice to ecumenism by being responsible for the false irenicism of watering down Catholic teachings.”[11][12]

        NCR refused to comply with its ordinary, and 66 Catholic journalists signed a statement disagreeing with the condemnation based on its “underlying definition of the legitimate boundaries of religious journalism in service to the church.”[13] The Catholic Press Association reported that the dispute arose from a difference of opinion regarding the function of the press.”

        In 2013 Bishop Robert Finn wrote a public letter on the NCR recalling that Bishop Helmsing had asked the publisher “to remove the name ‘Catholic’ from their title — to no avail. From my perspective, NCR’s positions against authentic Church teaching and leadership have not changed trajectory in the intervening decades.” He relayed that early in his tenure the paper refused to “submit their bona fides as a Catholic media outlet in accord with the expectations of Church law” and held that they were an “‘independent newspaper which commented on “things Catholic.”‘” In January 2013, The paper responded denying the implication that there was a decades long animosity between the bishopric and themselves, especially noting that “Bishop John Sullivan and Bishop Raymond Boland — had cordial relations with NCR.” They pointed out that NCR is a member of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada whose honorary president is Bishop John Wester who also serves as the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference as its chairman of the Committee of Communications. NCR’s response closed by recalling that they had published an article calling on Finn to resign or be removed from his position “After a local judge found Finn guilty last year of failing to report suspected child abuse involving a local priest”.[14]

  • Peter

    How could any sentient human being not know that Mr. Obama and his administration are enemies of the Church? Who cares? What I don’t understand is why any Catholic official (University of Notre Dame, Al Smith Dinner, et.al.) let him on the premises. Just to give him a photo op at their expense? Duh…. Get the picture, Cap’n, HE HATES YOUR GUTS! Quit being his patsy.

    • George Munkachy

      Peter, you are right on the money.

  • Edward17


  • GoodForm

    This is also probably payback for Pope Francis not supporting O’Bama’s desires to attach Syria.

  • Rob

    I’d like to hear a Church historian give an account and thoughts on it within the context of the siege of the Vatican in 1870 and the Lateran Treaty of 1929. (I’m not a Church historian) Is it an off-hand way of saying or hiding a belief that the Vatican should cease to exist and its citizens be subject to the laws of the Republic of Italy? I don’t know if and to what extent they already are subject to the laws of Italy.

  • AnneG

    Just a couple of comments for consideration. Yes, the Obama Administration is anti-Catholic and anti-Christian. But, the mission to the Vatican is small. Most of the support services are provided by the bilateral mission like security, admin, stuff employees need. The site of the bilateral mission is pretty large and there are THREE US AMBASSADORS in Rome.
    I don’t normally ascribe practical common sense reasoning to this administration, but these might be some of the issues.

  • Mack

    Peter, you see very well the sullen resentment with which the current regime regards Catholicism. I regret that our bishops don’t.

  • FM

    This is what happens when 50% of our Catholic brethern vote for a God-less commie as president.

  • Jessie

    If you’re going to critique someone, it adds to your credibility to use the actual name of the person you’re critiquing. MIGUEL Diaz served as the US Ambassador from 2009-2012, regardless of how well or poorly you believe he did in his position.

    • kathyschiffer

      Thank you, Jessie. I had typed it correctly at the end of the article, but you’re right: In my haste, I had misspelled his name early in the article. I’ve fixed that. Now perhaps you will consider what I’ve said instead of focusing on my typing.

      • AtticusinPa

        Why? If you don’t care about accuracy, why should we care about what you say? Sheeesh. The inaccuracies in this “article” are astounding and quite sad.

  • Old Timey

    Obama will close the Vatican embassy, demote the Vatican ambassador to an assistant charge d’affairs reporting to the American ambassador to Italy and break diplomatic relations on “separation of church and state” grounds. If so, then why doesn’t he close the US embassies in Israel, or Saudi Arabia? Both states are theocratically oriented (the religion defines the state, Jewish and Muslim). Hmmmmm?
    OTOH, it was a good run while it lasted. Anti-Catholism is on the march. Back to the Future.

  • In light of the Obama Administrations plans to “Downscale” the Vatican’s Embassy, in protest, I will be flying my flag of our Vatican City outside of my home, to show this Administration that the “Holy See” what he is doing.

    Please join me by doing the same and praying for this nation.
    The “Holy See” Obama

  • Gregory Peterson

    All, the unlovely smell of aggrieved entitlement.

    The plan is apparently to move the embassy to a more secure building “co-located” with other American embassy buildings in the area. The building is already owned and so there will be no lease. As a separate embassy building, it would seem to meet the Vatican’s specification of separate embassies (which frankly, seems something of an expensive conceit…but “expensive conceit” sometimes seems to be a different name for diplomacy). Nothing else changes. A couple of other nations seem to have “co-located” embassies in Rome, probably for similar reasons: better security and cost savings. You’re against sensible steps for better embassy security?

    From a State Department website press conference:

    … Over the course of a number of years, we’ve been doing analysis, and
    there is a – there was purchased a few years ago land to expand an
    existing U.S. Government compound in Rome. And so the plan is to have
    the U.S. Mission to the Holy See relocate to a building on this
    compound. The building on the compound is not the Embassy to Italy. It
    is also not the U.S. Mission to the United Nations offices in Rome. So
    you will essentially have three buildings. One is the Embassy to the
    Holy See, which is on Via Sallustiana. That’s S-a-l-l-u-s-t-i-a-n-a.
    Then there is, in another building on the same compound, but is the U.S.
    Embassy to the Republic of Italy, which is – and has its own separate
    entrance, its own separate building on another street, Via Vittorio
    Veneto, V-i-t-t-o-r-i-o V-e-n-e-t-o. There’s a third building on the
    compound, which is the U.S. Mission to the United Nations offices in
    Rome, which is, again, another building, another separate entrance, and
    on another street, Via Boncompagni – B-o-n-c-o-m-p-a-g-n-i.

    So in this operation, you will have the Holy See Mission/Embassy
    moving to this other building that – yes, it’s on the same compound, but
    again, separate building, separate entrances. The whole picture is such
    that the separateness is maintained. They are – they get – they’re
    separate entrances. Anyone visiting one mission or the other would enter
    in through a separate building. And so whether you’re going to see any
    one of the three different ambassadors, you go to a separate street
    address and you go into a separate building.

    Now, your next question is: Why are we doing this? Well, we’re doing
    this for two reasons. One is cost savings. We have this space, as I
    said, in this other building that we bought a few years ago on the
    Embassy – well, it was adjacent to the Embassy compound. We bought it
    and rolled it into the larger compound. We figure that we will save
    about $1.4 million a year in lease and operating costs in moving them.
    And as I said earlier, there is no reduction in diplomatic staff,
    there’s no reduction in ambassadors, there’s no reduction in mission.
    There is simply a reduction in overhead.

    So security – then the second issue is obviously security. The
    Mission to the Holy See is not in a building that has the kind of
    physical security protection that we would like it to have. It doesn’t
    have the setback from the street that is available in its new compound,
    and there are – it does not have the level of other security
    protections, including Marine security guards that are available at the
    combined U.S. Government compound…

    The embassy’s website

    I picked up the phrase “aggrieved entitlement” from the sociologist Michael. Kimmel…though it’s use here might be a bit of an overstatement?

  • lalameda

    Uff-da. There are some comments on here that are breathtakingly absent any Christian influence with regard to Grace, Loving One Another, Truth and that 98% all Catholics using contraception. By the way, is the current embassy within the Vatican walls? When was it established there? What significant accomplishment of a Vatican ambassador are we aware of that is worth $1.8 million a year just for the rent and utilities?

  • AtticusinPa

    How many Marines guard the US embassy to the Vatican?

    How many are posted to the US embassy to Italy?

    Can you spell Benghazi?

    As much as I like the Swiss Guards and their 15th century uniforms and weapons, I want our diplomats secure behind a Marine post.

    (Answers: the numbers of US Marines at any given diplomatic post are rarely revealed, for obvious reasons. However, it has been reported that there are no Marines at the Vatican. There are Marines at the Rome embassy. As for Benghazi, it seems the height of dishonesty to criticize this administration for lack of security at its diplomatic posts, and then criticize it further when it actually tries to improve security.)