Plans are reportedly afoot to relocate the U.S. embassy to the Holy See to the grounds of the American embassy to Italy.
The move has yet to be publicly announced, but it looks set for completion by January 2015, according to an article by John Allen in the National Catholic Reporter.
Although the Obama administration is firmly denying it represents any kind of downgrade in U.S.-Vatican relations and is justifying it on grounds of security, locating both embassies on the same compound is rarely a good sign. All but three of the diplomatic missions to the Holy See in Rome are separate to embassies to Italy in order to respect the Vatican's sovereignty.
The plans to move the U.S. embassy are reminiscent of what happened to the British embassy to the Holy See in 2006.
Like the Obama administration, Britain’s then-Labour government was looking to cut costs and saw its embassy to the Holy See as a prime target. Officials in London were unable to understand its significance, not least its valuable role as a “listening post” with an extensive network of contacts around the world.
Were it not for parliamentary pressure and some clever resistance from its serving ambassador, the embassy could well have closed altogether, as happened with Ireland’s embassy to the Holy See a few years later.
Using the argument of “enhanced security”, the British Foreign Office did successfully move the premises from the center of Rome – which admittedly was rather vulnerable – to converted old stables in the compound of Britain’s embassy to Italy.
But they wanted to go even further, and relocate the ambassador’s residence to an annex of the British ambassador to Italy’s residence as well as starve the embassy of staff and resources. Those attempts failed, partly due to protests by the Vatican.
At the time, diplomats in Rome feared a precedent was being set, and that other embassies would follow suit in a bid to cut costs.
In 2006, only Israel had both embassies on the same grounds. After Britain’s move, the Netherlands did the same, and Ireland closed theirs altogether, ostensibly because of the fallout over the clerical abuse scandals in the country.
Although closure is highly unlikely, it will take some effort by the Obama administration - already at loggerheads with the Church over the HHS mandate and other issues - not to let such a move appear like a downgrade.