VATICAN CITY — Does the Obama administration’s plan to relocate the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See within the grounds of the American Embassy to Italy signify a downgrade in U.S.-Vatican ties?
According to the State Department, the answer is a predictable and emphatic “No.”
“Security is our top priority in making this move,” wrote Shawn Casey Nov. 27 on Dipnote, an official State Department site. The new premises, he argued, will be “safer, bigger and architecturally more appealing. It also is slightly closer to Vatican City.”
With the shift slated for completion by January 2015, the administration is at pains to point out that it has no plans to close the Holy See Embassy, as some reports have suggested.
“Nothing could be farther from the truth,” Casey insisted. “Not only does the United States continue to respect the Holy See as a crucial bilateral partner … but Secretary [John] Kerry, our first Catholic secretary of state in more than 30 years, is personally inspired by the Church’s work on issues from peace to global poverty, issues at the heart of Catholic social teaching.”
Still, that is not how some previous ambassadors to the Holy See — both Republican and Democrat — are viewing it. Former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson said the embassy’s planned move to the grounds of the U.S. Embassy to Italy is “another manifestation of the antipathy of this administration, both to Catholics and to the Vatican — and to Christians in the Middle East.”
“This is a key post for intermediation in so many sovereignties, but particularly in the Middle East,” Nicholson told CatholicVote.org. “This is anything but a good time to diminish the stature of this post. To diminish the stature of this post is to diminish its influence.”
Nicholson, who served as ambassador from 2001-2005 under President George W. Bush, said that the State Department has sought for years to relocate the embassy.
“It came up when I was an ambassador. I explained the folly of this, and it went away. But now they seem determined to do this,” he said.
Raymond Flynn, who served as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the Holy See, saw the move as leading eventually to possible closure. "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," he told the National Catholic Reporter.
Members of Rome’s diplomatic community contacted by the Register have mixed feelings about the move. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one senior official said he felt the administration was making a mistake at a time when Pope Francis is so popular among electorates and President Barack Obama is under fire domestically following the botched Obamacare rollout.
“I think the administration will back down,” he said. “The move looks weak at a time when Obama is weak.”
But another senior diplomat was more positive, seeing the move as a sensible policy when budgets are tight and security is paramount.
“Most of our work takes place at our residences anyway, and that isn’t affected by this,” he said, as the administration has committed to maintaining a separate residence for the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. “Their new offices will also be larger and better equipped, so I don’t see any problem.”
Indeed, he suggested much of the opposition to the move was being whipped up by Republicans as a stick with which to beat the Obama administration.
Vatican officials are publicly unconcerned by the plans, even though only three of the diplomatic missions to the Holy See in Rome are on the same compound as their embassies to Italy. The rest of those in the city are separate, in order to respect the Vatican’s sovereignty.
The British Precedent
But the Obama administration’s plans are somewhat reminiscent of what happened to the British Embassy to the Holy See in 2006.
Britain’s then-Labour government was also 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 succeed in moving the premises of its embassy from the center of Rome — which admittedly was rather vulnerable — to converted old stables in the compound of Britain’s Embassy to Italy.
But British officials wanted to go even further and relocate the Holy See ambassador’s residence to an annex of the British ambassador to Italy’s residence, as well as starve the Vatican 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 its altogether, ostensibly because of the fallout over the clerical abuse scandals in the country.
But the most serious controversy doesn’t currently concern the U.S. or these other embassies, but, rather, the Canadian one.
Canada’s Embassy to the Holy See has been so downgraded recently that Ottawa is unable to find an ambassador willing to take up the position. One candidate was ready to take up the role, but when he heard what the terms were, he was said to be shocked at how basic they were.
For the past year, the mission has been without a serving ambassador and is currently being run by a charge d’affaires out of Madrid.
Rome’s diplomatic community sees the cutbacks as bizarre, especially because, in February, the Canadian government opened an Office for Religious Freedom. “It’s simply scandalous and very difficult to understand,” said one senior diplomatic source, “but it says something about Canada’s approach to foreign affairs.”
He also fears such actions point to a growing trend. “The Holy See needs to be careful this doesn’t catch on,” he said. “Some are predicting there won’t be any independent located embassies to the Holy See in 10 years’ time.”
All of which may partly explain why, after a relative fall in the Holy See’s diplomatic standing in recent years, Pope Francis is filling so many senior Curial positions with well-seasoned Vatican diplomats.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.