Serving God and Country

Search Continues for U.S. Ambassador to Vatican

VATICAN CITY — As the Obama administration continues to search for a new ambassador to the Holy See, it faces an uphill task to find a suitable candidate, especially among the ranks of potential Catholic appointees.

Ever since the previous ambassador, Miguel Diaz, announced he was leaving the post shortly before President Barack Obama’s re-election, many have been speculating about who will fill his shoes.

The Holy See sees the appointment as a crucial one — a test for the kind of relations the administration wishes to have with the Catholic Church in President Obama’s second term. "It’s a significant choice for us, as it shows the extent of their interest in this relationship," a senior Vatican diplomat told the Register.

That relationship came under considerable strain during Obama’s first term, as the administration pursued a number of policies in direct opposition to the Church, the most significant clash being over the administration’s Health and Human Services’ mandate that represents an affront to the conscience rights of Catholics and members of other faiths.

The dispute is just one of the difficulties facing the administration as it searches for a candidate acceptable to both the Democratic Party and the Holy See.

Although not mandatory, the Vatican usually prefers someone who has similar core values; for the Democrats, any new ambassador must naturally have sympathy for its political policies. The candidate doesn’t necessarily have to be Catholic, but the Vatican official stressed that he or she "must be someone who can have some influence, who is aware of the core values that will be essential to building bridges."

"We need to have a real interlocutor, also for them — someone helpful or interesting who can build a strong relationship and maintain good relations," he said.

The Vatican says it’s also not necessary for him or her to be a political appointee, and the choice could be a State Department official, but appointees must be people "recognized" by the administration with whom the Holy See can work. "They must really share the same values; otherwise, it’s a little difficult," the Vatican diplomat said, adding that they "should be pro-life because life is an important issue."

The Holy See will occasionally veto a candidate, but only on grounds of personal morality, especially regarding marital-status issues. The administration allegedly had some difficulty in finding a suitable candidate in Obama’s first term, eventually settling on Diaz, a theology professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in Minnesota.

Diaz generally kept a low profile and tended to avoid media interviews. But he was able to work closely with the Holy See on a number of common interests related to peace, justice and human rights, specifically initiatives in preventing and treating HIV/AIDS sufferers and combating human trafficking.

U.S. diplomats in Rome told the Register that these and other areas of policy convergence were expected to continue. One area of increasing concern to both parties is the Middle East, and sources say the region is expected to figure highly in relations going forward.


Small Pool for Candidates

A number of potential candidates are being discussed in Rome, but the pool of acceptable ones is small. One name frequently mentioned and who appears broadly popular is that of U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, a socially conservative Democrat from Illinois who opposes abortion rights and the health-care mandate. In January, Lipinski told the Chicago Tribune he felt "honored" by the suggestion and would welcome consideration.

Other possible candidates being mentioned include Nicholas Cafardi, former dean and professor of law at Duquesne University. In 2009, Cafardi criticized a "vocal minority" of U.S. bishops for being Republican Party "ward-heelers" and claimed Obama’s health-care policy was "unquestionably" coherent with Catholic social teaching — a view at odds with many U.S. bishops.

Another name doing the rounds is Stephen Schneck of The Catholic University of America. A board director for Democrats for Life, Schneck tried to make the case recently that the best way to prevent abortions was to try to alleviate poverty.

Some reports mention John Cavadini, a popular theology professor at the University of Notre Dame and someone with close ties to the Vatican. Cavadini appears to tick all the right boxes for the Holy See, but insiders doubt he would feel comfortable representing the administration.

For a humorous choice coming out of left field — though perhaps not completely unfeasible, given the lack of seriousness with which the administration has treated the Church’s concerns in areas like religious liberty — some of Obama’s critics are suggesting comedian Stephen Colbert. A practicing Catholic and the youngest of 11 children, Colbert is a Sunday school teacher and has described himself as a Democrat.

"It’s probably the most sensible name of them all," an American priest close to the Vatican joked to the Register.

 James Nicholson, who represented the administration of President George W. Bush to the Holy See from 2001 to 2005, stressed that the essence of the role is about working with the Vatican on "enhancing dignity" — a duty, he said, clearly stated in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution.

"It comes down to trying to make life better, and we have no more important partner in that than the Church [so] it’s a natural partnership," he told the Register Feb. 9. Reflecting on his tenure as ambassador, he said he used to regard his role as practicing "moral diplomacy."

"I define that as working with our diplomatic partner," he said, "not in the basing of U.S. troops or worrying about trade imbalances, [but] trying to enhance dignity through freedom and opportunity and the wherewithal for fundamentally good existence."

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.