White House and Rome

The U.S. ambassador to the Vatican has always been a pro-life Catholic. Will it change under President Barack Obama’s administration?

Speculation continues over who President Barack Obama might pick as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, with concern that he may choose a pro-abortion candidate in line with his own radical anti-life position.

But is that possible? And how would the Vatican respond?

Like any other state, the Vatican does not impose on another state that an ambassador hold certain views, nor does it generally carry out a vetting process into a person’s beliefs and ideas. But it does require that a candidate be “in good standing” within his or her faith community.

Diplomats in Rome said what that means depends on each individual case. Naturally, if the candidate is a Catholic — which all U.S. ambassadors have been until now — that question is primarily a matter for the domestic Church.

So would a public figure, known to be pro-abortion, be considered to be “in good standing” with his or her faith community?

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that within the Church there are also “various interpretations” as to what “good standing” means, and that it is “a matter that has to be worked out between the individual and their bishop.” She also said there were no clear benchmarks, such as a limit to how publicly pro-abortion someone can be before being considered no longer in good standing.

Also, even if a public figure has been denied Communion by his or her bishop, it wouldn’t automatically put him or her out of good standing, as, again, it would be a matter for the bishop and the individual. “There is no list of rules to do this or to not do that,” said Sister Mary Ann.

In the past, the Vatican has rarely vetoed candidates, at least in public. If it does so, it is usually on the grounds of their marital or relationship status. In two recent cases, the Vatican turned down a divorced Argentine Catholic with a live-in partner and an openly homosexual Frenchman in a relationship.

However, a decision to put forward someone who is very publicly pro-abortion into such a prestigious position at the Vatican would not go down well at the Vatican.

James Nicholson, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See under the Bush administration, said that sending such a candidate would be seen as “extremely disrespectful” by the Holy See, adding that it would be “like sending a Holocaust denier to be ambassador to Israel.”

In an interview with the Boston Herald April 14, Raymond Flynn, former ambassador to the Holy See under the Clinton administration, similarly argued against appointing a pro-abortion candidate to the post.

“It’s imperative, it’s essential that the person who represents us to the Holy See be a person who has pro-life values,” he said. “I hope the president doesn’t make that mistake.”

His comments came after claims were made by Italian journalist Massimo Franco in a March 10 article in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. Franco wrote that the Obama administration was having difficulty finding a pro-life candidate to fill the position and that two names had been turned down by the Vatican.

He later said he had heard from reliable sources that the Vatican had declined three names put forward by the administration because of their anti-life views, comments which this correspondent reported on the Newsmax website April 2. Franco still stands by his story, even though the claims were subsequently denied by the Vatican and the White House.

Then in an April 2 article for the Italian weekly Panorama, Carlo Rossella wrote that Caroline Kennedy, a strong supporter of Obama’s campaign who supports relaxed laws on abortion, was one of those names the Vatican had turned down. This was also later denied by the Vatican, the White House, and Kennedy herself.

The actual process of selecting a candidate is usually carried out in the utmost secrecy. Names are proffered and the Vatican can then make its objections known.

“The Holy See can always say — quietly if possible, publicly if necessary — that a proposed candidate is unacceptable,” said papal biographer George Weigel. “It’s been done before, and it can be done again. And it happens in other relationships.”

He referred to when British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill told U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower that he’d have to declare Clare Boothe Luce “persona non grata” if Eisenhower tried to make her ambassador to the United Kingdom.

It’s not known if, under other U.S. administrations, the Vatican had objections, as no rejections have been made known publicly. However, the U.S. has been helped by presidents only sending pro-life Catholics as envoys since formal diplomatic relations were established in 1984 — and candidates whose relationship status has not caused problems with the Vatican.

Many argue that sending a Catholic ambassador who is supportive of the Church and her teachings is the ideal. One senior Catholic diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said sending someone who was “sympathetic” to the Vatican is “good for relations” because they have knowledge of the Church and are better equipped to report on news coming out of the Vatican.

But he added that the matter needed to be kept “in perspective.” Being a diplomat accredited to the Holy See, he stressed, “is primarily a state-to-state relationship” and he is not being sent there because he is representing his faith.

He argued against any “litmus test” for prospective ambassadors, saying that not to allow envoys of widely varying backgrounds and beliefs to represent their countries at the Holy See would be copying the intolerant logic of some secularists who would see the Holy See banned from the United Nations.

As for personal qualifications, Nicholson said they were the same as for any diplomatic post: “namely intelligence and common sense.” But he added that in the case of the Holy See the candidate should also be willing to take advantage of “the great opportunity that exists to make advancements in humanitarian causes.”

If Obama cannot find a pro-life Catholic, then some commentators think he should break with tradition and choose a non-Catholic, perhaps a professional diplomat rather than a political appointee, to fill the position. That would enable the ambassador to attract less suspicion and avoid scandalizing the faith.

However, the appointment is not thought to be high up on the list of the administration’s priorities, and it may be some time before the post is filled.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.

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