The Hunt for an Envoy to Pass Muster: Stakeholders to Please in Obama's Ambassador Choice Include the Democratic Party, the Vatican and US Bishops

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, January 4, 2013 | Go to article overview
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The Hunt for an Envoy to Pass Muster: Stakeholders to Please in Obama's Ambassador Choice Include the Democratic Party, the Vatican and US Bishops


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


ROME * President Barack Obama needs to find a new envoy to the Vatican since Ambassador Miguel Diaz, appointed in 2009, has accepted a position as professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Obama's choice for a replacement is being closely watched in Rome, according to one senior Vatican diplomat, because it signals what kind of relationship Obama wants to have during his second term.

Filling the slot tends to be a special headache for Democratic presidents, because they have to find somebody who can pass muster both with their party and with the Vatican. The custom that it has to be a Catholic complicates things further, because it's not just a candidate's policy positions that might cause problems, but his or her internal standing in the church.

For those with an appetite for speculation, names making the rounds include two members of the national "Catholics for Obama" team: Stephen Schneck of The Catholic University of America and Nicholas Cafardi of Duquesne University. Both would be acceptable to the White House, but might trip some wires on the Catholic side--if not with the Vatican, which typically vetoes an appointment only if there are concerns about personal morality (especially marital status), then with the U.S. bishops.

Another hot tip is Ken Hackett, the former longtime president of Catholic Relief Services, who served on Obama's delegation to the consistory in Rome last February when both Timothy Dolan and Edwin O'Brien became cardinals. (For all intents and purposes, Hackett was the delegation, along with Diaz).

Hackett would be an easy sell on the church side. He has a good relationship with Dolan, who served as chair of the CRS board, and he has a solid working knowledge of the Vatican from his involvement with the Rome-based federation of Catholic charities, Caritas Internationalis. How well he would play with Democrats who have to confirm the appointment is anybody's guess.

One concern with each of these three possibilities is how much juice they would actually have with the White House and the State Department, not to mention the fact they don't have any previous experience as official U.S. diplomats.

Further into the realm of the hypothetical, some observers have suggested that Obama could turn to one of the pro-life Democrats in Congress, such as Dan Lipinski of Illinois' third district. Lipinski is co-chair of the Pro-Life Caucus and a co-sponsor of the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act." He's met with Vatican officials in the past, and they have come away impressed. (Solidifying his Catholic credentials, Lipinski also taught briefly at the University of Notre Dame from 2000 to 2001.)

The problem here is that presidents are usually loath to take a member of their own party out of Congress. For instance, Illinois law requires a special election in which Lipinski's seat would be up for grabs. Even though his district has chosen Democrats in 24 of the last 25 elections, it's considered the most socially conservative in the Chicago area, and theoretically might be open to a moderate Republican.

Given the complications, perhaps it's worth reconsidering an idea that is hardly original to me: Breaking with the traditional bias for a Catholic drawn from the American scene, turning instead to a career diplomat regardless of religious affiliation.

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