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US Embassy to the Holy See: no closure, downgrade, or presidential plot…

Ambassador Hackett presents his credentials to the Holy Father

Ambassador Hackett presents his credentials to the Holy Father

As always, the busier and more interesting things get, the less time I have to write about them.

But sometimes something comes up that here, you do not even think will be a thing, only to find it exploding the internet on the other side of the Atlantic.

A week ago, the National Catholic Reporter  ran a story detailing how five of the former US Ambassadors to the Holy See were upset that the Embassy was being moved. That was the first I had heard of it, and I thought some fo the reactions seemed a bit over the top… but then you cannot expect much from partisan political appointees on either side of the aisle.

Naively, I suppose, I still expect people to read more than headlines. Especially absurd headlines like the following:

Notice how only one of these misleading leads did not start by blaming President Obama by name?

The facts are simple, and were clear even from the first reports:

  • The US is not closing the Embassy to the Holy See
  • The US is not pulling out of its diplomatic relationships with the Holy See
  • The US is not downgrading the diplomatic status of its relationship with the Holy See (e.g., from Ambassador to Special Envoy, or something)
  • The US is not combining the Embassy to the Holy See with the Embassy to Italy
  • The US Ambassador is not moving his residence, only the offices.

This was confirmed by the current and immediate past US Ambassadors to the Holy See, and the State Department again in a conference call today.

The US has four places (Rome, Vienna, Brussels, and Paris) with multiple missions in the same city, and in each case there have been moves to bring the separate embassies together physically, while maintaining separate missions, staffs, budgets, and space.

Current US Embassy to the Holy See

Current US Embassy to the Holy See

The current US Embassy to the Holy See is in a converted private home near the Circo Massimo, and while I daresay it is a better view than to be had by its big sister on Via Veneto, it is hard to have a larger meeting there than about a dozen people. It would probably make the support staff, the local staff and interns, feel a little less isolated, considering they are a much smaller crew than at US Embassy Italy.

While I can certainly see arguments for the separate location in terms of keeping a clear identity, it seems this has already been a consideration and will be seriously  maintained. Rome has three, not two, US embassies: One to Italy and San Marino, one to the UN Food Agencies, and one to the Holy See. The first two are already on the same property, but in different buildings. Adding the third does make sense economically, even if it is a drop in the bucket compared to overall waste… every little bit helps.

It is worth noting that the US Embassy to Italy does double duty to the other  micro-state completely surrounded by the Italian Republic, that of San Marino. A pretty obvious contrast between that situation and the proposal for that of the Holy See should put to rest any concerns about this being a move to combine or downgrade the Embassy to the Holy See.

What is interesting, yet unsurprising, to me is the narrative of President Obama being rabidly anti-Catholic, and that this is just one more example of his ‘war on religion/the Catholic Church’. While i certainly find several areas of disagreement, which should be rather obvious, I find this assertion as convincing as the narrative of Pope Benedict being a mean-spirited old man who was only interested in rules and regalia while actively covering up the clergy sex abuse scandal. Both have a powerful hold on the imaginations of large portions of the American population; both are false.

The current and former US Ambassador to the Holy See have the most ‘Catholic’ credentials of any persons to hold the office – not in terms of holiness, spirituality, or personal faith, to which I cannot speak – but in terms of ecclesiastical vocation and formation. Both Ambassador Ken Hackett and Miguel Diaz have given their life in service to the Church rather than to partisan politics: Diaz as a theologian, Hackett in Catholic Relief Services. That sets them out from the pack.

The rest were all partisan political appointees, and whether left or right does not matter. Glendon is a law professor; Rooney an investment banker; Nicholson was Republican Party Chairman; Boggs a democrat congresswoman; Flynn was mayor of Boston; Melady was a career diplomat; Shakespeare was president of CBS; and Wilson was a cattle ranching oil magnate.

US Embassy to Italy and San Marino

US Embassy to Italy and San Marino

This is not to say they were not good Catholics (those who were) or good Ambassadors. I am sure they were. Rather, it is simply that no president until Barack Obama had picked ‘church’ people for the post. People who were chosen specifically because of their devotion to the Catholic Church first, and country second, rather than the other way around.

So, while any change will ruffle feathers, of all the Ambassadors in the post, the most qualified to speak to the real situation of this move, as far as the Holy See and the Church are concerned, are precisely the two supporting the move: Hackett and Diaz.

Bottom line: fear not. The US and the Holy See are as engaged as they ever have been, and signs show the relationship is stronger than ever.  Moving to a new building next door to two other US Embassies will not change that.



Dinner with Ambassador Ken Hackett


Ambassador Ken Hackett with his wife, Joan

This talk lately reminds me i forgot to post about my first meeting with Ambassador Ken Hackett, back in early October:

On Thursday night [Oct.3], my past and present Rome worlds met one another when the entire Rome program of the Catholic University of America and Loyola University Maryland descended upon the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas to welcome U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett and his wife, Joan, on their twelfth day in Rome.

His predecessor, Prof. Miguel Diaz, was a theologian serving as the link between the U.S. government and the theologian-pope Ratzinger. Now we have the recently retired head of caritas in the U.S. representing the government to the very service-oriented successor of Peter.

Whatever else one can say about President Obama, his picks for US Ambassador to the Holy See have been more spot-on as genuinely Catholic picks than any president in our history – judged on pastoral and theological, rather than political, qualifications. If that were the only criterion (it is not, to be sure) he would be the most Catholic president we have ever had. Reflect on that for a moment…!

If I were to sum up the Ambassador’s approach, it is that he intends to have fun the next three years. Not, “fun”, as in he’s going to spend his entire assignment on a yacht in the Mediterranean or something.  But, fun, as in, here is someone who has lived the “poor church for the poor” after 40 years in Catholic Relief Services, and is coming to Rome just as we have a bishop imbued deeply in the spirit of the poverello of Assisi.


An interesting historical note: Ambassador Hackett is recipient of the 2012 Laetare Medal, the same honor which the shortest-serving US Ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor, refused in 2009 so that she would not have to share the platform with President Obama, who was receiving an honorary doctorate that year – as have all U.S. presidents since Eisenhower. Brutta figura or principled stand? A bit of each, I think.

Two new Notre Dame – er, U.S. – Ambassadors in Rome

In recent weeks, two of the three U.S. Ambassadors present in Rome arrived to take up their new posts. (David Lane, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Agencies in Rome, has been on post for about 18 months).


U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Ken Hackett and his wife Joan arrived on 19 September to take up residence at Villa Richardson. Ambassador Hackett may be a Boston College grad originally, but in 2007 he was awarded a Doctorate of Human Letters, honoris causa, by the University of Notre Dame, for his extensive work on behalf of the world’s neediest, in his 40 years at Catholic Relief Services (the U.S. affiliate of Caritas Internationalis). In 2012, he was awarded the U.S. Catholic Church’s highest honor, the Laetare Medal.

He succeeds Ambassador Miguel Díaz, who earned a Ph.D. in Theology from Notre Dame in 2000 (the same commencement ceremony as your humble scribe, but for the BA). His wife, Dr. Marian Díaz, was ND class of 1991.


U.S. Ambassador to the Italian Republic and the Republic of San Marino, John R. Phillips, earned a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Notre Dame in 1966, before going on to Law School. He and his wife Linda arrived just a week earlier, to take residence at Villa Taverna. Third-generation Italian-American, Ambassador Phillips has made fifty visits to Italy in the last decade alone! It is probably a good thing he gets a chance to settle in for a while.

Needless to say, the Notre Dame Club of Italy is thrilled to welcome both to its membership!


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