Published July 1, 2009
Dear Dr. Diaz:
Congratulations on your nomination as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. Having worked on a bipartisan basis with seven of your predecessors, in both calm and turbulent times, I’ve some ideas I hope might be of use to you. Permit me to share them publicly, as I think they shed some light on what the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See is, and isn’t, for your fellow-Catholics in the U.S.
1. My first point sounds pedestrian but isn’t: Resist all efforts by State Department bean-counters to relocate the functions of Embassy-Vatican to the campus of the U.S. Embassy to Italy. The bean-counters will argue this on fiscal and security grounds; both are nonsense. The Holy See deeply (and rightly) resents such cheese-paring, especially from major powers. Defend your turf, and keep your post independent of Embassy-Italy. You can be their friend; don’t be their tenant.
2. As a theologian, you’ll want to cultivate intellectual contacts in Rome — as several of your predecessors have done, and to good effect for the U.S.-Vatican relationship. Ambassadors Jim Nicholson and Mary Ann Glendon were particularly successful in having Embassy-Vatican foster serious reflection in Rome on international human rights law, development aid, and religious freedom. That’s a tradition worth continuing. In doing so, and in nurturing your own scholarship, permit the observation that the real intellectual energy in Rome these days is not so much at the older centers of higher learning — the Gregorian University and the Angelicum — but at the newer foundations: the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and the Pontifical Atheneum Regina Apostolorum.
3. Always remember Benjamin Franklin’s response when the Holy See inquired of Franklin, then ambassador to France, about the views of President Washington’s administration on the appointment of a Catholic bishop in the new United States. Franklin replied that such an appointment was not the government’s business. As representatives of that same government, all your predecessors have rigorously avoided entanglement in the internal affairs of the Catholic Church in the United States during their years at Embassy-Vatican — including any involvement whatsoever in the delicate matter of the appointment of bishops. The pattern from Benjamin Franklin to Mary Ann Glendon is constant and sound. I’m sure you’ll agree there’s no need to tinker with it.
4. A parallel point involves your activities at home during your time as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. In thinking through this facet of your responsibilities, it might help if you imagined yourself a career foreign service officer taking up an ambassadorial post, rather than a political appointee. A senior foreign service officer serving as a U.S. ambassador abroad will have certain constituencies here in America: ethnic groups from the country to which he or she is assigned; trade associations; businesses; advocacy groups interested in the country in question. Meeting with such groups to discuss mutual concerns, either at the embassy abroad or in the U.S., is a normal part of the job. Being an advocate for specific policies of the administration you represent is not. I hope the Obama administration understands that using you as a partisan surrogate with Catholic audiences in the U.S. would be poorly received by the Holy See, as it would under any American administration. If this is not understood by your superiors, please explain it to them.
5. Find things on which the administration and the Holy See agree and concentrate on those. Yours is a difficult task, in that the administration you serve and the Holy See are at cross-purposes on several core Vatican issues in international arenas, such as the right to life. That was the fate of another of your predecessors, Ambassador Lindy Boggs. She made her mission a success by focusing on areas of agreement. It was a wise tack to take in 1997; it would be a wise tack in 2009.
6. Take your family on the Lenten “station church” pilgrimage led by the North American College: a great way to learn the city, and a great way to pray.
Buon viaggio e buona fortuna!
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.