Ever since formal diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level were established between the United States and the Holy See in 1984, the U.S. government has been represented at the Vatican by politically well-connected lay Catholics: William Wilson, Frank Shakespeare, Thomas Melady, Raymond Flynn, and Lindy Boggs. Ambassadors Wilson, Shakespeare, Melady, Flynn, and Boggs did much good work. Each of them deserves the thanks of their country and the appreciation of their fellow-Catholics.
But it’s time for a change.
The next U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See should be a veteran foreign service officer who understands the multiple, crucial roles the Vatican plays in international public life today. It should make no difference whether the diplomat in question is Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, agnostic, or “other.” What matters is that he or she brings to the embassy on the Aventine an appreciation of the Holy See’s unique position in world affairs; the confidence of the Secretary of State; a commitment to serious dialogue with the relevant Vatican officials about the relationship between America’s goals in the world and the Holy See’s concerns; and a determination to avoid internal ecclesiastical affairs.
It’s often said, by way of journalistic shorthand, that the Vatican is a great “listening-post,” because through its own diplomatic service the Holy See conducts one of the world’s most effective intelligence-gathering operations. That’s true enough, but it isn’t the whole picture. The Holy See plays a distinctive role in international organizations like the United Nations and its affiliated agencies, where serious moral questions are now regularly engaged. Then there is the Vatican’s position as the world’s foremost institutional defender of the religious freedom of all. Beyond that, there is the capacity of the Holy See (either formally, or through non-governmental Catholic organizations) to act as honest broker in seemingly-intractable international conflicts.
The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See needs to understand the full range of the Vatican’s diplomatic and quasi-diplomatic entanglements, and to appreciate what these mean in the complex world of international affairs. A veteran diplomat, well-briefed, would likely bring these understandings to the job, rather than having to undergo intense on-the-job training. Best yet would be a senior foreign service officer who has experience in dealing with the Holy See, both on-site and from the Department of State.
A change in the type of ambassador sent from Washington to the Vatican would be welcomed, even quietly applauded, by the Holy See. This is in no way to demean Ambassadors Wilson, Shakespeare, Melady, Flynn, or Boggs, whose work has been much appreciated in Rome. It is simply to relate the facts of the matter. Senior Vatican officials would regard it as a sign of even greater seriousness on the part of the U.S. government if the American embassy to the Holy See were not “reserved” for a political appointee, but were to become a more normal posting of the sort given to senior members of the U.S. foreign service.
This kind of shift might also help assuage the residual aggravations of those non-Catholics who cannot understand why the U.S. has an “ambassador to the Vatican” in the first place. The appointment of a foreign service officer as head of U.S. Embassy-Vatican would help demonstrate that this post does not constitute “diplomatic recognition of the Catholic Church,” but rather diplomatic acknowledgment of the international legal status of the Holy See, which has been recognized as a unique, sovereign actor for centuries. “Regularizing” this position by removing it from the roster of political appointments would also help soothe the feelings of those U.S. Catholics who might think they were getting short shrift by having a prominent personality from a political party other than their own represent the United States at the center of the Catholic world.
The exchange of diplomatic representation at the ambassadorial level has been a good thing for the United States and a good thing for the Holy See. To deepen this relationship, it’s time to normalize it by appointing a different kind of American ambassador to the Vatican—a foreign service professional. That would send the right signals, at home and abroad, about the seriousness of this nomination, and about what it represents.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.