President Biden, send a non-Catholic ambassador to the Vatican
January 9, 2021 "President Biden, send a non-Catholic ambassador to the Vatican" Why the second Catholic president in U.S. history should avoid making a fellow Catholic his top envoy to the Holy See
Pope Francis welcomes the then US Vice president Joe Biden as he takes part in a congress on the progress of regenerative medicine and its cultural impact, held in the Pope Paul VI hall at the Vatican, 29 April 2016. (Photo by EPA /MAURIZIO BRAMBATTI /MaxPPP)
President-elect Joe Biden should choose a non-Catholic to be the next U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.However, the odds are heavily stacked in favor of him not doing that. Instead, they suggest he's likely to name one of his fellow Catholics to the post. Eleven Americans have represented the United States to the Holy See since 1984, the year the two states formally established full diplomatic relations. And every one of those envoys has been a Catholic.
But there are very good -- if counter-intuitive -- reasons why bucking that trend could actually be advantageous to Mr. Biden, as well as to the country, the Vatican and the Church.Healing the country, healing the ChurchThe incoming president has said that one of his goals is to bring unity to his deeply divided country. But that will remain impossible as long as Catholics in the United States remain divided in two opposing camps.
Biden is just the second Catholic president in U.S. history. That should make members of his Church proud and excited. After all, he's a loyal Sunday churchgoer who even attends weekday Mass with some regularity.And he's likely going to be the first resident of the White House in living memory to attend Mass each weekend.
But one side of the Catholic divide in America is not happy with Joe Biden's religious credentials. They contend he's not a "good Catholic" because of some of the political positions he holds, most notably his refusal to oppose legalized abortion.So, the incoming president, who is now the country's most prominent Catholic layman by virtue of holding the highest office in the land, is actually a divisive figure in his own Church.What kind of Catholic would be acceptable?It is inconceivable that those Catholics who oppose him will accept any fellow Catholic whom he might choose to be ambassador to the Holy See. After all, an ambassador is the representative, not only of the country, but just (or even more) importantly of the president and his or her administration.
Could Biden find a single a member of his Church in the United States right now who could, on the one hand, faithfully represent him and his policies before the pope and his aides and, on the other hand, win the confidence of that large faction of anti-Biden Catholics?The new president must also keep in mind that the U.S. Congress counts 24 senators and 134 representatives who are Catholics. They form the single largest denomination in the legislature. But they, too are divided.
Indeed, U.S. Catholics have been divided for a long time. And although the divisions have not been as deep and vicious as they are today, previous presidents have been careful not to further accentuate them by the Catholics they've chosen for the ambassador's job at the Vatican. Few were successful. Democratic presidents have tended to choose professed Catholic Democrats -- often those one might label as "liberal", "Vatican II" or "peace and justice" types.Republican presidents, obviously, have usually tapped those proud to be called Catholic Republicans. And in this case, these have generally been wealthy campaign donors or influential members of their political party.Political appointees, each and every oneBut there's one thing that the 11 people who have served as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See have in common.
They have all have been political appointees, in the sense that they were not career diplomats.Thomas Melady, a political science professor who served as George H.W. Bush's ambassador to the from 1989-1993, had probably the most diplomatic experience of the lot, though it was limited. He had been Richard Nixon's ambassador to Burundi (1969-72) and Uganda (1972-73), before becoming president of Sacred Heart University in his native Connecticut (1976-86) and then an official in Ronald Reagan's administration. Frank Shakespeare, who was Reagan's second ambassador to the Holy See (1986-1989), was a wealthy TV executive from New York who had been envoy to Portugal just prior to that. But both posts were in recognition for the large financial contributions he had made to Reagan's two successful presidential campaigns.
Political appointees often come with slim credentials to represent the United States or its president to the Holy See. The current ambassador, Callista Gingrich, is a prime example.Her only qualification is being the wife of Newt Gingrich, the former Georgia politician who was the Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995-1999 and is a great friend and confidante of Donald Trump.Look to a seasoned career diplomatPresident-elect Biden should do away the longstanding policy that the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican is a campaign donor or just a prominent Catholic who supports the political party of the person in the White House.
There are several reasons for this. But these two seem most compelling:First, the Church in the United States has become so divided precisely over national political differences. No matter which Catholic Biden chooses it will likely further the divisions and further politicize the Church.It is enough that the new president is Catholic. He should pick a someone who is not Catholic as his envoy to the Holy See. Obviously, it should be a figure who is recognized as someone who has deep respect for Catholicism and the pope and is not anti-religion. That should be enough.Second, that figure should be a career U.S. diplomat. And a top notch one at that.
That would send a clear message to the American people -- especially those Catholics (including the bishops) who did not support Biden's campaign -- and officials at the Vatican that the new administration respects the Holy See and is committed more than ever to strengthening the bilateral relationship.It would make a statement bolder than any other U.S. president has ever made before; namely that the United States is willing to send a first-rate career diplomat to Rome because it believes that the Catholic Church and the Holy See matter.Obviously, there will be those who will balk at whomever Biden chooses. But this, at least, seems a better and more creative way forward.