Is the U.S. downgrading its Vatican ties?

Yes, say several US Vatican Ambassadors. More on that shortly.

I first heard of it from Ambassador Ray Flynn, former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under the Clinton administration, who was a guest on my radio show Monday, November 18th. He broke the news live on the air during our conversation on the show.

“There’s a new issue that’s going to develop in the next week or so,” he said. “The Obama administration Department of State wants to close my embassy, they want to close the United States’ Embassy to the Holy See, and they want to consolidate it with the Embassy of the Republic of Italy. That would send a very, very bad message. It would diminish the relationship between the United States and the Holy See and to the Catholic Church. One of the things we did when I was there, and we did it very effectively, was work with the state of Israel, we worked with the Church to develop diplomatic relations, which had a very positive impact on what the United States government wanted to do.

Flynn continued, passionately engaged:

“I was involved in the Rwandan genocide, because the Catholic Church had a moral voice, and the U.S. was naturally opposed to the genocide in Rwanda. Same thing with the Bosnia-Herzegovina situation. The Vatican did a very quiet but effective job helping the United States bring peace and justice in places like the Middle East. We never had the kinds of trouble we’re having now, because the Vatican had a role. John Paul II had a very important role, he was respected he was admired. Unfortunately, we don’t have that level of respect anymore, the U.S. government. That’s why we’re seeing the kinds of situations in places like Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Israel. These are countries that were at one time strong allies of the Vatican, strong allies of the United States, and what are they now? They’re divided. We’re now seeing the killing of Christians, the bombing of churches.

“That’s the key role the Vatican plays, with the United States cooperating. And now to have that embassy close? That’s another issue that we should mobilize Catholics on right now. Get on the phone, call your congressman, call your senators, get on the talk shows, make sure your voice is heard. This is a very short-sighted, counter-productive move if they go forward consolidating the U.S. Vatican Embassy with the Republic of Italy, that would be a big mistake.

“A number of us who have served in this position, in a bipartisan way, we are lobbying the president, the Secretary of State and the Congress not to close the U.S. embassy to the Holy See because of its importance to world peace, not only to the United States but to countries throughout the world.

“The Holy See has major credibility throughout the world because in times of crisis and chaos, they don’t bring up a political agenda, they aren’t seeking someone’s land, they aren’t seeking oil, or diamonds or minerals. It’s really about a safe and peaceful world. That’s why they have that kind of credibility, even among the war-torn countries in the Middle East. So that’s why the embassy is so important. It will just send the wrong kind of message that the Holy See is like an annex to the Embassy of Italy in Rome.

“We’re talking about the separation of Church and State here. We don’t want the Catholic Church to be part of the Embassy to Italy. This story hasn’t really broken yet, but it’s very important people be pro-active.”

National Catholic Reporter Vatican expert John Allen broke the story to big media.

Plans to move the U.S. embassy to the Vatican onto the grounds of the larger American embassy to Italy, though in a separate building and with a distinct entrance, are drawing fire from five former American envoys despite the tacit consent of the Vatican itself.

Justified primarily on the grounds of enhanced security, the move is described by former U.S. Ambassador James Nicholson, who’s also a former Secretary of Veterans Affairs in the Bush administration and a former chair of the Republican National Committee, as a “massive downgrade” in U.S./Vatican ties.

“It’s turning this embassy into a stepchild of the embassy to Italy,” Nicholson said.

“The Holy See is a pivot point for international affairs and a major listening post for the United States,” he said, “and to shoehorn [the U.S. delegation] into an office annex inside another embassy is an insult to American Catholics and to the Vatican.”

Nicholson, who spoke in an interview Wednesday with NCR, joins former Bush envoys Francis Rooney and Mary Ann Glendon as well as Raymond Flynn, the first Clinton ambassador, and Thomas Melady, who served the first President Bush, in objecting.

“In the diplomatic world, if you don’t have your own separate space, you’re on the road to nowhere,” said Rooney, who served as ambassador from 2005 to 2008. He’s author ofThe Global Vatican, a new book on U.S./Vatican relations…

Flynn described the move as part of broader secular hostility to religious groups, the Catholic church in particular.

“It’s not just those who bomb churches and kill Catholics in the Middle East who are our antagonists, but it’s also those who restrict our religious freedoms and want to close down our embassy to the Holy See,” Flynn told NCR.

Flynn said he can’t see any “diplomatic or political benefit to the United States” from the relocation and called it “shortsighted.”

Melady told NCR that no matter how the move is justified, it will be perceived in diplomatic circles as scaling back.

“Whether that’s the official reason doesn’t really matter, because that’s how people will see it,” Melady said. has quietly been following this story for weeks, before it broke open. The organization sent out this newsletter Monday:

The Obama administration has decided that the free-standing American embassy to the Holy See will soon be closed, and the offices for the Ambassador to the Vatican will be moved inside of our Italian Embassy.

As a part of the security reviews that followed the attacks on our embassy in Benghazi last year, State Department officials are now claiming that the current U.S. Embassy to the Holy See is no longer safe.

If their assessement is correct, then why not bolster security or simply move the Embassy to a new location instead of shutting it down? Are all ‘unsafe’ embassies being shut down too

Moving our Ambassador to the Vatican inside of our Italian Embassy sends a clear message: the diplomatic post doesn’t matter much to the United States.

This afternoon I spoke with former Vatican Ambassador James Nicholson. He wanted me to tell CV readers:

“It’s another manifestation of the antipathy of this administration both to Catholics and to the Vatican – and to Christians in the Middle East. This is a key post for intermediation in so many sovereignties but particularly in the Middle East. This is anything but a good time to diminish the stature of this post. To diminish the stature of this post is to diminish its influence.

“The State Department has for a long time wanted to do this. It came up when I was an ambassador. I explained the folly of this and it went away. But now they seem determined to do this. The perception is [with this action] that the United States is showing a lack of appreciation for the relevance of its diplomatic partner in the Vatican.”

Diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See suffered for generations because of rampant anti-Catholicism in our country. It took until 1984, twenty-four years after the election of a Catholic president, for President Ronald Reagan to officially create the first United States Ambassador to the Holy See.

President Reagan would quickly see the importance of the Holy See in international affairs. Reagan and Blessed Pope John Paul II formed a partnership that would lead to the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

And let’s not forget that the Pope regularly communicates with bishops from every country on the planet, and as a result is said to have the greatest foreign intelligence of any world leader. If anything, the United States should be working to grow its relationship with the Vatican.

Patheos blogger Kathy Shiffer considers all the angles, especially the two and only two proponents of the move, and has this take.

First to address the “opportunity for collaboration” cited by Manny Diaz: Imagine, if you will, that the nations of Western Europe came together in a single embassy in Germany. France, Portugal and Denmark all closed their embassies, in order to better “collaborate” with one another.

Would that serve the interests of each individual country?

Of course not. Each of the European nations is unique, and each enjoys a unique relationship with the United States. Each diplomatic relationship faces unique challenges. It would be absurd to imagine that bringing them together into a single space would achieve positive diplomatic results.

Likewise, the U.S. embassy in Rome and the embassy to the Holy See are unique—in fact, more unique because of the unusual nature of the two governments, that of Italy and that of the Vatican City-State. Perhaps the U.S. government imagines that Vatican-City, occupying only 109 acres, is a “mini-state” not warranting a full ambassadorial relationship. In fact, though, the Catholic Church, with 1.2 billion adherents around the world, is a resounding leader in establishing social policy world-wide, not only within its walls.

Perhaps I’m a little sensitive.

The Obama Administration has repeatedly picked fights with the Catholic Church, most notably on religious liberty issues, as well as on abortion and other life issues and same-sex marriage. I worry that the President’s disdain for Catholic social teaching may affect his willingness to interact on matters of mutual concern. But I’m just not buying that this is not a radical “downgrade” in U.S. interaction with the Holy See.

The United States and the Holy See did not enjoy a full diplomatic relationship until January 1984. Before that, due in part to anti-Catholicism in the U.S., this country did not recognize the Vatican City-State as a nation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Postmaster General James Farley was the first high ranking government official to normalize relations with the Holy See. In 1933, Farley had an audience with Pope Pius XI and dinner with Cardinal Pacelli, who would succeed to the papacy in 1939. Between 1939 and 1951, the U.S. had no ambassador but sent an emissary to discuss matters of mutual concern. Then from 1951 through 1968, the U.S. had no relations with the Vatican.

Presidents Nixon and Carter appointed “personal representatives” to interact with the Holy See in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Then finally, on January 10, 1984, the United States recognized the Holy See as an independent legislative body, and established the Vatican Embassy.

There exists a real risk that that long overdue relationship may continue to decline during the Obama Administration. In 2009, the ambassador position was vacant for an extended period, reflecting U.S./Vatican tensions over abortion and marriage. During the months that the position was open, Caroline Kennedy and Douglas Kmiec were proposed; but both were ultimately rejected because of differences regarding these important issues.

The seat was vacant again from November 2012 through mid-2013, after Ambassador Miguel Diaz left the office to teach at the University of Dayton.

The current rollback portends a weakening of U.S./Vatican relations. The move signals to the Church, to this nation’s 78.2 million self-identified Catholics, and to the world that the United States is too busy with other things to bother protecting its embassy in the smallest but arguably the most influential nation in the world.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....