Catholic insiders are still trying to figure out the answer to two different questions. With no official White House liaison to the Catholic Church, do the President’s unofficial liaisons from the Vice-President to the Faith-Based Office, do they have influence within the administration? And, relatedly, do they themselves understand the need to reach beyond the liberal choir to those Catholics who supported Bush and Reagan, the swing Catholics who happen to be the decisive voting block in most elections? The next instance of tea-leaf reading will come when the White House announces its choice of an ambassador to the Vatican.
The job of U.S. ambassador to the Vatican is unique. Usually, in assigning the prime postings in Europe, the White House and Secretary of State must first decide whether to give it to a career diplomat from the foreign service or to a political appointee, usually someone who raised a bunch of money for the campaign. Usually, you can hear the growning from the staff when they get a political appointee: Having a pro is always more likely to result in success. And, in truth, the work of an ambassador can often be very banal these days as modern communication has circumscribed the role of an ambassador in forming opinion back in DC where the decisions are made.
But, in this case, there are qualified political appointees who actually would be better prepared – by nature and training – for the job than the careerists. In the event, every person appointed by either party has been a political appointee and most have served admirably. Some spend more time on the Aventine watching Net-Flix than they should, others really get to know the key players in the Curia and are out at Roberto’s or Arlu’s on the Borgo Pio for dinner every night, speaking with their contacts at the different Congregations and working the often Byzantine ways of the Vatican.
The Vatican, of course, still places enormous power in the hands of its envoys. Nuncios are apostolic delegates around the world have the future of the Church in their hands given the critical role they play in selecting new bishops. So, it is only natural for the Vatican to want an ambassador from the U.S. who has close ties to the President himself. They would like Michelle to be the ambassador – who wouldn’t? But, that is not going to happen and relations with the Holy See are not on the top of the President’s to-do list with an economic meltdown and two wars going on. Besides, the White House can make sure any ambassador it chooses has the access and influence needed both in Foggy Bottom and in the West Wing.
They key question is whether the White House will give the post to a fundraiser with little working knowledge of the Vatican and few long-standing relationships upon which to build, or to someone genuinely qualified. This is especially important because it is apparent that a split has developed between the Vatican Secretariat of State which has taken a pro-Obama line and some noisy anti-Obama bishops here at home. The Vatican always is keen to keep relations with secular governments in good shape, but in this case something more seems at work. The Vatican, like the rest of Europe, was very suspicious of George Bush’s foreign policy and breathed a sigh of relief last November, a sigh that found formal expression on the front page of L’Osservatore Romano. That newspaper – the content of which the Cardinal Secretary of State signs off on – continues to be markedly favorable in its views of the new President. The White House needs an ambassador who knows how to keep that ball rolling, especially when you consider that the next ad limina visits will be in 2011, on the eve of President Obama’s re-election campaign.
Last quarter, the Democratic National Committee raised less money than their Republican counterparts. The need to curry favor with fundraisers is not unimportant. But, there is always Luxembourg or Berne or Vienna for fundraisers. The White House needs a Vatican ambassador who knows the difference between the Vatican and the Viminal.