Handicapping the US-Vatican handshake

800px-vaticane_mura_1Who is going to represent the United States as ambassador to the Holy See? In a government headed by a President who is favors abortion rights and has opened the door to broader use of embryonic stem cells for research, this question is getting a lot of attention, both from advocacy organizations and from the press. As AP religion writer Eric Gorski points out in his well-sourced, careful article on the subject, the job of finding the right Vatican representative has not traditionally been highly controversial.

Gorski avoids most of the traps that often seem to bedevil (well, not literally) Vatican-watchers. He doesn't stir the tea-leaves of mysterious utterances from unnamed Vatican sources. He doesn't say more than what he can support with a quote. And he lays out the factors that may influence the Obama Vatican pick without predicting which way the President will go -- or cueing the ominous music.

His restrained lede summarizes the points he is going to make:

Since the United States and the Vatican established full diplomatic ties in 1984, little attention has been paid to the process and politics of selecting a U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. That's changing under a new president whose positions have been criticized by several American bishops and conservative Catholics.

The Obama administration's search to fill the vacant position is anticipated to bring a level of scrutiny unmatched since the very prospect of diplomacy with the Vatican stirred American fears of papal loyalists swearing allegiance to church over country.

While Middle East peace, U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and relations with the Muslim world loom as shared interests for the military superpower and the religious superpower, the politics of abortion hangs over the process.

What I most appreciated about this article was that readers not got some helpful information about the process, but that Gorski went well beyond the usual suspects when it comes to quoting gurus, thus allowing for a lively debate. Did you ever think of the possibility that the next Ambassador might not be a Catholic (although, as the writer points out, all eight appointed since 1984 have been)?

He relies on the Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, for information, instead of going, as did some very respectable British and American media last week, to those unnamed Vatican sources and foreign news stories. Given the choice between the rumored and what he could say with assurance, he went with what he knew -- which seems to me to be the course of wisdom. But I'd like to know where he got this delicious tidbit:

Candidates from other countries have proven problematic not over their positions on issues, but their marital or relationship status. In the past two years, the Vatican has rejected a divorced Argentinian Catholic with a live-in partner and an openly gay Frenchman in a relationship.

Dear me.

There follows a quote from ... three guesses. Right you are! It's the Rev. Tom Reese of Georgetown. In this article however, the omnipresent priest is one of a crowd of sometimes dissenting voices. But it's mostly what Reese was quoted as saying that stopped me short:

"The Vatican has made clear that they don't look at a person's position on issues," said the Rev. Tom Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "The Vatican doesn't expect countries to send saints and people in total agreement with the Vatican."

This is truly an amazing statement, and I wonder whether Reese was challenged on it -- or asked to explain it. If issues aren't important, why have all eight former ambassadors opposed abortion rights? A lack of sensibility about "issues" certainly doesn't seem to be the view of Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, who says that he feels it's very important to send the Vatican a "pro-life Democrat. By the way, Democrats For Life has some suggestions.

It's really hard to write stories on hot-button topics that don't tip the balance of opinion one way or the other, whether it's through who gets quoted, the use of particular adjectives, or the kicker quote. Gorski's kicker quote, from Republican former ambassador Thomas Melady is instructive without being particularly opinionated -- in keeping with the rest of the article.

Picture of Vatican wall is from Wikimedia Commons

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