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NEW YORK – A decision by the Obama administration to downsize the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See to an office in the U.S. Embassy to Italy in Rome is being widely interpreted as an insult to Catholics in the United States and to the Vatican.
The White House bills the move, scheduled for January 2015, as a security measure in the wake of the attack on Sept. 11, 2012, on a U.S. compound maintained in Benghazi, Libya.
Former Ambassador James Nicholson, a former secretary of veteran affairs in the Bush administration and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, told the National Catholic Reporter the move was a “massive downgrade” in U.S.-Vatican ties. It reverses what was established by President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II in 1984, when the U.S. opened formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
The Obama administration was at ideological loggerheads with Pope Benedict XVI, who took a traditional moral view condemning same-sex marriage – a redefinition of marriage the Obama administration has championed – and objected to Obamacare measures that would require Catholic institutions in the United States to offer to employees only health insurance that provided for contraception and publicly funded abortions.
Recalling the historic alliance between Reagan and the Vatican under Pope John Paul II that contributed to the bringing down of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in the former Soviet Union, the decision by the Obama administration appears to reflect Obama’s disdain for working directly with the Vatican on matters of U.S. foreign policy.
“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.”
Clearly angered by the Obama administration decision, Nicholson stressed the decision “to shoehorn [the U.S. delegation] into an office annex inside another embassy is an insult to American Catholics and to the Vatican.”
Nicholson characterized the security argument as a “smokescreen,” insisting that the U.S. is not a pauper nation. He said “if we want to secure an embassy we certainly can,” adding that the security arrangements at the current location are “state of the art.”
Obama administration officials countered, explaining to the National Catholic Reporter that once the new U.S. Embassy to the Vatican is operational, the facility will have its own entrance on Rome’s Via Salustina, making it a separate diplomatic facility.
Raymond Flynn, a Democrat who served three terms as mayor of Boston before being appointed U.S. ambassador to the Vatican under the Clinton administration, was also outraged by the decision.
“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 the National Catholic Reporter, describing the move as part of a broader hostility to religious groups and the Catholic Church in particular.
Flynn added he could not see any “diplomatic or political benefit to the Untied States” from the relocation, calling the decision “shortsighted.”
Breaking the story internationally, Vatican expert John L. Allen Jr. noted in his National Catholic Reporter article that so far the Vatican has decided to give Obama’s decision tacit consent.
The move is also widely being interpreted as a concession the Obama administration wishes to make prior to the ramp-up for the November 2014 mid-term elections to the powerful pro-abortion forces in the Democratic Party. The activists have championed same-sex marriage as a constitutionally protected civil right, much as “pro-choice” themes have been employed to convince single-women voters that Republicans are “opposed to women’s rights.”
The radical leftist Washington-based group “Catholics for Choice” has pushed in recent years, under the banner of SeeChange.org, for a “See Change,” a reference to the Vatican as the “Holy See.” The activists argue that the Vatican should be stripped of its membership in the U.N. because the Catholic Church continues to oppose abortion on moral grounds.
Still, the Obama administration defended the decision both on security and cost-savings grounds, stressing that abandoning the Villa Domiziana as a separate facility for the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican could save between $600,000 and $1 million annually. The Obama administration is preparing to complete its fifth year in office with yet another federal budget deficit approaching or topping $1 trillion a year.
“I see no diminishing in the importance of the relationship at all,” insisted Ken Hackett, the current U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, in a statement to the National Catholic Reporter.
Hackett argued that “the relationship between the Vatican and the U.S. government hasn’t been better than it is right now in quite a while,” especially under Pope Francis.
In the heavily Catholic country of Ireland, the Irish Central reported most nations have two embassies in Italy – one to the country of Italy and another to the Holy See, acknowledging the Vatican is a sovereign state within Italy.
Moreover, the Irish Central noted, some nations, like the U.S., have a third embassy in Rome, dedicated to the United Nations organizations headed in Italy.