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December 2013

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Embassy Vatican under the spell of Embassy Rome
by James F. Creagan

It seems that there are well-developed Department of State plans, “for Security Reasons”,  to relocate the US Embassy to the Holy See from its location overlooking Rome’s  Circus Maximus to the Via Veneto area in an annex of the US Embassy to Italy—perhaps even to the “Mel Sembler” building, named for George W. Bush’s Ambassador to Italy. The Holy See has a long standing policy calling for the representative of country “X “to the Holy See to be other than the Ambassador or diplomat accredited to Italy. The separate status ensures that the diplomatic focus is on issues and relationships of importance to the Holy See as sovereign entity, not overtly influenced by the physical location of Vatican City in Rome. The Holy See must have its doubts about the apparent transfer of the US Chancery to the Holy See across town to the US Chancery to Italy. It may publically minimize expressions of concern, especially since the reason given by the US for the transfer seems to be security for its diplomats in the wake of Benghazi. Former US Ambassadors to the Holy See, however, do express their deep concerns. They know that the reality will be a reduction in the importance of Embassy, Vatican with its mission and its influence at a very time when religions impact foreign policy in a way that ideologies once did. As one recent Ambassador put it, relocation will be a “massive downgrade” and turn the US diplomatic representation to the Holy See into a “stepchild of the embassy to Italy”. He may be right. There is a history here. I remember it.

The relocation of the US Embassy to the Holy See to the grounds of the US Embassy to Italy is significant both symbolically and physically. Physical location and “presence” is important. A move to the Via Veneto site brings the US representation to the Holy See back to its old locus. In the 1970’s, I served in the political section of the US Embassy. One of our political officers was responsible for the ongoing relationship with the Vatican and for reporting on the Vatican. From time to time, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., President Nixon’s personal representative to the Holy See, would come over to Rome. Offices would be set up in the Grand Hotel, where he stayed. There would be a several week flurry of activity.

The Vatican was important for our relationship with Italy, not least because the Pope, always an Italian, with his mostly Italian Curia had enormous influence over the political direction of Italy in a time of Cold War. The US was intensely interested in that.

When President Reagan named his friend, Bill Wilson, to the Holy See in 1981, I am not certain that either one fully realized that the Personal Representative to the Holy See was not an Ambassador. I was at the State Department then, in charge of Italian and Vatican Affairs, and Bill Wilson used to ask why he was called Mr. Wilson and Max Rabb (Reagan’s Ambassador to Italy) was Mr. Ambassador. I could only tell him that it was because Max Rabb was Ambassador to Italy, and we had no Ambassador to the Holy See.

Wilson worked hard to get out from under the Embassy Rome umbrella. One way was to get a Residence. It was he who engineered the USG lease of the Villa Richardson, which became the Residence of our Ambassadors to the Holy See. By 1984, President Reagan was able to get the Congress to support full diplomatic relations with the Holy See, including a full-fledged Ambassador. Wilson thus became the first U.S. Ambassador. Wilson knew the importance of a separate Chancery (Embassy offices), and he secured one very near the Vatican in a magnificent building associated with the family and life of Pope Pius XII. The Villa Pacelli, where I served as DCM under Ambassadors Shakespeare and Melady, was indicative of the importance the US attached to its new relationship with the Holy See. We had political officers, protocol persons and diplomatic analysts, a USIA section, our own marine guards who hung out with the Swiss guards, and so forth. In the days of John Paul II and the coming collapse of the Soviet Empire there was much to do, and we were minutes away from the Vatican. We were meeting with Vatican diplomats daily, and we had a very substantive agenda. Our job was, as we always said, “foreign policy, not religion”.

Security at the chancery villa—with grounds around—was excellent as well. There were Italian police, embassy contract guards and the marines. There was no question of the Embassy to Italy being big brother or overlooking the relationship. They did, then as now, manage administrative and budgetary matters (but the Embassy to the Holy See had its own sacrosanct budget not subject to Rome). When Panamanian dictator Noriega sought asylum in the Vatican Embassy in Panama, our Ambassador to Italy did suggest to me that he would get in the game because of its importance to Washington. I told him that the US issue was with the Holy See and there was zero role for our Embassy to Italy. That was the way it was. I remember negotiating with Vatican “Foreign Minister”, then Archbishop Sodano, on Christmas Day and working with Ambassador Melady for 10 days until the successful denouement and the USG arrest of Noriega. I am certain that, had we been over at the Via Veneto during the Noriega case and with a myriad of other issues that raged from Central America to Human Rights in Africa and working on a peace settlement in the Mozambique civil war, the proximity, pressure and certain involvement of the Embassy to Italy (with its separate mandate and its leadership focused on its own Washington political considerations) would have “Italianized” our world view and approach to the Holy See. I know, because I was later Deputy Ambassador to Italy and always sensitive to the temptations of some to override and overwhelm that little US Embassy to the Holy See.

A physical move is important. After the end of the Cold War and the budgetary pressures of the early nineties, the Chancery to the Holy See moved from the Villa Pacelli to more modest quarters near the Circus Maximus. It downsized as well, and that may have been right and essential for the times. However, a move now to the grounds of the US Embassy to Italy is different. It may be judged necessary for Security reasons, although that reason cannot be due to a comparison of the faux US Consulate (Special Mission Compound) in a lawless Benghazi with zero government of Libya protection to the US Embassy to the Holy See in Rome with full Italian government police protection—and marines inside as well.

The move back to Via Veneto can work. But every effort must be made to isolate it from the natural tendency to become junior partner to big brother, first in all the mundane administrative matters and then in matters of diplomacy and action. One can envisage the Department of State seeing merit in political and economic officers of the big embassy again wearing two hats, one for Italy and one for the Vatican. It is cheaper. To prevent that it will be important for the two Ambassadors to keep to their turf and for Washington to understand that. It is true that this is a very different world from that of the Italian Pope and the Italian Christian Democratic Party running Italy. The US Embassy to Italy then had significant interest in policies and actions of the Vatican. For now it will be important to follow Robert Frost’s dictum that “good fences make good neighbors” in order to ensure the future independence of the US Embassy to the Holy See from its landlords with their offices in the big palazzo and on the piano nobile where once resided the Italian Queen Margherita.bluestar


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.


Author Jim Creagan was Ambassador to Honduras and spent 34 years in the Foreign Service—almost all outside Washington. With spouse, Gwyn, he was posted to Mexico City, San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, Lima, Naples, Rome, Lisbon, Brasilia, Sao Paulo and the Vatican. He holds a PhD from the Univeraity of Virginia and he is Professor of International Affairs at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas.  

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