Friday, April 10, 2009

ROME | The Obama administration is having difficulty finding an ambassador to the Vatican, which has informally vetoed the appointment of Caroline Kennedy and other Roman Catholics who have supported President Obama, an Italian newspaper and Vatican specialists said Thursday.

“A trial of strength between Barack Obama and the U.S. church that involves the Holy See is under way,” the conservative Milan newspaper Il Giornale said Thursday in a report by Vatican correspondent Andrea Tornielli.

“The tenant of the White House is very criticized indeed for his choices in favor of abortion and use of stem [cell] embryos, while the impasse for the designation of the new U.S. ambassador in the Vatican continues,” Mr. Tornielli wrote. “At least three names — but there are some that say more — of candidates … have been ‘burned’ even before the proposal of nomination could be made formally, because they were unwelcome to the church.”

The newspaper said those informally rejected include Ms. Kennedy and Douglas Kmiec, a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University and former head of the Office of Legal Counsel for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Both candidates gave prominent endorsements to Mr. Obama during the presidential campaign.

Mr. Kmiec,a Republican who opposes abortion but has said that pro-life Catholics can support a pro-choice candidate such as Mr. Obama, told The Washington Times on Thursday that he could not comment on reports that he has been considered for the ambassador’s position.

“I have been in conversation with the administration on a variety of purposes, including exploration on ways I can be helpful,” he said.

Asked whether he would like the envoy post, he said, “I love my faith. I have great respect for the Holy Father … and for the teachings of the church. … If I could be called to service to such an institution, it would be a great honor.”

Two other Italian publications — Panorama and Corriere della Sera — have reported of U.S. difficulties in finding an ambassador.

The chief Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Thursday that there have been no rejections because no formal nominations have been made.

“No proposals for U.S. ambassador have arrived in the Vatican, so nobody has been refused,” Father Lombardi said. “The rumors that have been circulating on this are not reliable.”

However, that does not mean that potential candidates for ambassador have not been floated and rejected either by the Vatican or by U.S. bishops, said a Vatican official who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Francis X. Rocca, the Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service, said pro-choice candidates for the ambassador’s post likely would face disapproval.

“Given the Vatican’s record of refusing or at least discouraging ambassadors whose actions conflict with Catholic teaching, it is easy to imagine that they would reject a Catholic who explicitly or effectively supports abortion rights,” Mr. Rocca told The Times.

Previous U.S. envoys to the tiny sovereign state, which is the seat of the Catholic Church, did not support abortion rights.

Il Giornale reported that the diplomatic impasse could jeopardize an audience with Pope Benedict XVI for Mr. Obama when he visits Italy for a summit of the Group of Eight major industrialized countries in July.

“The delay in the nomination is creating some problems regarding the G-8 summit in Sardinia in July,” the newspaper said. “Obama for that occasion would like to meet Benedict XVI, but the missing designation of the ambassador threatens to postpone the audience.”

The White House declined to comment on the matter.

The Times on Thursday quoted Raymond Flynn, President Clinton’s ambassador to the Vatican, as saying he had heard that the Vatican has rejected at least three names for U.S. ambassador.

“It would be highly unusual for the U.S. to have somebody who is pro-choice” as U.S. envoy to the seat of the staunchly pro-life church, he said.

“There is a very small field of pro-life Democrats” and that was causing a dilemma for the White House, he added.

Mr. Tornielli said the tussle over the ambassador should be seen in the context of the controversy over the invitation to Mr. Obama to speak next month at the commencement of Notre Dame University, a Catholic institution.

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis George, has criticized Notre Dame for inviting the president.

The semiofficial Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano has refrained from criticizing Mr. Obama.

But, Mr. Tornielli said, the most senior echelons of the Vatican support the tacit veto on a U.S. ambassador who is not pro-life.

“After years of a honeymoon with Bush, aligned with the church on the defense of life less than on international policy, the State Department of Pope Ratzinger expects an ambassador who is not only Catholic but also ‘pro-life,’” Il Giornale said. “Even if, officially, the Holy See has not expressed itself in any way on the new ambassador and has not in addition received official or unofficial proposals, the preventive veto by the U.S. church toward the candidates of Obama is shared in the holy palaces,” the report said.

James Morrison reported from Washington.

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