As President Barack Obama tries to avoid fallout from his Cabinet and national security nominations, one potentially controversial post remains vacant.
Amid tension with America's Roman Catholic leaders about a health care mandate that requires religious employers to provide insurance coverage of contraceptives for employees, Obama must find an ambassador to the Holy See who would please the pope as well as his own political supporters.
"Filling the slot tends to be a special headache for Democratic presidents," Vatican expert and papal biographer John Allen wrote in a column this week for the National Catholic Reporter.
Allen said Vatican diplomats have their sights set on a number of Catholic scholars and politicians, including an Illinoisan: U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, a socially conservative Democrat who opposes abortion rights and the health care mandate.
In an interview, Lipinski told the Tribune he has not been offered the job but would welcome consideration.
"Certainly I am honored with the suggestion that I would be a candidate," Lipinski said. "It's certainly, as a Catholic, something I'd be interested in considering."
The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See confers with the Vatican on matters of foreign policy. It also relies on the Vatican to emphasize common values in countries where the U.S. does not have as much influence, said Mark Lagon, a professor in Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
Nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, ambassadors report to the secretary of state. Beginning in 1933, several presidents tapped a liaison to the church in Rome, but the U.S. did not establish official diplomatic relations with the Vatican until 1984. Since then, the appointee has always been Catholic.
The nomination is especially challenging for Democratic presidents because of the party's difficult relationship with the Catholic hierarchy in recent times.
"The custom that it has to be a Catholic complicates things further because it's not just a candidate's policy positions that might cause problems, but his or her internal standing in the church," Allen wrote.
Six former U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican endorsed Republican Mitt Romney in the last election. One of them was Ray Flynn, the former Democratic mayor of Boston who was appointed by President Bill Clinton and knows firsthand that the nomination can cause friction.
"It takes a bit of a courageous act on the part of the president to appoint somebody that he disagrees with on some of these issues, as President Clinton disagreed with me," Flynn said. "You need someone who is going to be well-received, well-respected and at the same time is going to be loyal. Loyalty is the key word here -- loyal to his church and loyal to the United States, and that can be done."
The ambassadorship vacancy was created when Miguel Diaz resigned in November to teach at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Obama broke ground in 2009 by appointing Diaz, the first Latino in the position. A Cuban-American theology professor, Diaz said he constantly reminded Vatican officials that he handled foreign policy, not domestic issues.
"It is not my task, and it will never be anybody's task, to do that kind of domestic mediation," he said.
Diaz said the top criteria for the position should be language skills, an understanding of the Catholic faith and respect for religious diversity and the role of religion in society.
Unlike the U.S., the Vatican has diplomatic relations with countries such as Iran and Cuba, and making the most of those openings is a crucial piece of the Vatican ambassador's job, he said.
Lipinski, who visited Rome last year, said he learned how crucial and underestimated the Vatican envoy's role can be. The ambassador's jurisdiction is the worldwide church, not just its seat in Rome, Lipinski said.
"The ambassador to the Holy See has the opportunity to really hear more from around the world, not just from the Holy See, but what the Holy See hears," he said. "It's different from other ambassadorships. It's not just about the Catholic Church's relationship with the United States. There is sort of a wider-ranging diplomatic role that the Vatican plays in the world that is, in many ways, different from other countries."
Lipinski concedes his language skills are limited. He speaks a little German -- the native language of Pope Benedict XVI -- from his year in Switzerland working for Swissair.
He has a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Northwestern University, a master's in engineering-economic systems from Stanford University and a doctorate in political science from Duke University.
Lipinski was a professor at the University of Tennessee when his father, Bill Lipinski, retired after winning the 2004 primary and pushed for Democratic officials to put his son on the ballot in his place. Dan Lipinski won easily that November and has been re-elected with large margins in the 3rd District, which includes the Southwest Side and southwest and west suburbs.
In Washington, Lipinski co-chairs the congressional Pro-Life Caucus and co-sponsored the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. He also voted against the Affordable Care Act because of its funding for abortion.
Allen and Flynn said Lipinski would be the ideal candidate for the ambassadorship, but appointing him would create another vacancy that Obama might want to avoid, Allen noted. While the Lipinskis have kept their congressional seat Democratic for decades, a vacancy might attract a strong Republican challenge.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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