President Obama’s Faithful Helpers

President Obama’s decision to close the Vatican embassy—moving the ambassador and his staff into shared office space in the building housing the U. S. Embassy to Italy—is viewed by many, including several former ambassadors to the Vatican, as yet another attempt by the Obama administration to further marginalize the influence of the Holy See.

While the Obama administration cites security concerns in an email to the Daily Caller (after the September, 11, 2012 attack on our embassy in Benghazi, Libya) as the reason for the closure, James Nicholson, the ambassador to the Vatican from 2001 until 2005, described the move as a “massive downgrade of U.S.-Vatican ties … an insult to American Catholics and to the Vatican,” telling a writer for the National Catholic Reporter that the move is “turning the embassy into a stepchild of the embassy to Italy.”

Nicholson’s sentiments were echoed by other former ambassadors to the Vatican including Francis Rooney, Mary Ann Glendon, Raymond Flynn and Thomas Melady.  And although current Ambassador Kenneth Hackett, a recent Obama appointee, defended the move by suggesting that other countries operate under a similar space-sharing arrangement, former Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon dismissed such a defense saying that the importance of the relationship between the U. S. and the Vatican “merits its own location and profile.”

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The criticisms of the embassy closure have come from former ambassadors from both sides of the political aisle.  While Glendon, Nicholson, Rooney and Melady were appointed by Republican presidents, Raymond Flynn, one of the most vocal critics of the closure, was appointed by President Clinton.

In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Flyn said “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…. There’s no diplomatic or political benefit to the United States.”

Part of a Pattern of Marginalizing Faithful Voices
The Obama administration has demonstrated hostility to the Catholic Church throughout his presidency—especially in his most recent removal of religious freedom protections through the Health and Human Services mandate on health care. The HHS mandate requires that all organizations—including Catholic colleges, universities, hospitals and social service organizations—provide insurance coverage that includes abortion inducing drugs like Ella and Plan B, contraceptives, and sterilization procedures.  This mandate requires Catholics to purchase insurance that the Catholic Church teaches is seriously immoral.  The HHS mandate forces Catholic employers to pay for and facilitate access to products and services that are in opposition to their deeply held moral and religious beliefs.

This latest insult to Catholics by President Obama is just the most recent attempt to weaken the influence of the Church on family and life issues. It is a strategy that has been effective for the President since the earliest days of his presidential campaign when he enlisted the help of progressive Catholic groups like the George Soros-supported Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and its sister-organization, Catholics United, to successfully convince Catholic voters to focus on social justice issues like poverty as the way to reduce abortion rates without restricting abortion rights.  Refusing to hold politicians like President Obama and Kathleen Sebelius accountable for their votes in favor of partial birth abortion and taxpayer funded abortion here and abroad, the Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United encouraged Catholics to elect candidates who would address what they called the “root causes” of abortion.

Indeed, Catholics in Alliance and Catholics United wisely refrained from open support for abortion, declining to engage authentically in the contentious culture wars surrounding abortion by appearing to take the moral high ground in their messaging, while at the same time promoting pro-abortion policies and candidates like Kathleen Sebelius for cabinet positions.

These groups and their leaders have been well-rewarded for their support for the President.  In fact, liberation theologian, Miguel Diaz, President Obama’s choice to be ambassador to the Holy See in 2009, has served as “theological consultant to the Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.”  (Currently part of his is vita posted on the College of St. Benedict website).  Sharing the progressive ideology of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Diaz was described in an article by Edward Pentin published in Catholic World Report on May 12, 2011 as approaching pro-life issues “pragmatically.”  When questioned about his support for pro-abortion politicians, Diaz told Catholic News Service that he believed Obama was “committed to working with people who defend life in the womb.”  And, when asked why he supported Kathleen Sebelius, Diaz responded that Sebelius worked to reduce the number of abortions as governor of Kansas—despite the fact that during her tenure she vetoed antiabortion legislation in 2003, 2005, 2006 and again in 2008, and vetoed a bill aimed at strengthening late-term abortion laws and preventing “coerced abortion.”

Ambassador Miguel Diaz: A Most Faithful Obama Helper
Despite his political work with Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good throughout the Obama campaign, and his strong support for Kathleen Sebelius’s “pragmatic” policies on abortion, Diaz was not President Obama’s first choice for the Vatican ambassadorship in 2009.  According to the U K Telegraph, President Obama wanted to appoint Caroline Kennedy, the pro-abortion daughter of President John F. Kennedy, as ambassador.  But, Kennedy’s strong—and open—support for abortion would have made her unacceptable to the Holy See.  Diaz, has never publicly supported abortion—even though he has supported some of the most pro-abortion politicians in the country.

Beyond his affiliation with Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Diaz has also been affiliated with Voice of the Faithful—a progressive organization that emerged in the wake of the clergy abuse scandal in 2002 with the goal of supporting victims, but has since expanded its goal to include major structural reform of the Church, including diminishing the authority of priests and bishops and empowering the laity.

Diaz & BenedictDiaz contributed to the Voice of the Faithful’s “Promise of Vatican II” Discussion Series by participating in a 45 minute DVD presentation entitled “Becoming a World Church.” In the video, Diaz draws upon the documents Lumen gentium and Gaudium et spes to argue for an empowered laity and a diminished role for Church hierarchy. For Diaz, as the Church moves closer to a “world Church” that embraces “popular Catholicism”—a religion that emerges from the people and the people’s experiences rather than from Scripture and the official teachings of the Church, the religion becomes more authentic because it emanates from oppressed people themselves.

In his co-authored book, From the Heart of Our People, Diaz and his contributors draw from the language of  Liberation Theology to argue for “popular Catholicism” as a form of religion itself—a “religion of those treated as subaltern by both society and Church in the  United States … it contains offers and transmits the theological contents and principles that ground a hermeneutic of the faith … the ultimate foundation of the people’s innermost being and common expression of the collective soul of the people.”  From this perspective, “popular” does not mean prevalent, but rather refers to the religious beliefs that emerge from the people themselves.

According to Maria Pilar Aquino’s chapter in Diaz’s co-authored book, popular Catholicism is a religion within which people construct a complex and dynamic vision of the world, connect their religious experience to other ecclesial traditions of life and thought, resist the avalanche of dominant religions and ideologies and confront historical reality’s present contradictions and future possibilities.”

As a proponent of popular Catholicism, Diaz, like his co-author Orlando Espin, maintain that theology is always cultural and any attempt to de-culturalize the theological and religious expressions of a community is sinful. For proponents of popular Catholicism, “those who privilege the ecclesiastical institution as the witness to true Catholicism” are always wrong.

Blessed Pope John Paul II recognized the danger of popular Catholicism more than thirty years ago and denounced the idea of the “people’s Church” in harsh terms—predicting that “The Church born of the people is a new invention that was both absurd and of perilous character … only with difficulty could it avoid being infiltrated by strangely ideological connotations.”

Having read his published work and heard his speeches, it is easy to understand why President Obama chose Miguel Diaz as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.  It is also easy to understand why the movement to close the U.S. Embassy began during Ambassador Diaz’s tenure.  He said so himself. On November 26, in a Catholic News Service interview, Diaz said that “he was closely involved in decision-making about moving the embassy and doesn’t believe there’s any element of downgrading the post.”  Diaz also added that “plans for the move have been in the works since the administration of President George W. Bush.”  If that were true, then the State Department’s official rationale for closing the embassy because of “security concerns” related to Benghazi would have to be untrue. The attack on the embassy in Bengazi occurred in 2012. Perhaps Diaz should help co-ordinate the “official reason” for the closure with the State Department.

Now that Diaz has moved on from his ambassadorship and returned to academia—accepting an endowed chair at the University of Dayton in Ohio—Catholic News Agency reported in January 18, 2013 that President Obama had attempted to find a replacement yet again from the Board of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to take Diaz’s place when he stepped down.  Catholic University’s Professor Stephen F. Schneck, was described by John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter as “making the rounds” as a possible appointment for U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.  For President Obama, Schneck would have been a perfect choice because of his affiliation with Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and for his willingness to openly criticize the bishops when he believes they have crossed the line into politics.

Indeed, in 2009 Schneck was one of 26 Catholic scholars who signed the statement, “Catholics for Sebelius,” supporting President Obama’s selection of Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services. A serial signer of these kinds of open statements, Schneck’s was also one of 24 signatures on a full-page ad published in the South Bend Tribune titled “Catholic Leaders and Theologians Welcome President Obama to Notre Dame.”  The ad was sponsored by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and was intended to criticize the bishops who were protesting the University of Notre Dame’s decision to award an honorary degree to the President.

Even though the Most Rev. Charles Chaput, archbishop of Denver at the time, said that “the work of Democratic Party affiliated groups like Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good have done a disservice to the Church, confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress pro-lifers have made, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue,” Schneck continues to serve as a member of the Board of Directors of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

For President Obama, Schneck would have been a perfect choice as ambassador to the Vatican because in addition to criticizing the Catholic bishops on life issues and religious liberty concerns, Schneck is always willing to attack Republicans for behavior that he views as “contrary” to Catholic teachings.  In 2011, when Speaker of the House John Boehner was invited to give the commencement address at the Catholic University of America, Schneck organized a protest—enlisting 78 faculty members from Catholic colleges and universities—to sign an open letter to the Speaker criticizing him for failing to protect the poor. Ignoring Boehner’s strong pro-life voting record, Schneck and his colleagues scolded the Speaker for the budget he shepherded to passage in the House of Representatives because they believe it gives tax cuts to the wealthy and removes protections for others.  Claiming that Boehner’s voting record is at variance from the Church’s “most ancient moral teachings to preference the needs of the poor,” Schneck has championed some of the strongest proponents of abortion—including President Obama and Kathleen Sebelius.

While Schneck was not chosen for the ambassadorship to the Vatican, President Obama has appointed yet another “pragmatically” pro-life leader in Kenneth Hackett, the former head of Catholic Relief Services.  According to John-Henry Westen of, only four days after formally beginning his post as the new US ambassador to the Vatican, Ken Hackett, “took a swipe at pro-life Americans who criticized CRS for funding groups promoting abortion and contraception.”  Campaign records indicate that Hackett, who  received $300,00 per year as head of the poverty relief organization according to GuideStar filings—was a donor to the Obama presidential campaign.

In a National Catholic Reporter interview from October 25, 2013, Hackett describes his role as “representing the president and our government to members of the Roman Curia and to the Holy See generally on issues that are a priority for us, recognizing that the Holy See is truly global in its reach…there are many, many issues where the U.S. government finds not just common cause with the Vatican but a real convergence of priorities.”  When asked whether he was concerned about giving “cover” to an administration that some Catholics in the United States see as hostile, Hackett responded that he was “not troubled by that … when there are disagreements, we have to dialogue rather than throwing bricks at one another….”

Now, Hackett is providing cover for President Obama’s decision to downgrade the status of the embassy itself.  Claiming that the decision to close the embassy was more about security than anything else, Hackett was quoted in a November 20 article in National Catholic Reporter as saying that “the new site will give visitors the impression that the United States is serious about engaging the Vatican.”  Likewise, Miguel Diaz lauds the decision he helped to make—telling John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter that the criticisms of the closure of the embassy is coming from “representatives of Republican presidents” so it has a “partisan edge.”  Perhaps it is time for Diaz to read the strongly worded statement against the closure of the embassy from Ambassador Flynn—a Clinton appointee.

Editor’s note: Lead image pictures Pope Francis meeting the new U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Kenneth Hackett (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano). Photo in text pictures Ambassador Miguel Diaz presenting his credentials to Pope Benedict XVI.


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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