Friday, June 14, 2013

For the Vatican, Obama Sends "Relief" – Retired CRS Chief Tapped as US Holy See Ambassador

In this administration's second turn at filling Villa Richardson, shortly after 4pm today, the White House announced that President Obama has nominated Ken Hackett – the recently retired president of Catholic Relief Services – as US ambassador to the Holy See.

A rare figure of wide acclaim in today's Stateside church, the Boston native left the helm of CRS in 2011 with both laurels from the nation's bishops and American Catholicism's most prestigious prize – Notre Dame's Laetare Medal. Accordingly, even in a polarized capital, all indications are that the choice of the Peace Corps veteran is a lock to fly through the requisite Senate confirmation, which will likely begin in short order with hearings before the Foreign Relations Committee.

Having moved its headquarters to Baltimore from its longtime home in Washington under Hackett's 18-year watch, CRS – the official humanitarian arm of the US bishops – coordinates a staff of some 5,000 workers in over 90 countries, its annual budget approaching $1 billion drawn from a combination of government and private sources. Having remained almost uniquely immune from the bruising conflicts over Catholic identity which have besieged other church-sponsored social efforts over recent years, the agency's board of directors is constituted to include several members of the USCCB, led per statute by a bishop-chair – the post the now-Cardinal Timothy Dolan held on his 2010 election as the conference's president.

A surprising result – yet one reportedly lobbied for by some senior domestic hierarchs – the nomination caps a months-long cycle of speculation and campaigning for the prized Vatican posting, which had earlier been rumored to be heading toward a key "bundler" (fundraiser) for the Democratic president's re-election campaign. In the end, though, the nod has gone to one of the US church's most trusted lay hands, signaling an olive branch to the bishops amid the ongoing fight over the Obama administration's controversial contraceptive mandate in health care plans. 

The focus of scores of lawsuits on religious freedom grounds, under the current state of the regulations, a sizable number of Catholic entities would be forced to accommodate the policy into their benefits packages on August 1st. The bishops' response to the mandate was discussed in a rare mid-retreat executive session during the bench's plenary this week in San Diego.

As the Vatican slot has almost invariably gone to a choice from outside the professional diplomatic service, the ambassadorship is classified as a "political appointment." 

Pending the upper chamber's advice and consent, Hackett would succeed the Cuban-born theologian Miguel Diaz – the first Hispanic named to the post – who returned to these shores earlier this year to take up a professorship at the University of Dayton.

The new ambassador-designate will be the tenth representative of Washington to the Vatican since full bilateral relations were established in 1984. For the half-century prior, presidents beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt named personal legates to the Popes. 

After roughly a century of relying on the archbishops of Baltimore as its point-men on these shores, the Holy See has kept a listening post in the capital since 1893, its emissaries accredited as apostolic delegates – the non-diplomatic rank intended to represent the Vatican solely to the national church – until relations were normalized.

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In light of this afternoon's news – and, indeed, to reflect Hackett's standing among what's often been one of the Obama White House's toughest crowds – below is fullvideo of the ambassador pick's farewell as CRS president (and his anointing by Dolan as the agency's "icon") at the USCCB's 2011 June plenary in Seattle....