Monthly Archives: March 2002

America on the Tiber

National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002
Political factors increase embassy’s stature

What the Vatican and the rest of the Catholic world know of America is often forged by contact with Americans in Rome. Americans in the curia, in religious life, in pontifical universities, in the diplomatic corps, and in institutions such as the North American College serve as a bridge between two worlds. They bring the fruits of American culture to the universal church, while their Roman experience gives them a new perspective back home.

In this series, a kind of introduction to America on the Tiber, NCR offers a look at Americans who matter in Rome, what they do and what difference they make.


Rome — If the job of vice president of the United States, as John “Cactus Jack” Garner once put it, isn’t worth a “bucket of warm spit,” the office of ambassador to the Holy See hasn’t traditionally rated much higher.

James Nicholson, however, may be changing that. Nicholson, 64, seems on track to be the most powerful ambassador to the pope in U.S. history.

In Foreign Service circles, the Holy See is often viewed as a sleepy assignment where diplomats go to wind down. Though the Vatican is acknowledged as a “good listening post,” most foreign ministries do not follow it closely. One ambassador who heads a two-person mission here recently confessed to NCR, “There’s really not enough work for two people.” Another said that when he volunteered to send confidential speculation about the next pope to the home office, their curt response was, “Don’t bother.”

There are three American ambassadors in Rome: the ambassador to Italy, Mel Sembler; the ambassador to U.N. agencies for food and agriculture, a job formerly held by George McGovern but currently vacant; and the ambassador to the Holy See.  Each embassy is staffed by professional diplomats. (The most ironically named American in Rome is William Pope, deputy chief of mission at the embassy to Italy.)

Sometimes American personnel are sufficiently charmed that they stay on. Margaret Melady, president of the American University in Rome, is the wife of Thomas Melady, who served as ambassador to the Holy See from 1989 to 1993.

For Catholics, ambassador to the Holy See is the key position.  From 1848 to just before the fall of the Papal States in 1870, the United States and the pope exchanged ambassadors. President Harry Truman tried to revive the relationship in 1950, nominating Gen. Matthew Clark as his ambassador. Anti-Catholicism in U.S. politics doomed the proposal, however, and it was not until 1984, under Ronald Reagan, that full relations were established.

In the meantime, several presidents dispatched “personal envoys.” Myron Taylor, Franklin Roosevelt’s envoy to Pius XII, found himself in the heart of Axis-controlled Europe during World War II. He lived in the palazzo del’arciprete (essentially the rectory of St. Peter’s Basilica), and proved an invaluable source of perspective from behind enemy lines.

Richard Nixon sent Henry Cabot Lodge, and Jimmy Carter dispatched Robert Wagner, former mayor of New York.   Since 1984, ambassadors to the Holy See have been lay Catholics with good political connections. This frustrates some in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, who would feel that their diplomatic contribution was taken more seriously if the U.S. ambassador were a senior foreign service professional.

Even such a seasoned politico as Raymond Flynn, former Boston mayor and ambassador to the Holy See under President Clinton, struggled to get his president’s attention.  In John Paul II: A Personal Portrait of the Pope and the Man, Flynn recounts an episode from 1994, amid battles over population control leading up to the Cairo Conference, when the pope asked him to get Clinton on the phone. The request came on a Saturday, and after failing to arrange the call over the weekend, Flynn flew to Washington on Tuesday. He waited outside the Oval Office, then came back Wednesday to wait again. Late that afternoon, a senior aide told him to forget it. Flynn pushed harder, and finally, on Thursday, Clinton made the call.

Such benign neglect is, however, unlikely today. Three factors coincide to give Nicholson much greater access and importance: his own background; the political importance of Catholicism to Bush; and Sept. 11.

Nicholson, 64, is a former paratrooper and colonel in the U.S. army who won multiple decorations in Vietnam. Later, as chair of the Republican National Committee, he shattered fundraising records. He engineered the Republican “clean sweep” of 1998 and helped steer George Bush to the White House in 2000.

Sources say Nicholson has brought his high-octane approach to the embassy. Gone are the days of relative quiet under Corrine (Lindy) Boggs, an octogenarian and classic Southern dame.

No president in recent American history has taken such a strong interest in the “Catholic vote” as Bush. Advisers believe that in several swing states, socially conservative Catholic voters hold the key to reelection in 2004. Hence, Bush has reached out to the American bishops, and in July 2001 he went to Castle Gandolfo to meet the pope.

Nicholson presented his credentials to the pope Sept. 13, just two days after the World Trade Center attack. That coincidence threw him into immediate and frequent high-level Vatican contacts.

He made friends fast. On May 15 and 16, Nicholson will host a conference on human trafficking, an issue that has emerged as one of his priorities. Opening the event will be Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s foreign minister, while the dinner address will be delivered by Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano.  Vatican delegations don’t get much more high level than that.

In an interview with NCR last fall, Nicholson was reluctant to connect the dots between the Bush electoral strategy and his job as ambassador. “I wouldn’t want to respond to that, because doing so would tend to politicize the position,” he said.

Yet clearly Republican success with Catholics is a source of satisfaction.  “We increased the Catholic vote by 10 percent in the election of 2000 compared to 1996,” Nicholson said. “We did it the old-fashioned way, by going after it. We got lists of Catholics and mailed to them, telephoned them. I think President Bush’s positions are appealing to Catholics.”

It is a message Nicholson will no doubt be looking, albeit in subtle ways, to repeat.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is