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Who will be Biden's man at the Vatican?

As President-elect Joe Biden begins naming appointees to key Cabinet and administration positions, some Catholics have speculated about who the nation’s second Catholic president will appoint as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. 

Credit: U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.

While Biden touted an apparent relationship with Pope Francis during his candidacy, the actual relationship between the pope and the president could become difficult as Biden begins to govern, especially because U.S. bishops have already raised serious concerns about Biden over abortion, and seem poised to continue doing so. 

While Biden has pledged an agenda that would codify federal abortion legislation and offer public funding for abortion, the pope has been clear about Catholic doctrine on abortion, writing that “defence of unborn life is closely linked to the defence of each and every other human right.”

If the U.S. bishops urge Pope Francis to challenge Biden’s policies and rhetoric on abortion, Biden’s ambassador to the Holy See could become an important political position for the president. Since Biden emphasized in his campaign his Catholicity, he is likely to prioritize keeping up appearances on that front as he looks to reelection.  

The more pressure Biden faces on abortion, the more he’ll want to frame his relationship with the pope as one mostly consisting of common ground, and he’ll rely heavily on diplomacy to do that. 

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Whoever Biden chooses as ambassador to the Holy See, the political mandate will be direct: Bolster Biden’s Catholic image by promoting points of commonality between the administration and the Holy See, and by urging that critical differences be downplayed. While the U.S. bishops seem split on Biden, the USCCB’s president, at least, has already flagged issues with the Biden agenda, and seems bent on continuing to raise them. Biden’s team will want to find a way around that problem by suggesting a close relationship with the pope. 

The pope could soon find himself between U.S. bishops lobbying for clear language on abortion, and the Biden administration lobbying for photo ops.

But if Pope Francis speaks forcefully about abortion in the years to come, as he has in the past — condemning selective abortion of the disabled as “the same as the Nazis to maintain the purity of the race, but with white gloves” — Biden will find it difficult to suggest his agenda is aligned with Catholic doctrine.

Despite those considerations, the appointment of ambassador to the Holy See is unlikely to receive top-tier attention among the hundreds of political appointments required at the beginning of an administration.

In fact, Biden is unlikely to make the appointment until months after his inauguration.

Callista Gingrich, the current ambassador to the Holy See, was nominated five months after President Donald Trump was inaugurated in January 2017. President Barack Obama did not nominate an ambassador to the Holy See until he had been in office for five months.  

Among Catholics, however, there has already been talk about possibilities. 

Initially discussed in both Rome and D.C. was former Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough, who was an outspoken Catholic in the Obama administration. But McDonough was last month tapped to be Biden’s Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and is out of the running for the ambassador job. 

Also mentioned frequently as a front-runner for the job is Dr. Carolyn Woo, who was from 2012 until 2016 the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ global relief charity. She was before that dean of the business school at the University of Notre Dame, and before that a vice president at Purdue University. Since 2017, Woo has served as a global development fellow at Purdue.

An immigrant to the U.S. from Hong Kong, Woo was a national co-chair of the “Catholics for Biden” campaign and has spoken out in recent months to suggest an alignment between Pope Francis and the Democratic party platform. 

Woo has not spoken publicly about abortion, the largest point of divergence between the Biden platform and Catholic doctrine, but CRS was accused during her tenure of collaborating with groups that promote abortion and contraception; a charge that both CRS and the bishops’ conference have refuted.

While Woo’s support for Biden’s political agenda puts her at odds with the U.S. bishops and Pope Francis over abortion, she is broadly perceived to have had a collaborative working relationship with the bishops’ conference, which might be seen as a positive within the Biden administration, as tension with the conference is already high. Woo might be viewed as a balm to that tension.

Other possibilities for Biden reportedly include John Gehring, a progressive Catholic journalist who helped lead efforts to bolster Biden’s Catholic bona fides in recent months, and John Carr, a longtime USCCB policy staffer who now runs a Georgetown think tank, and who endorsed Biden during the campaign. After Carr’s support for Biden, neither of those choices would likely be welcomed by those members of the bishops’ conference who have been outspoken on abortion. 

Whoever Biden chooses, the next ambassador to the Holy See will be in an unenviable position: trying to boost the president’s image as a Catholic, while the president promotes a political agenda opposed by Catholic doctrine and magisterium. For that reason, the real question might not be ‘Who will Biden pick?’ but ‘Who will be willing to take the job?’

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