U.S. Pulls Embassy Out of the Vatican

America has long had two embassies in Italy: One for the country, the other for the Holy See. Barbie Latza Nadeau on why soon there will be only one.

Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty

Citing security concerns without naming a specific threat, the U.S. State Department is planning to shutter its embassy to the Holy See inside the lush Villa Domiziana overlooking the Circus Maximus and Palatine Hill in central Rome.

The embassy, which has been in operation since 1984 when Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II signed an accord, will essentially be swallowed up by the larger, more influential U.S. embassy to Italy. Italy is unique in that many countries have two embassies in the capital city – one to the country of Italy and the other to the Holy See, a sovereign nation within the city of Rome. Some, like the United States, even have a third embassy to the United Nations Organizations headquartered in the city. The embassies create a diplomatic subculture that has spawned a slew of international schools and services from health care facilities to commissary-style international food stores, all catering to the large foreign community.

After the move to the American embassy to Italy, scheduled for January 2015 when remodeling work is expected to be completed, the embassy to the Holy See will inhabit a small annex with a separate entrance, but it will be far less independent than it is in its current position across town. Not unlike having two popes in Vatican City with both Pope Francis and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, having two ambassadors in one embassy compound will undoubtedly lessen the power prestige of one.

The move is not sitting well with conservative Catholics who prefer to maintain diplomatic distance from United States policy on issues in direct defiance with Catholic teachings, including same-sex marriage and abortion. Vatican expert John Allen, who first broke the news of the downsize this week in his column in the National Catholic Reporter, quotes a former American ambassador to the Holy See calling the move “a massive downgrade.” James Nicholson, who held the post from 2001 to 2005, told Allen that the move is essentially “turning this embassy into the stepchild of the embassy to Italy.” He told Allen, “The Holy See is a pivot point for international affairs and a major listening post for the Untied States, and to shoehorn it into an office annex inside another embassy is an insult to American Catholics and to the Vatican.”

It has long been the Vatican’s insistence that countries with diplomatic missions to both Italy and the Holy See maintain autonomous embassies. Often the Holy See embassies are far more aligned with the Vatican than they are with their own countries’ policies. According to sources inside the American embassy in Rome, the embassies will maintain separate functions, and the move in no way means the embassy to Italy will overstep its boundaries when it comes to diplomatic relations with the Holy See. The U.S. embassy to Italy has a strategic role in American activities in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It is not uncommon to meet embassy diplomats in Rome who have little knowledge of what’s going on in Italy, a subtle implication that perhaps their work extends far beyond Italian borders.

The U.S. embassy to the Holy See, on the other hand, has a distinct role in church affairs. Since there are no military or trade issues on the agenda, the role is focused on Catholic church policy. Ambassadors are generally well-known Catholic diplomats. The current ambassador, Ken Hackett, was the former head of Catholic Relief Services. His predecessor, Miguel H. Diaz, was a theologian. Activities at the embassy to the Holy See often involve legions of cardinals and high-ranking Catholics milling about the embassy grounds. It is not uncommon to see groups of clerics enjoying the gorgeous views of ancient Roman ruins from the villa terrace. The scene in the annex at the U.S. embassy will be far different. The U.S. embassy to Italy's grounds are quite austere, with most open space dedicated to parking for the staff. The U.S. ambassador generally does diplomatic entertaining at his official residence, which will not be open to the ambassador to the Holy See. Though unconfirmed, the Holy See ambassador is reportedly being shunted to an apartment not far from the embassy.

The anticipated move of the U.S. embassy to the Holy See follows a similar move by the U.S. embassy to the United Nations Organizations, which were shuttled to the embassy grounds in 2012. Their staff was cut and they use the embassy to Italy infrastructure that is already in place. Creating a larger American diplomatic compound on Rome’s swishy Via Veneto will follow the lead of other major countries that have also consolidated their diplomatic properties. Israel has always had consolidated embassies, even sharing staff and services. In 2006, the United Kingdom moved its embassy to the Holy See to its embassy to Italy grounds, creating a similar uproar among British Catholics who wanted to maintain diplomatic distance. A few years later the Netherlands followed suit. In 2011, Ireland closed their embassy to the Holy See entirely, and rely on visiting envoys to keep up diplomatic ties.

The Vatican has not publicly commented on the reports of the American diplomatic consolidation, but given Pope Francis’s own reform-minded approach to running the Catholic Church, it is unlikely he will object to the shake-up. And while the embassy to the Holy See diplomats understandably see the move as a threat, no doubt the Vatican could see it as an opportunity to have even closer ties to more influential diplomats in the United States.