President Obama is going to visit the pope! He’s been to the Vatican before, but not with this pope, who is perhaps the only person in the world almost everybody likes. Except Rush Limbaugh, which sort of makes it even better.
The president’s visit, which is scheduled for March, comes at an interesting intersection in the two men’s careers. Pope Francis can currently do no wrong, and Barack Obama can do no right. Recently, his administration decided to move its Vatican Embassy into a more secure building, and the outcry was so intense that you’d think Obama had ordered a recreation of the Sack of Rome.
“A slap in the face to the 78 million Catholics in the United States,” one congressman screeched. “Why would our president close our Embassy to the Vatican?” twittered Jeb Bush. “Hopefully, it is not retribution for Catholic organisations opposing Obamacare.”
As political tweets go, this is a keeper on two counts. First, we can once again marvel at Republican politicians’ ability to insert the Affordable Care Act into everything. (Coming soon: How the individual mandate robbed Oprah Winfrey of an Oscar nomination.) Second, we can mark the official end of the former governor of Florida’s career as the safe, sane fallback option in 2016.
But about the Vatican Embassy: the state department has been trying to move it into a compound that includes the American Embassy to Italy. This will save money and improve security. Instantly, certain parties detected a plot. Two former ambassadors to the Vatican, Ray Flynn (Clinton) and Jim Nicholson (Bush), penned a blistering op-ed for The Wall Street Journal in which they called the move “a colossal mistake” that would squish the Holy See’s separate identity. Diplomatically, they attributed more intense feelings to others. (“… many have seen the move as a deliberate slap at the Catholic Church and the pope; some may even detect veiled anti-Catholicism.”)
Fast-forward to many variations on the headline “Obama Insults Catholics”. The state department pointed out that the new quarters would be in an entirely different building, with an entirely different entrance than the Italian Embassy. And that while the new embassy will not be in the Vatican, neither is the current one. Or that of any other country. The Vatican is only two-tenths of a square mile, and more than half of that is gardens. “In fact, our new location is a tenth of a mile closer,” said Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy. “It’s a clear diminishment of the importance of the Holy See post,” said Nicholson.
Cynics might wonder why we have an embassy for the Vatican in the first place. The total population is about 800 people, which is approximately one-eighth the seating capacity of Radio City Music Hall. It has virtually none of the attributes you find in an actual country. It doesn’t even have a cuisine.
But, obviously, nobody is going to disrespect the Vatican while Pope Francis continued…
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