Is this a trial balloon? He has been in office for 8 years. That is a long time. If so, who should replace him? We have plenty of talent in the 19th. Any names?
Filling the slot tends to be a special headache for Democratic presidents," Vatican expertand papal biographer John Allen wrote in a column this week for the National Catholic Reporter.
Allen said Vatican diplomats have their sights set on a number of Catholic scholars and politicians, including an Illinoisan: U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, a socially conservative Democrat who opposes abortion rights and the health care mandate.
In an interview, Lipinski told the Tribune he has not been offered the job but would welcome consideration.
"Certainly I am honored with the suggestion that I would be a candidate," Lipinski said. "It's certainly, as a Catholic, something I'd be interested in considering."
The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See confers with the Vatican on matters of foreign policy. It also relies on the Vatican to emphasize common values in countries where the U.S. does not have as much influence, said Mark Lagon, a professor in Georgetown University'sSchool of Foreign Service.
Nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, ambassadors report to the secretary of state. Beginning in 1933, several presidents tapped a liaison to the church in Rome, but the U.S. did not establish official diplomatic relations with the Vatican until 1984. Since then, the appointee has always been Catholic.
The nomination is especially challenging for Democratic presidents because of the party's difficult relationship with the Catholic hierarchy in recent times.
"The custom that it has to be a Catholic complicates things further because it's not just a candidate's policy positions that might cause problems, but his or her internal standing in the church," Allen wrote.
Six former U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican endorsed Republican Mitt Romney in the last election. One of them was Ray Flynn, the former Democratic mayor of Boston who was appointed by President Bill Clinton and knows firsthand that the nomination can cause friction.
"It takes a bit of a courageous act on the part of the president to appoint somebody that he disagrees with on some of these issues, as President Clinton disagreed with me," Flynn said. "You need someone who is going to be well-received, well-respected and at the same time is going to be loyal. Loyalty is the key word here — loyal to his church and loyal to the United States, and that can be done."
The ambassadorship vacancy was created when Miguel Diaz resigned in November to teach at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Obama broke ground in 2009 by appointing Diaz, the first Latino in the position. A Cuban-American theology professor, Diaz said he constantly reminded Vatican officials that he handled foreign policy, not domestic issues.