Pope Francis on Tuesday named a new ambassador to the United States, tapping French Archbishop Christophe Pierre, formerly the Vatican’s envoy to Mexico, to take the place of Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.
Viganò, who turned 75 in January, the usual retirement age for Catholic bishops, became engulfed in controversy last September when he helped arrange an unannounced meeting between the pontiff and Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who became a national cause célèbre for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Pierre, 70, was widely rumored to be in line for the position in the United States, after putting in nine years as the nuncio in Mexico. Prior to that, he’d served in both Uganda and Haiti, as well as other Vatican postings in New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Brazil, and the Holy See’s U.N. Office in Geneva.
Vatican observers generally describe Pierre as a seasoned diplomat and an effective behind-the-scenes broker of consensus. One advantage he brings to his new position in Washington is fluency in English.
Pierre was born in Rennes, France, in 1946, and spent a year in Morocco during his studies. He later attended the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the Vatican’s elite school for diplomats, and entered the Vatican’s diplomatic corps in 1977.
Pierre is seen as a largely non-ideological figure, adept at staying out of the political spotlight. His posting in Haiti coincided with a period of civil conflict and church/state tensions focusing on ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, and it was Pierre who helped arrange for Aristide to be “laicized,” meaning removed from the clerical state.
Given Pope Francis’ keen interest in promoting closer relations between the bishops of Mexico and the United States, especially in terms of pastoral care for immigrants, many observers believe Pierre’s background makes him ideally suited for that task.
For Viganò, his five-year run as the pope’s representative in the United States both began and ended in controversy. He was named to the role in 2011, amid the shock-waves of the first “Vatileaks” scandal in Rome.
Viganò had served as the secretary, or number two official, in the Government of the Vatican City State, and among the confidential documents to appear in the Italian press were a number of memos he had written, including to Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, then the Secretary of State, and even Pope Benedict XVI, describing his efforts to curb financial corruption, cronyism and waste.
At one stage Viganò implored Pope Benedict not to move him, but rather to allow him to remain and complete his project of reform. His assignment to Washington was thus taken in some quarters as a demotion, or perhaps an instance of the time-honored Vatican custom of “promoting to remove.”
As for Davis, her meeting with Francis sparked controversy, and at the time a Vatican spokesman appeared to shift responsibility for making the encounter happen to Viganò, suggesting the invitation came from him rather than Rome or the pope personally.
Other Church observers, however, suggested that Viganò had been “thrown under the bus” when news of the meeting leaked and threatened to overshadow the conclusion of the pontiff’s trip.
During the fall assembly of the U.S. bishops in November 2015, Viganò was given two standing ovations in what was widely seen as a show of support – if not for the Davis meeting specifically, for Viganò generally, who’s widely seen as a gracious and amiable figure.
Tuesday’s Vatican statement did not say when Pierre will take over from Viganò, but it’s likely he will assume the post prior to the November 2016 general election and thus will be the Vatican’s front man for working out a relationship with whatever new administration takes office in January.