For the last decade, there was a clear, slam-dunk answer to the question, “Who’s the most important American in the Vatican?” Everyone knew it was Peter Wells, an official of the Secretariat of State who was recently appointed the pope’s new ambassador to South Africa and made an archbishop.
There were other influential Americans over that span, including Cardinal William Levada, who headed the all-important Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope Benedict XVI. Yet because of his smarts and his prodigious work ethic, Wells was the obligatory point of contact for any American who needed something in Rome.
With his departure, however, the question of who the new “go-to guy” is for Americans has become much harder to answer.
One could begin with the three American cardinals who currently hold positions in Rome:
- Cardinal James Harvey, Archpriest of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
- Cardinal Raymond Burke, Patron of the Order of Malta.
- Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
Meaning no disrespect, however, no one could confuse those posts with ones where real Vatican policy is set or political muscle is wielded.
There’s Archbishop Augustine DiNoia, a Dominican who’s adjunct secretary of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog agency. Di Noia, however, was more closely connected to emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, under whom he served in the congregation, and has not played a highly visible role in his new post.
At lower levels, one could mention Americans such as Monsignor Thomas Fucinaro in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; Father Geno Sylva in the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization; Father Scott Borgman of the Pontifical Academy for Life; and Monsignor Robert Oliver of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
All are highly capable individuals doing important work, but none are really at the levels in the Vatican where the key decisions are made.
One seemingly compelling candidate would be Greg Burke, the former Time and Fox TV reporter who since 2012 has worked for the Vatican, first as a senior communications adviser to the Secretariat of State and now as vice-director of the Holy See Press Office.
If Burke does one day take over the Press Office and become the pope’s spokesman, then he may be in a position to move the needle in a significant fashion. For now, however, his role is slightly more limited.
There’s also Jeffrey Lena, a California-based attorney who has represented the Vatican in sex abuse litigation in American courts, and who now spends chunks of his time advising the Vatican on curial reform.
Lena clearly has some behind-the-scenes clout; he stays in the same Vatican residence, the Santa Marta, as the pope, and he’s around whenever there are important meetings and consultations. He’s unique in that he’s not seen as part of any “Anglo-Saxon” alliance, he has good relations with the Italians in the system, and he’s been referred to in the Italian press as an “éminence grise.”
Yet Lena’s role is a bit ill-defined, and not tied to a specific job with clearly articulated responsibilities.
There’s also Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor who’s a former Vatican delegate to high-profile U.N. conferences, a former President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. She sits on the Board of Superintendence of the Institute for the Works of Religion, the so-called “Vatican bank.”
Yet the perception of late is that the board, to some extent, has taken a back seat to the Council of Cardinals that sits above it, led by Spanish Cardinal Santos Abril y Castelló, and in any event it doesn’t deal with issues beyond the bank.
Perhaps one has to approach the question by thinking outside the box, considering figures who aren’t actually based in the Vatican but who nevertheless pack a punch.
By that standard, there’s Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, who’s a member of the pope’s “C9” council of cardinal advisors and also the president of his anti-sex abuse commission. Or, one could look at Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., whom Francis tapped to sit on the drafting commission for the final document of the pontiff’s contentious Synods of Bishops on the family.
No doubt O’Malley and Wuerl are important players, but the fact of not actually being in the Vatican on a regular basis inevitably limits their impact.
In all honesty, the closest thing to a key American in Rome right now might be an Australian: Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy. He’s been embattled recently, but last week he got an important vote of confidence from Pope Francis to stay on well beyond his 75th birthday in June. He’s fundamentally pro-American, and a point of reference for any English-speaker in the Eternal City.
In other words, we may be in a sobering moment for U.S. Catholics, in which the most honest answer to who’s the most important American in the Vatican simply is, “Nobody.”
By now, two things seem clear about Pope Francis’ attitudes towards Americans: He doesn’t exude the overt ambivalence or suspiciousness about the United States that some Latin American prelates do, but neither does he seem to feel any special fondness or closeness to Americans. All that, of course, is reinforced by his difficulties with English.
To put it bluntly, it’s not that he doesn’t like us – we’re just not what he’s thinking about when he gets out of bed in the morning.
Perhaps before long, a senior American churchman will be brought over to Rome to head a Vatican department, or an up-and-coming American in the Vatican’s diplomatic service will be tapped to fill the void left by Wells.
For now, however, the bottom line is that American influence in the Vatican, if not at an historical low ebb, is less palpable than it’s been in a while.