President Barack Obama recently announced his selection for U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. It is Ken Hackett, former head of Catholic Relief Services.

Hackett seems well regarded by a lot of people in Catholic circles, but I’m still troubled by the choice. Once again, the president has felt obligated to name not only a Catholic, but one who meets the approval of conservative factions within the Roman Catholic Church.  

Since President Ronald Reagan established full formal diplomatic ties with the “Holy See” in 1984, every U.S. ambassador has been Catholic. This prejudicial pattern suggests one of many reasons why it’s problematic for the American government to maintain a special relationship with one religious organization.

I know that most Americans probably don’t understand the U.S. hookup with the Vatican. They think our diplomacy merely recognizes the Vatican City State, a tiny independent entity in Rome. (It issues stamps!; it’s defended by the Swiss Guard!) But, in fact, the American relationship is not with that 110-acre micro-state, it’s with the Holy See, the institutional office of the pope himself.

You simply cannot square that kind of U.S. governmental favoritism for one faith with the constitutional separation of church and state. Americans United protested loudly when Reagan proposed diplomatic ties, but Congress went along with it.

AU and 15 allied religious groups (including the National Coalition of American Nuns) filed a lawsuit challenging the relationship but the federal courts refused to intervene. The U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals said our plaintiffs didn’t have standing because they couldn’t prove they were injured and the Constitution gives control of foreign policy to the executive branch.

The decision was obviously wrong. When the government establishes a special relationship with one church, all other denominations are inherently harmed by occupying second-class status. And the Constitution does indeed give the executive branch authority over foreign affairs, but it also flatly bans any move respecting an establishment of religion.

Unfortunately, however, the court decision means official U.S. ties with the church headquarters have stayed in place. Thus U.S. government officials and Vatican leaders have been given unique back-door access to advance their respective agendas. To me, it’s the quintessential violation of separation between religion and government.

There have been plenty of political intrigues along the way and some truly unsavory events. One example: when American prelates were under fire for covering up priestly child abuse, one bishop suggested that pertinent files be sent to the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C., where the evidence would be protected by diplomatic immunity. 

ABC News reported that in 1990 Cleveland Bishop A. James Quinn told lawyers and other church officials that “dangerous” material could be shipped to the Vatican embassy before it could be subpoenaed by law enforcement authorities.

“If you think it's going to be necessary, if there is something there that you really don't want reviewed, you might send it off to the apostolic delegation,” said Quinn. “They have immunity. If it's dangerous, if it's something you consider dangerous you might send it off to them.”

What an outrage!   

To make this bad situation worse, presidents and their advisers have decided that our official representative to the Holy See must be a Catholic and, generally speaking, one who doesn’t ruffle any feathers with the higher-ups on “controversial” issues such as abortion, homosexuality and “religious freedom.”

Call it a religious test for public office.

But, wait! Doesn’t the Constitution forbid “any religious test for public office?” Sure does. Right there in Article VI.

And to compound the problem, consider this: Not only do U.S. government officials apply a religious test; so do the folks in Rome.

Veteran Vatican watcher John L. Allen at the National Catholic Reporter says, “Sources told NCR that Hackett has already received the Vatican's agrément, meaning the formal diplomatic approval, for the ambassador's position. (Under international law, a host nation [sic] has the right to accept or reject potential ambassadorial nominees.)”

Religion News Service says two other potential ambassador candidates – Stephen Schneck of Catholic University and Nicholas Cafardi of Duquesne’s law school – reportedly failed to make the cut after conservative Catholics attacked them. It seems Schneck and Cafardi were insufficiently obeisant to the Catholic hierarchy and its political stances.

How very nice for the Vatican’s men of the cloth! The American government gives them special treatment above all other faiths, and they get veto power over whom we send them. What a sweet deal!

What’s to be done about all this? Not much. Presidents find the arrangement useful, Vatican prelates love the power and influence it gives them and the federal courts have signed off on it.

But it’s still a rotten arrangement any way you look at it.

Hopefully, a president someday will get the constitutional backbone to call it all off.