Interview with Ken Hackett, US ambassador to Holy See

Ken Hackett, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, is pictured in his office at the embassy in Rome Dec. 15, 2016. Hackett's last day as ambassador was Jan. 20, when U.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump took office. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Ken Hackett, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, is pictured in his office at the embassy in Rome Dec. 15, 2016. Hackett's last day as ambassador was Jan. 20, when U.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump took office. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

by Thomas Reese

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

As Ken Hackett was preparing to move to Rome as the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See in September 2013, Washington was debating whether or not President Barack Obama should bomb Syria in response to its use of chemical weapons in Bashar al-Assad's war against his people. Assad had crossed Obama's redline, and many said that the president's and the country's credibility was at stake.

In the middle of this debate, the newly elected and very popular Pope Francis called for a day of fasting and prayer for peace on September 8. Thousands of people showed up in St. Peter's Square to pray with the new pope, while millions around the world went to church and into the streets praying that the United States not attack Damascus.

Suddenly, the pope in the Vatican became of particular interest to the White House and the State Department. People there wanted help from the new ambassador in figuring out who this new world leader was. "Does he have a strategy, and if so, what is it and where does it come from? Find out about it and see if we can influence it."

Like many others, Hackett found clues to Francis' goals and strategy in the 2007 Latin American bishops' document that came out of their meeting at Aparecida. 

Gathering information and sending it back to Washington is one of the major jobs of any ambassador, but it is particularly important for the ambassador to the Holy See, an institution like no other the U.S. government deals with diplomatically.

The administration also wanted to know where the pope was on climate change, the use of military force, the Middle East, and numerous other topics.

"The Holy See is global and U.S. interests are global, so the role of the American ambassador to the Holy See goes on any day from the Central African Republic to Venezuela to China to nuclear non-proliferation to bombing in Syria," reports Hackett. "Every day there's something new because the Holy See is engaged at levels that are quite amazing."

But the first issue that Hackett had to deal with was Syria. "We were concerned that after that September 8th event, the pope was going to come out and stridently condemn any bombing or any action," explains Hackett.

But the job of an ambassador is not just to listen and report back to Washington. There is also an attempt to sell the foreign policy views of the United States.

"Happily, the White House and State Department responded when I said, 'You've got to get somebody in here to explain what we're doing, what the objectives are in Syria.' " General John R. Allen, special presidential envoy for the global coalition against ISIS, was sent over to brief the Vatican Secretariat of State on the administration's strategy, especially the nonmilitary tactics that were being used. After that, "all of a sudden, things calmed a little bit," reports Hackett.

The U.S. still had to deal with the pope saying during a press conference on his plane that any military action required the approval of the United Nations. "We're never going to get a U.N. Security Council approval for Syria," reports Hackett, because of the Russian veto. But the U.S. was able to put together a coalition of about 60 nations to fight ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. The Vatican is less antagonistic toward multilateral actions than situations where America goes it alone.

Another major issue about which the Obama administration was concerned was the position of the pope on climate change. Here, happily, the administration and the Vatican were on the same page, although the U.S. did not have much impact on the encyclical. "All of a sudden Washington woke up and said, 'Is there going to be an environmental letter? What's he going to say?' " explains Hackett.

People started coming to talk to the Vatican early in 2015, but by that time the encyclical was pretty well written. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) wanted to advise them on it. Al Gore wanted to meet with the pope, but was informed that the pope did not meet with former presidents or vice presidents. Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, 2013-2017, met with Cardinal Peter Turkson, whose Council for Justice and Peace was ultimately responsible for writing the encyclical.

According to Hackett, "In her meeting with Turkson, she said, 'Alright, here's what we believe. Does this resonate with you?' Turkson said, 'Yes.' So there was an affirmation all along on the issue. But we were late to the table. We didn't have a direct hand in the science that contributed to it." In fact, although the encyclical accepted the science of climate change, it was a pastoral letter, not a scientific letter. It was the work of moral theologians, not scientists.

Hackett believes that after the scientists had their input, Jesuit Fr. Michael Czerny and others in Turkson's office were tasked with writing the letter. "The pope may have had a hand in it; he's a hands-on manager, so who knows?" says Hackett. He does not believe that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences or the Secretariat of State were very involved in writing the encyclical. "I think it came out of Turkson's office."

Holy See ambassador's wide coverage

Issues of concern to both the Vatican and the United States cover a multitude of countries. "You really do go from Ukraine in the morning to Venezuela in the afternoon to China," explains Hackett.

As I reported last week, the United States, Britain, France and Eastern European countries were pressing the Vatican to condemn the Russian invasion of Crimea, but "the pope didn't want to upset Patriarch Kirill," explains Hackett. "He wanted to move towards a closer dialogue with the Russian Orthodox, and he was afraid that if he condemned the Russians in this action, it's going to close the door."

Likewise, the response of the Vatican to Russian activity in Syria has been muted for the same reasons. Policies have changed with the new administration, and it is doubtful that Trump officials were pushing the Vatican to condemn Russia during their recent visit to the Vatican.

The Middle East is often a topic of discussion between American and Vatican officials. Prior to his last attempt at reaching an agreement between Israel and Palestine, Secretary of State John Kerry came to the Vatican. "We sat with Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, and Kerry said, 'OK, I'm going to give it one last shot and I ask you to support this,'" reports Hackett. "He laid out his plan, but it just didn't go because Netanyahu didn't want it to go, and Obama and Netanyahu were like oil on water."

The Obama administration, through Tom Perriello, then special envoy for the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Great Lakes Region of Africa, also pushed the Vatican over an eight-month period to get the Congolese bishops involved in the peace negotiations. "Archbishop Paul Gallagher, secretary for relations with states, was not very sanguine about them doing that. He was afraid that if it didn't work, they'd take the blame," says Hackett. The bishops ultimately did get involved but without any success. They withdrew from negotiations in March of this year.

Sometimes the kind of expertise brought by the United States to the Vatican gets quite technical. When the Vatican, under the influence of the Pontifical Academy of Science and Pope Francis, began talking more and more about total nuclear disarmament, Hackett brought over Rose Eilene Gottemoeller, a U.S. diplomat specializing in nuclear arms negotiations. She explained U.S. policy and how our numbers have gone down over the last 20 years and how the Russians' have leveled off. She also talked about the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. She even had a person explain to Vatican officials the intricacies of dismantling a nuclear warhead.

"They began to understand," explains Hackett. "It was a good, good dialogue."

The Vatican also brought up issues with the Obama administration, especially the plight of Christians in the Middle East. Hackett notes that the Eastern patriarchs in union with Rome would come to the Vatican to meet with the Congregation for Oriental Churches. "They would pound on the table, and they would all disagree with each other about whether the people should stay or go or come back," he reports. "But generally, at the end of that, there was always a condemnation that the U.S. is not doing enough."

There were officials in the Congregation for Oriental Churches and in the Secretariat of State that wanted more from the U.S., but surprisingly, the Vatican was not in favor of applying the word "genocide" to what was happening to Christians in Syria.

"The Vatican viewed the genocide thing in its legal definition," explains Hackett. "Throwing the word 'genocide' around doesn't give it the real substance of what genocide really is."

When the Knights of Columbus came to make the case that Christians were suffering from genocide, they met with Vatican officials, including the secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Gallagher. "They [the Vatican] listened, but Gallagher, for one, was not preferring to call it 'genocide.' " Ultimately, Kerry did declare that Christians, Yazidis and others were victims of genocide.

One never knows what input might have an impact. For example, to help in preparing the pope's speech before Congress, Hackett passed on to the Vatican The Road to Character by David Brooks, which looked at a series of American personalities, including Dorothy Day. When Hackett heard the pope's address, organized around a series of American Catholic personalities, he figured the book had influenced the speech and believes the talk was written by Archbishop Peter Wells in the Vatican Secretariat of State.

Looking back

Hackett found the people he dealt with in the Vatican "for the most part intelligent, hardworking, committed, who kept their heads down and were not gossiping all the time. In the Secretariat of State and some other dicasteries, the people actually knew what they were talking about, whereas, you don't always find that in the State Department."

The major problem he saw was a lack of communications within the curia — they did not communicate with each other.

For example, when the Council for the Promoting Christian Unity arranged a meeting between the pope and Russian Patriarch Kirill in Cuba, it did not keep the Vatican Secretariat of State in the loop.

"They don't talk to each other," reports Hackett. "That's what the pope is trying to do in his reorganization. Instead of having all these dicasteries for family, laity and life, bring them together and have them talk to each other."

After he first got to Rome, Hackett brought together curial offices and religious communities who were concerned about trafficked peoples. "For the most part, none of them knew what the other one was doing," reports Hackett.

Overall, Hackett sees positive things happening in the reform of the curia. The major challenge or contradiction in the pope's desire to reform the curia is that he does not want to lay anyone off or even have any buy outs. At the same time, he wants a smaller curia.

One of the jobs of an ambassador is to push things through the bureaucracies on both sides of the ocean. For example, one early priority of Pope Francis was financial reform of the Vatican, and that involved fulfilling the requirements of Moneyval, the international organization to counter money laundering. As part of fulfilling those requirements, the Vatican was negotiating with the U.S. Treasury over regulating financial transactions between the U.S. and the Vatican, but the Vatican was not going to meet the Treasury's deadline.

"It came to Thanksgiving weekend and we were almost there, but they couldn't satisfy the needs of the Treasury Department. It got really tense because everybody knew that the pope didn't want to get rated bad by the financial authorities again. Financial reform was one of his early objectives."

Things were going slow on the Vatican side because of its technical complexity and because it required agreement between both sections of the Vatican Secretariat of State.

"We were going back and forth. Vatican officials were calling me, and I was calling Washington. Washington basically said, "Just let them wait. China isn't going to get it, and India is not going to get it. Just let them wait."

Trying to keep the pope from being embarrassed, Hackett pushed both sides, "This cannot wait. You have to approve it or agree to an extension."

Ultimately, the Treasury Department did grant the Vatican an extension, and an agreement was reached the first weekend in December. This was the first time the U.S. government signed an agreement like this with the Vatican. Vatican observers saw the agreement as an indication of progress in the pope's financial reforms.

Hackett clearly enjoyed his time as ambassador.

From the very beginning of his service, "I knew that I was going to have an interesting time," explains Hackett whose service concluded in January with the end of the Obama administration.

Being ambassador to the Holy See is a challenging job for any American, but Hackett was uniquely qualified because, as a former president of Catholic Relief Service, he was well versed in Catholic social teaching and the church's international reach. Having worked for the church on both the national and international level, he was well known in church circles and familiar with the politics and organization of the church. Few if any ambassadors have been as well prepared. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Thomas Reese's column, Faith and Justice, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.


Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters