.- Amid speculation over the next U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, concerns have been raised about the possibility of appointing individuals known for criticizing the views of the bishops. “From the steps Obama has taken in the last year, it would seem that he is trying to diminish Church influence,” a Vatican official told CNA. The official, who requested anonymity, pointed to the administration’s contraception mandate as an example. The controversial mandate, which has been repeatedly criticized by the bishops in the U.S., requires employers to offer insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and drugs that can cause early abortions.

The Vatican official explained that it is “contrary to the ends of diplomacy” to send a diplomat who has publicly expressed views that are “adverse to the institution of the country he is being sent to.” “The choice of an outspoken critic of the Church would be an unfortunate misstep,” he said. In a recent article in the National Catholic Reporter, renowned Vatican journalist John L. Allen Jr. listed names of individuals who are “making the rounds” as possible appointments for U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. The previous ambassador, Miguel Diaz, recently stepped down to teach at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

Two of the individuals listed by Allen are known for recently criticizing the stance of the U.S. bishops with regard to respect life issues and religious freedom. One of these men is Stephen F. Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America and formerly the chair of the university’s politics department.

Schneck is affiliated with both Democrats for Life of America and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a social justice advocacy group that has been criticized by numerous bishops for causing confusion about the priority of moral issues by downplaying the significance of fundamental matters like abortion – while giving heavy weight to issues such as the environment.

Last spring, Schneck sparked controversy by charging that the Knights of Columbus was engaging in “scandalous” and “dangerous” behavior by using rhetoric that suggested that a war was being waged against the Catholic faith through various threats to religious freedom.

As the Knights joined the bishops in voicing serious apprehension over the contraception mandate, warning that it unfairly oppressed believers, Schneck dismissed these concerns as overblown, arguing that it was “ridiculously obvious” that there “is no persecution of Catholics in the United States.”

Although he said that he thinks the mandate rules should be relaxed as they apply to Catholic institutions, he has argued that the regulation – which could lead to stifling fines that force Catholic organizations to close – does not amount to religious persecution.

Despite Schneck’s criticism, the Knights of Columbus enjoy significant credibility in the Holy See, both for their charitable efforts and for their defense and support of the Catholic Church, especially on issues of life and marriage.

In an August 2012 letter, Pope Benedict XVI praised the Knights’ work to promote and defend religious liberty in the U.S.

The letter applauded the Knights’ efforts to protect “the right of all religious believers, as individual citizens and in their institutions, to work responsibly in shaping a democratic society inspired by their deepest beliefs, values and aspirations.”

The Knights have also offered support for the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. Supreme Knight Carl Anderson has been appointed by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to serve on several Vatican commissions.

Schneck also sparked debate in 2011, when he charged that Republican budget proposals were “anti-life” and discordant with Church teaching because their spending cuts could harm the poor and elderly. His critics noted that he has supported national candidates that openly embrace increased abortion access and funding.

Another name listed as a possible contender for ambassador was Nicholas P. Cafardi, the former dean of the Duquesne University School of Law. A canon and civil lawyer, Cafardi was an original member and the second chairman of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth.

He drew criticism with a 2008 article arguing that while he was a “committed Catholic,” he was throwing his support behind Obama for president, despite his stance on abortion.

“I believe that we have lost the abortion battle – permanently,” Cafardi said.

In the article, he argued that “a vote for Obama is not somehow un-Catholic” but could instead provide a path to minimize abortion “without endorsing Republicans’ immoral baggage.”

While believing that “abortion is an unspeakable evil,” he also stated his opposition to Republican stances on the war in Iraq and the treatment of suspected terrorists and detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
He also argued that the stronger social safety net proposed by Obama would lead to reduced abortion rates, regardless of Obama’s push to remove restrictions and increase funding of abortion.

The article elicited disagreement from numerous sources, including Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Catholic, pro-life college in Ohio where Cafardi served on the Board of Trustees. The university issued a statement distancing itself from his article, and he resigned from the board shortly afterwards.

Cafardi later sparked further controversy during the 2012 campaign by accusing several bishops of electioneering and lobbying for their criticism of Obama’s policies on abortion and religious liberty.

Both Schneck and Cafardi additionally caused a stir for their defense of Kathleen Sebelius for HHS Secretary despite her adamant support for abortion. Both men signed a 2009 letter calling Sebelius “a woman of deep faith” with a “record of building the common good.”

It was in this capacity as secretary that Sebelius later issued the controversial contraception mandate that has been challenged in lawsuits from more than 100 individuals and organizations.

Schneck and Cafardi called for the revision of initial mandate to broaden conscience protections for Catholic institutions. However, their opposition to the mandate did not prevent them for campaigning for Obama in 2012, assuming the role of national co-chairs of the Catholics for Obama campaign group.

Other names on Allen’s list of prospective picks were former Catholic Relief Services president Ken Hackett and Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), a Catholic congressman known for his active pro-life work and his votes to defend marriage and protect freedom of conscience.

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