The Nicholson standard

Sometime in the next few months, a new U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See will be moving into Villa Richardson on Rome’s Janiculum Hill. The shoes waiting to be filled there, and at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See (which overlooks the Circus Maximus), are large indeed.

Since the post was created during the first Reagan administration, Americans of all faiths and political persuasions have been well-served by their ambassadors to the Holy See: a distinguished group of men and women who have brought lives of accomplishment and good judgment to their work in the Vatican, and with the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See. Some served in relatively quiet periods; others had to tread a rockier road. Still, I trust none of his distinguished predecessors, no matter what the circumstances in which they served, will object if I suggest that the recently-returned U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, R. James Nicholson (now Secretary of Veterans Affairs), set a new standard of excellence.

Jim Nicholson grew up in poverty on a tenant farm in northwest Iowa, knowing hunger in his bones. After graduating from West Point in 1961, he did eight years of active duty as a paratrooper, qualifying as a Ranger and earning the Bronze Star in Vietnam; he retired from the service with the rank of colonel after 22 years in the Army Reserve. His active military career was followed by law practice and successful ventures in real estate development; yet Jim Nicholson would likely say that his greatest achievement was persuading Suzanne Marie Ferrell, a wonderful woman and distinguished artist, to marry him. They raised three children, even as Jim was becoming involved in politics, becoming Colorado’s representative on the Republican National Committee in 1986. Elected chairman of the RNC in 1997, he served through the tumultuous 2000 election, after which President Bush nominated him as ambassador to the Holy See.

Ambassador Nicholson presented his credentials to Pope John Paul II days after 9/11, and the years ahead would be dominated by issues of war and peace. During times of real tension between Vatican officials and the U.S. government, especially in the run-up to the war in Iraq, Jim Nicholson kept his head, kept his cool — and kept the conversation-partners in conversation. It was a remarkable performance that earned the respect of everyone in Rome.

At the same time, he launched a series of initiatives that deepened the conversation between the U.S. Government and the Vatican on key global issues of mutual concern. One of the gravest human rights abuses of the early 21st century is the awful practice of trafficking in persons, usually for purposes of sexual exploitation. Jim Nicholson brought the trafficking issue to Rome and compelled the representatives of countries that might prefer to ignore the issue to face it squarely, in all its moral squalor and human drama.

Ambassador Nicholson did the same in addressing the question of genetically-modified foods. Working with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Nicholson staged an international conference that usefully challenged European protectionists and western anti-corporate activists more inclined to scratch their ideological itches than to see poor people fed; as the once-poor and hungry Nicholson put it in a sharp op-ed piece in the International Herald Tribune, there was something very strange about anti-corporate ideologues who seemed to be telling famine-stricken Africans that it was “better to die than eat the food that Americans eat every day.” Whatever their concerns about agricultural globalization, senior Vatican officials seemed to agree.

Jim and Suzanne Nicholson were gracious and generous hosts, welcoming a broad cross-section of Americans into their residence (where His Excellency, the ambassador, could sometimes be found at 0300 on Monday mornings, watching Denver Broncos’ games on TV). At the same time, their ambassadorship was a kind of four-year retreat: every Lenten morning at 7:30 a.m., you could find the Nicholsons at Mass in the Roman station church of the day.

I say “their” ambassadorship because Jim and Suzanne were a marvelous team. Together, they set the gold standard. All U.S. Catholics owe them a debt of gratitude for services brilliantly rendered.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

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The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”