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Notre Dame alumnus and former senator is new U.S. envoy to Vatican


U.S. Senate Photographic Studio-

John Burger - published on 01/24/22

Joseph S. Donnelly Sr. was confirmed as President Biden's pick as Holy See ambassador.

The U.S. Senate confirmed President Biden’s nominee for U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, former U.S. Senator Joseph S. Donnelly Sr., who has been called a “person of deep Catholic faith.”

“Donnelly, a native New Yorker who went to school at Notre Dame in South Bend and stayed in the Hoosier State, first came to Congress as a House member in the 2006 Democratic wave,” Roll Call wrote in 2017. “An anti-abortion member of the Blue Dog Coalition, he didn’t toe the party line on a range of issues.”

Donnelly was confirmed by voice vote January 20, succeeding Ambassador Callista Gingrich. 

He is an alumnus of the University of Notre Dame, whose president, Holy Cross Fr. John Jenkins called him a “person of deep Catholic faith and commitment to public service.”

“I am confident that he will serve in this important new role with vision and integrity,” Fr. Jenkins said in a statement following the vote. “It comes as no surprise that there was broad bipartisan support for his confirmation as he has proven throughout his career that he is committed to building relationships and working across divisions. Joe has the prayers of his alma mater as well as our commitment to assist him in any way we can.”

Donnelly, 66, was born in Massapequa, New York, and graduated from Notre Dame in 1977, earning a law degree there in 1981. He practiced at the law firm Nemeth, Feeney and Masters until 1996, when he opened Marking Solutions, a printing and rubber-stamp company. 

He served on the Indiana Election Commission from 1988 to 1989. From 1997 to 2001 he was a member of the school board of Marian High School (also known as Mishawaka Marian), a secondary school in Mishawaka, Indiana operated by the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. He was the board’s president from 2000 to 2001.

Bucking his party

Donnelly ran for Indiana attorney general in 1988, but lost at the Democratic state convention. He also ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Indiana Senate in 1990.

In 2004, Donnelly ran for the U.S. Congress from Indiana’s 2nd congressional district. He won the Democratic nomination unopposed, but lost the election to incumbent Republican Chris Chocola, 54%–45%. 

In 2012, Donnelly was elected to the U.S. Senate, defeating Republican Richard E. Mourdock with 50% of the vote to Mourdock’s 44%. His Republican opponent ignited a national controversy when the candidates were asked about abortion. “Both Mourdock and Donnelly said they believe life begins at conception. Donnelly said he supported allowing abortions only in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother,” the Indianapolis Star reported at the time. “Mourdock, who appeared to choke back tears as he spoke, said the only exception he could support was if the mother’s life was in danger. ‘Life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen,’ Mourdock said, his voice thick with emotion. His words drew immediate shocked reaction.”

In 2018, the Star reported that Donnelly was one of three Democrats who voted with most Republicans for a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. 

The year before Donnelly ran unsuccessfully for reelection to the Senate, the Star wrote that Donnelly has “cultivated a moderate image by sometimes bucking his party on issues such as abortion, defense spending and the environment. Two years ago, … after he voted for a bill to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding, his campaign treasurer quit in protest. (Donnelly, a few months later, switched his position after Planned Parenthood announced it would stop taking reimbursements for supplying tissue from aborted fetuses to medical researchers.)”

In 2013, Donnelly announced that he had changed his position on same-sex marriage, which he had opposed earlier.

Since leaving the Senate, he has been a partner at Akin Gump, a Washington firm specializing in public law and policy law.

Biden nominated him to the Holy See ambassadorship on October 8, 2021.

PoliticsUnited StatesVatican
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