Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Nov/08

28

Kmiec as Vatican Ambassador?

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I suppose I should pass over in silence the blog flap over whether President-elect Obama might properly name Pepperdine lawprof Douglas Kmiec as Ambassador to the Holy See (Michael Sean Winters, America Magazine, pro; UCLA lawprof Stephen Bainbridge, con and more). It’s not as if I have a horse in the race, exactly. Although he’s a respected guy, I had never warmed to Prof. Kmiec’s writings back in his days of obscurity when he was an expositor of fairly standard Catholic social conservative views, and I found it no improvement when he rose to sudden fame last year as the founder of what sometimes seemed like a one-man club, Catholic social conservatives for Obama. When his name surfaced as a possible ambassadorial pick, I found it hard to care much either way: Obama won the election, so naturally he’ll fill jobs with his supporters.

But I find something jarring in the nature of the Catholic-conservative mobilization against Kmiec, which quickly runs to words like “traitor” and focuses on church traditionalists’ “disappointment with Kmiec’s role in the recent elections”. To read Prof. Bainbridge’s posts, it would appear that Kmiec’s appointment would gravely “insult” the Vatican because the wishes of that ecclesiastical institution in this month’s U.S. election were clear and Kmiec chose to defy them (as in fact did a majority of Catholic voters) by preferring the Democrat. All U.S. ambassadors to the Vatican have been Roman Catholics. Perhaps I’m missing some nuance, but if I’m reading Prof. Bainbridge correctly — and I’m a big admirer of his work on most occasions when religion does not rear its head — the only acceptable candidates for the job would seem to be those whose obedience to church dictates would pass muster with “serious, loyal” Roman Catholics.

Am I the only one who thinks this a bit mad? I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I say that if there’s one quality I want above all others from members of our diplomatic corps, it’s their willingness to adhere unflinchingly to U.S. policy and interests as opposed to those of the host country or institution. It is no use pretending there are never clashes of interest between two sovereignties; there are always some. And when that happens, we want an American ambassador whose conscience will be completely untroubled at the memory of having smiled and said misleading things while the interests of the host country or institution are left to twist and wave in the wind. I have no idea whether Prof. Kmiec is such a person, but I know that if I were a President seeking to fill this particular slot, I would be looking for someone with a proven record of intellectual independence from the Vatican, not the opposite quality.

But that is to assume that the position should be filled at all. As Bainbridge commenter Stephen Green points out, it was President Reagan who in 1984 broke with long American tradition by creating the first ambassador-rank diplomatic station directed to a church (the Vatican) rather than to a country. Time, maybe, to admit he made a mistake?

P.S.: The Vatican could refuse its assent to a foreign power’s naming of a particular ambassador, though perhaps at a cost (in making explicit a strain of relations) that it would not always wish to pay. In recent years the church has vetoed ambassadorial picks from France and Argentina because they were divorced or gay.

Further: Bainbridge has now expanded on his views in an exchange with blogger Henry Farrell (Crooked Timber).

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6 comments

  • blah · November 29, 2008 at 12:15 am

    I would be looking for someone with a proven record of intellectual independence from the Vatican

    Well, ok, but you’d also want someone that was well-liked or at least noncontroversial at the Vatican. Kmiec isn’t that guy.

    To vastly widen the debate…I am interested in why other secular people on the right are in favor of legalized abortion. I personally find abortion distasteful, more so when you dig into the stats (e.g. the Guttmacher Institute itself notes that close to 50% of abortions are not the first one). And it’s quite possible that arresting a freight train of hormones at a mid or late stage has negative long term effects on a woman’s health — though this is bound to be as unpopular as Jensen’s work or Cochran and Ewald’s gay germ theory.

    However, all that has to be held up against the fact that unfettered reproductive choice is going to be the Trojan Horse which will really allow the right to take back the commanding heights (viz. Gattaca).

  • Deep Thought · November 29, 2008 at 12:36 am

    Like it or lump it, the Pope is the nominal moral leader of 1/6th of the world’s population. His influence on thinking and voting is tremendous. Even if a large number of American ‘paper Catholics’ ignore him there are quite a few people who *do*, often in places where the majority of citizens don’t listen to the US.

    This leads to a complicated set-up – Kmiec is obligated to obey the Pope in matters of morality under certain conditions. Since Kmiec is in (rather minor) defiance of the Pope some within the Catholic community think it is a poor choice *diplomatically* – almost sending a message that the new administration is hostile.

    As an American who is also a Catholic theologian, I must say – either pick a very orthodox Catholic who is there to update the Pope and exchange pleasantries between heads of state OR send a non-Catholic who is there for realpolitik; this in-between stuff leaves everyone unhappy.

  • Author comment by FarRightDemocrat · November 29, 2008 at 7:57 am

    “[I]t was President Reagan who in 1984 broke with long American tradition by creating the first ambassador-rank diplomatic station directed to a church (the Vatican) rather than to a country. Time, maybe, to admit he made a mistake?”
    Admit Reagan made a mistake? Is that permissible? Ever?

    FarRightDemocrat.blogspot.com

  • Derek Scruggs · November 29, 2008 at 8:32 am

    He’s the American ambassador to the Vatican, not the Pope’s ambassador to himself. He reflects the views of a majority of Americans, regardless of the Catholic vote. It’s not as if the Pope is going to go along with Obama on anything of substance anyway (i.e. contraception in Africa). And the things that he will agree about – say, changes in tax policy to help the poor – won’t win Obama any votes in the US and certainly not internationally.

  • Matt Schiros · November 29, 2008 at 9:47 am

    If instead of a Catholic ambassador to the Vatican, we were talking about a Muslim ambassador to Saudi Arabia, I’d be more concerned. With Saudi Arabia, we’re talking about a nation full of people who don’t like us, whose ideology is directly opposed to our survival, and we need our ambassador to represent our interests. With the Vatican, who cares? We have NO policy interests that involve the Vatican, they’re completely irrelevant to our national interest, so, while there is indeed an issue of intellectual consistency when it comes to appointing the ambassador to the Vatican, I dunno that rational consistency is something that anyone expects from government.

  • Julian · November 29, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    ” … the Vatican because the wishes of that ecclesiastical institution in this month’s U.S. election were clear and Kmiec chose to defy them (as in fact did a majority of Catholic voters) by preferring the Democrat.”

    Comment: My understanding is that practising Catholics (those who attend Mass every Sunday, an absolute requirement on Catholics) voted more for McCain.

    Nice new blog by the way. I found out about you from Gene Expression.

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