Kmiec as Vatican Ambassador?

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).

About Walter Olson

Fellow at a think tank in the Northeast specializing in law. Websites include overlawyered.com. Former columnist for Reason and Times Online (U.K.), contributor to National Review, etc.
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