THIS CATHOLIC’S VIEW
By Thomas J. Reese, S.J.
“Vatican Unhappy with Obama Ambassador Picks,” scream the headlines. The only problem is that the stories are totally false.
First the stories were about Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University, who supported Obama for president even though Kmiec is pro-life. Then the stories moved on to Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President Kennedy, who was said to be rejected because she is pro-choice. Why both a pro-life and a pro-choice candidate would be rejected was never explained.
But neither has been rejected by the Vatican, as the Vatican itself has made clear:
“No proposals about the new ambassador of the United States to the Holy See have reached the Vatican, and therefore it is not true that they have been rejected,” Father Federico Lombardi, the pope’s press secretary, told Catholic News Service on April 9. “The rumors circulating about this topic are not reliable.”
Yet the rumors continue to be published while either ignoring Lombardi’s denial or inferring that he is lying. What is their source for such fantasies? Some cite Italian newspapers, whose journalistic credibility has never been high. They once reported that John Paul II had been married.
Actually, the Italians appear to have picked up the rumors from Newsmax.com, a Republican-slanted news service, which asserted that three candidates had been rejected by the Vatican.
Rather than simply repeating rumors, John Thavis, Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service, acted like a good journalist. First, he asked Lombardi and then checked his sources. They said, “not only was the report inaccurate, but that its premise was faulty. The Vatican has not been in the habit of vetting the personal beliefs or ideas of candidates before accepting them as ambassadors.”
This of course makes perfect sense. After all, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See represents the U.S. Government — not Catholic orthodoxy — to the Vatican. The Vatican does not need someone to teach it orthodoxy. The ambassador will not represent the Catholic Church or the American bishops but the president. The Vatican would expect that the nominee would reflect the president’s views.
In recent memory, the Vatican has only rejected two candidates, one from Argentina and the other from France. The Argentine was a divorced Catholic who was living with someone. The Frenchman was Catholic and in a public gay relationship.
What the Vatican wants is someone who is competent and respected in the White House and the State Department. Vatican officials would value someone who is plugged in, who can give them accurate inside information and communicate their views to top officials including the president. Orthodoxy may be required for theologians and bishops, but not for ambassadors.
The Vatican does not want is a repeat of what happened prior to the 1994 Cairo conference on population and development when Ray Flynn was ambassador to the Holy See. Ambassador Flynn was pro-life but he was not listened to by either the White House or the State Department. As a result, when he tried for almost a year to warn the Clinton administration that it was on a collision course with the Vatican, he was tragically ignored. The result was a disastrous confrontation in Cairo which caused embarrassment to both sides.
When the United States first established diplomatic relations with the Holy See 25 years ago, I recommended that the ambassador be a non-Catholic. This was the practice for personal representatives sent to the Holy See by presidents beginning with Franklin Roosevelt until Jimmy Carter appointed the first Catholic representative. I argued for a non-Catholic in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Remember, 25 years ago, the appointment of an ambassador to the Holy See was very controversial with many Protestant leaders.
It is ironic that Catholic conservatives, who are insisting on the appointment of a pro-life ambassador, are trying to impose an orthodoxy test for political office just as the anti-Catholic forces predicted the church would when Kennedy was running for president. See the excellent new book, The Making of A Catholic President, by Shaun A. Casey.
Wisely, the Catholic bishops have remained silent on the topic (just as they remained silent 25 years ago) because they realize that diplomatic relations are a matter between the Holy See and the U.S. Government and have nothing to do with the Catholic Church in America. They certainly have nothing to do with Catholic doctrine.
The ambassador to the Holy See can be either be pro-life or pro-choice, but the ambassador will have to explain and defend the administration’s position on life issues no matter what he or she believes. The ambassador does not have to be Catholic any more than the ambassador to Israel has to be Jewish or the ambassadors to Italy and Ireland have to be Italian and Irish. For political reasons a president might take that into consideration, but it is not part of the ambassador’s job description.
Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is Senior Fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
By Thomas J. Reese |
April 20, 2009; 4:58 PM ET
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