Defying The Vatican


I had thought that diplomatic disputes with the Vatican were more something out of The Tudors than the modern world. To the Vatican Caroline Kennedy might as well be Anne Boleyn. Her prospects of being appointed ambassador to the Vatican are not doing any better than her previously considered appointment to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat. The Telegraph reports that the Vatican has blocked a possible appointment as ambassador due to her support for abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.

Not being an expert in such diplomatic matters, this raises a number of questions in my mind. I’m aware of cases of diplomats being recalled because of alleged infractions such as espionage. Is it common for nations to block ambassadors who do not share their beliefs? The Vatican might not like it, but support for both abortion and embryonic stem cell research is the position of the Obama administration and both are legal in this country. What if the Vatican were to also demand an ambassador who believes in creationism instead of evolution?

What of other areas where countries disagree with the views of appointed ambassadors? Do Muslim nations object to non-Muslim ambassadors from the west?  Should we go along if one were to insist that we only appoint an ambassador who opposes the existence of Israel?

During the cold war it would have been ludicrous for Communist nations to reject western ambassadors who did not support Communism. Imagine if the Chinese had refused overtures from Richard Nixon to begin diplomatic relations because Nixon and his potential ambassadors were not Maoists.

My suspicion is that this is primarily an issue for the Vatican and not for most other countries. I wonder how they handle ambassadors from other countries. Do they scrutinize the religious beliefs of ambassadors from Muslim countries? What did they do with ambassadors from Communist countries which officially supported atheism and opposed any free expression of religion?

There are many practical considerations and the Obama administration might find it necessary to find an ambassador who is acceptable to them both for diplomatic reasons and out of concern for domestic politics. My gut feeling (which I understand should not necessarily be followed by those actually in power) would be to continue to stand for principle and appoint ambassadors who share our values of respecting a woman’s right to control her own body and support for scientific progress, even if the Vatican opposes our values.

While I understand that there might be reasons for compromise, personally I see no more reason why we should appoint an ambassador to the Vatican who opposes our values than we should be forced to appoint an ambassador to a middle east Muslim country who opposes the existence of Israel or to a socialist country who supports free market principles. Shouldn’t the purpose of an ambassador be to represent our views and keep open lines of communication, not to echo the views of the host nation?

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  1. 1
    joewxman says:

    The Pope is correct and it is an insult to appoint a pro choice Catholic to this position. The vatican is not just a country it is the Catholic church itself. And abortion in the church is not about politics, its about a sinful act. Catholic politicians who are pro abortion have chosen that over their faith. Its pretty simple really. They can’t have it both ways.

  2. 2
    hart williams says:

    The problem here, Ron, is that the US has categorically refused, historically, to HAVE diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Wikipedia:

    The United States maintained consular relations with the Papal States from 1797 to 1870 and diplomatic relations with the Pope, in his capacity as head of the Papal States, from 1848 to 1868, though not at the ambassadorial level. These relations lapsed with the loss of all papal territories in 1870.
    From 1870 to 1984, the United States did not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

    There’s a solid reason for this: the USA, as a secular, constitutional government could not justify having what are, essentially, diplomatic relations with a church. Special envoys have served in the past, and that’s as formal as we ought to make it.

    And no, there is rarely a “litmus test” for an “acceptable” ambassador. This is common practice worldwide.

    Using Caroline Kennedy’s political beliefs to further their internal meddling in the US abortion debate (which has progressed far beyond mere doctrinal matters, creeping into the infamous attempt to have presidential candidate John Kerry, a Catholic, denied communion in 2004 is just one example) is unacceptable.

    Let’s NOT appoint an ambassador. Let’s dissolve formal diplomatic relations, which we only maintain with actual COUNTRIES.

    Ronnie Ray-Gun changed that, in his successful attempt to wedge American Catholics from the Democratic Party. The tactic may have worked, but the logic for it remains specious.

  3. 3
    Glau Montgomery says:

    Actually the Pope doesn’t have a choice, an ambassador is not his choice to make. He needs to suck it up and realize this is not Christendom Europe, it is not our job to make him feel more comfortable.

    Actually Catholic politicians CAN have it both ways. It’s about separating personal from your politics. Conservative “believers” have done it quite well in professing to be Christian and at the same time demanding more money for the military machine and supporting war. Is the Pope also refusing those who support the war in Iraq and Afghanistan?

  4. 4
    Scrutineer says:


    If Kennedy’s views are so offensive to the RCC, it can expel her. The RCC has complete authority to dictate who is and isn’t officially “Catholic.”  If it allows someone like Kennedy to remain as a member in good standing, there is something pitifully precious about squealing when she’s named ambassador to the Vatican.

  5. 5
    Eclectic Radical says:

    While I don’t necessarily agree with the above comment, I’m pretty sure the reasoning is correct: it’s not about Caroline Kennedy being pro-choice or pro-gay rights, it’s about her being pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and /Catholic/. A pro-choice nominee from another religion would probably not be blocked (at least, not in the past) and a non-religious ambassador would probably not be blocked… but the Vatican would not accept a Catholic ambassador who didn’t accept proper dogma or the pope’s authority on dogmatic issues. While I believe the issue to be much more complex (because my religious upbringing was in a denomination that is essentially a direct democracy, with no true hierarchy at all), it is precisely that simple for the Vatican.

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:


    The Vatican might not be just a country but this is about a diplomatic appointment. As a secular government founded on the principle of separation of church and state the United States government should never make such an appointment based upon religious views. Their views that abortion is sinful is irrelevant to our diplomatic appointments.

    As Glau points out, Catholic politicians who support abortion rights are doing the right thing. They recognize that their religious beliefs have no bearing upon whether abortion should be legal.

  7. 7
    Ron Chusid says:


    The historical background is quite interesting. It is interesting that only one president who respects abortion rights before Obama even had to deal with this situation.

    My initial reaction is that there is nothing inherently wrong with having diplomatic relations with the Vatican with regards to violations of separation of church and state. Sending a representative to them doesn’t bother me–as long as we aren’t expected to violate our principles by having a religious litmus test for the post.

  8. 8
    Eclectic Radical says:

    Not entirely true. The first President President Bush still supported legal abortion rights for most of the term he was president, he came out as pro-life in the re-election campaign of 1992 in the great step to the right the entire Republican Party made in near unison at the ’92 convention.

  9. 9
    Fritz says:

    Scrutineer is right.  If the Vatican has their robes in a twist over a pro-choice Catholic ambassador, they can easily transform the situation into that of a pro-choice ex-Catholic ambassador.  Problem solved.

  10. 10
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I should note that I am of the opinion that the Vatican’s insistence on a ‘politically acceptable’ ambassador is out of line, period. I was simply noting that the Vatican’s objection was almost certainly because Kennedy is a Catholic Dissenter, rather than the pro-choice stance alone.

  11. 11
    joewxman says:

    Once again this is pretty simple. If Mr Obama wants to appoint a pro choice individual he can..he just can’t appoint a Catholic one. Caroline Kennedy has a choice to be a Catholic or a pro choice politician. She can leave the church at any time; there is no gun to her head or for that matter Mrs Pelosi’s , John Kerry’s, or a host of others. And to the matter of having it both ways again i will point out that abortion in the Catholic church is not a matter of politics; it is a matter of sin. War and other issues are a matter of politics. And btw countries reject unacceptable ambassadors all the time. It just doesn’t draw this kind of attention.
    And lets be honest about this. If the pope follows the suggestion of excommuicating pro choice Catholic politicians  i can only imagine the uproar that will rage across the left wing blogosphere. Let Catholic politicians make the choice of who they want to be themselves. I am much more inclined to vote for a Catholic who leaves the church on this issue then one who stays,

  12. 12
    joewxman says:

    Let’s NOT appoint an ambassador. Let’s dissolve formal diplomatic relations, which we only maintain with actual COUNTRIES.

    Go ahead and do this and see what happens to the Catholic vote. And catholics do vote!

  13. 13
    b-psycho says:

    Joe: You’re suggesting that U.S. Catholics care more about a perceived slight to the Vatican than about domestic policy.  Why does this remind me of when conspiracy types claim Jews hold more allegiance to Israel than to the US?

  14. 14
    Ron Chusid says:


    If this is interpreted as meaning a non-Catholic supporter of abortion rights and stem cell research would be acceptable then this might not be as bad in terms of being expected to ignore our values in the choice of an ambassador. As b-psycho notes there remains a problem with such Vatican interference in our government affairs.

    If your explanation is true, then this is a case of the church punishing Caroline Kennedy for being a Catholic who does not adhere to their views on some issues. As an internal manner I suppose the Church can take its own action against a member of the church, but the United States government should not be involved in any such religious-based affairs. If the church does not want to recognize Kennedy as a Catholic that is their own business. It should have no bearing on a diplomatic appointment by the United States government.

    As for your comment on the Catholic vote, you do have a valid point, which is why I included the comments in the post that I would understand if the Obama administration does not go along with my gut reaction towards this.

    On one level I dislike seeing the Vatican having any say over our policy or who we appoint. From a pragmatic point of view, if appointing a non-Catholic who supports abortion rights and stem cell research would be acceptable then this would probably be the wisest course. It does make sense to avoid antagonizing the country we are sending an ambassador to provided a compromise such as this would solve the problem.

  15. 15
    Ron Chusid says:


    Besides the analogy to Israel, I’m also thinking of JFK who had to make clear that his administration would not be bound to follow the Vatican.

  16. 16
    Fritz says:

    Ron, I was a child growing up Catholic during the 1960 election.  I would put it rather that the Vatican bent over backward to assure all and sundry that it would not attempt to unduly influence Kennedy or any other Catholic American politician.

    I am fascinated at how determined the Vatican has been over the last decade in announcing over and over again that it now would influence as much as possible.  I think that will bite them in the ass sooner rather than later.

  17. 17
    Eclectic Radical says:

    Fritz, the Vatican did bend over backwards to make it clear JFK was his own man. But JFK still had to make the very famous speech about Church and state and answer questions about his Catholicism in front of a Bible Belt audience in order to really win the trust of many American Protestants. Many conservative Protestant denominations have extremely negative views of the Catholic Church, as anyone unfortunate enough to have read a Chick Tract can tell you. In JFK’s era, these views were much more acceptably mainstream in the Bible Belt than they are today and they have not died out today.

  18. 18
    Fritz says:

    Come on, Eclectic — you don’t have to be a conservative Protestant to have negative views of the Vatican.

    Again, what I find interesting is that the Vatican seems to be working hard at reinvigorating the notion that a Catholic politician will do the bidding of Rome.  At this point, I believe that is again a valid question.  If a devout politician believes that he is risking eternal damnation through excommunication because he votes contrary to Vatican decrees…

  19. 19
    Eclectic Radical says:

    No Fritz, you don’t. But when JFK was running for president many conservative Protestants were relatively open in not merely negative views of the Vatican, but anti-Catholic prejudice. It was a very big deal that he was only the second Catholic to run and the first to be elected.

    I agree with you about this pope, at this time. The level of pressure the Church has been bringing to bear since the tail end of John Paul II’s reign is very disturbing. The amount of pressure being exerted against Catholic politicians in the US and Europe to toe the Vatican’s line on abortion and gay rights is extremely disturbing.

    Of course the Catholic Church does not recognize a true separation of church and state. They believe in separate secular and ecclesiastical authorities, but it is an article of faith that Catholic secular authorities should be subject to Catholic ecclesiastical authority. This was liberalized greatly in the days of John XXIII, Paul VI, and Vatican II… but the current pope (and arguably his predecessor) appears to see Vatican II as so much toilet paper.

  20. 20
    Fritz says:

    This is definitely not about Benedict.  I don’t think it is about JP2 either.  This is a conscious, long-range institutional decision within the Vatican.

    I think they have decided that they have one last chance to be a continued shaper of European culture and that they need to wield a blunt instrument to remain relevant.  Personally I don’t think it will work.

    I do not think it accidental that this is happening coincident to a major demographic change — the center of gravity of Catholicism is shifting to central Africa.  Many priests in the USA are “visiting” from Africa and they tend to be much more doctrinaire.  The same demographic shift is happening to the Anglicans, with similarly interesting results.

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