Ambassador to the Holy See is not like most ambassadorships. For starters, the First Amendment notwithstanding, it is the only position in the U.S. government that involves formal recognition of religion. Ambassadors are not accredited to the Vatican City-State, the 103 acres on the west bank of the Tiber that give territorial reality to papal independence. Ambassadors are accredited to the Holy See, that is, to the Pope in his capacity as leader of the Catholic Church. This was the grounds for opposition to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations from both conservative, evangelical Christians and from the ACLU, two groups that rarely end up on the same page. Not until 1984 did Ronald Reagan succeed in getting Congress to approve diplomatic relations and dispatch an ambassador.
The job has never gone to a career diplomat but is usually awarded to a prominent Catholic political ally. Political appointees mostly run hot or cold: Joseph Kennedy was a disaster at the Court of St. James (London) in the years leading up to World War II because of his isolationist sympathies but Pamela Harriman and Felix Rohatyn both excelled during their tenure in Paris during the Clinton administration. The unique features of the Vatican posting also make it more, not less, likely that a career diplomat might have less knowledge of the Vatican and its ways than half a dozen prominent Catholics.
Mary Ann Glendon has been an extraordinary U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and if President-elect Obama is looking for prominent Republicans to keep in office, she would certainly be at the top of the list. Never before has the position been so influential within the Vatican and so useful to the United States. Rome’s contacts span the globe and the information one can mine there is often different from the conventional wisdom coming through Foggy Bottom or Langley and Glendon has earned a reputation for listening intently and reporting cogently on the buzz from the Tiber.
Still, Obama deserves his own person at the post and, in the event, there is a perfect candidate: Professor Douglas Kmiec. He is a lifelong pro-life legal scholar who served as head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Departments of both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He was Dean of the Catholic University Law School and now teaches law at Pepperdine. His published works evidence a find legal mind and thorough familiarity with the natural law tradition that has been the dominant lens for Catholic social thought. Kmiec would be well known to prominent American churchmen in the Eternal City and a jewel in the crown of the intellectual milieu that surrounds the Holy See.
Despite his Republican credentials, Kmiec endorsed Barack Obama this year and penned a thoughtful book, "Can a Catholic Support Him?" The question is ridiculous to most ears and, in the event, most Catholics did support him. But for some extremists on the right, there was a firm conviction that no Catholic could vote for Obama. A Dominican priest even denied Kmiec communion at a Mass in May. (The priest was later reprimanded by Cardinal Mahoney.) Longtime associates of Professor Kmiec denounced him, often in ways that lacked all charity, suggesting bad logic or bad motives or both. There is no better way to answer those who argued that no Catholic could vote for Obama in good conscience than to see the man who wrote the book (literally!)defending the proposition that Catholics can and should vote for Obama being received in the Sala Clementina by Pope Benedict XVI!
In truth, Kmiec’s pro-life credentials, despite some carping from the far right political fringe, are impeccable. Indeed, given that the American bishops have chosen opposition to FOCA as their greeting to the new president, Kmiec gives the bishops some satisfaction since he testified against the measure at its inception in the 1980s. Glendon and Kmiec were even paired before Congress in their testimony and are good friends. When Kmiec first met Obama last June, the faith leaders in attendance report he and our new president got along famously, but Kmiec held nothing back, quoting Mother Theresa to the effect that a child ought never be seen as a punishment. Notwithstanding the sparring over abortion, Kmiec’s influence in the campaign grew from there – helping the campaign draft platform language supporting economic assistance that would encourage the decision of a pregnant woman to choose life, writing his book explaining why Obama might be voted for in good conscience (the book ranked #1 for a number of weeks in its category on Amazon), and then personally carrying the message to the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.
Kmiec has shown no interest in an administration appointment. In another context, he told the New Yorker, "I’m a tenured old professor not looking to go anywhere. And I live in Malibu. What is it they’re going to dangle in front of me?" There he was discussing the vitriol he had received from right-wing activists like Deal Hudson, but uprooting one’s family and career is as much sacrifice as opportunity. But, I do not doubt Kmiec would answer the call of the president-elect for whom he has done so much. And, there is even less doubt that Kmiec could do for the Democratic administration what Glendon has done for its predecessor, namely, turn the ambassadorship from a sinecure into an important post for the conduct of American foreign policy.