One of my heroes in the church-state world is a feisty Southern Baptist minister named James Dunn.
James ran the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty here in Washington for many years. He is firmly grounded in the historic Baptist view that separation of church and state is good for both institutions. Woe to anyone who suggested that James was operating out of hostility toward religion. A man of deep faith, James would quickly set you straight on that.
I recall hearing James speak once on the issue of diplomatic ties between the Vatican and the United States. He said he was uncomfortable with the idea and noted that every U.S. ambassador to the Vatican had been Roman Catholic. It might not be a bad idea, he opined, to send a Baptist over there for a change.
Apparently that's not going to work. The Vatican would probably send him packing.
The Washington Times reported yesterday that the Holy See has rejected at least three candidates put forth by President Barack Obama to be U.S. ambassador. The prospects were apparently blackballed because they hold pro-choice views on abortion.
The Times, citing an Italian journalist, reported, "Papal advisers told Mr. Obama's aides privately that the candidates failed to meet the Vatican's most basic qualification on the abortion issue."
When U.S.-Vatican ties were proposed during the Reagan administration, Americans United vigorously opposed the move and warned that there would be problems down the line. It just wasn't right, AU argued, for the U.S. government to have formal diplomatic relations with a church. (Our ambassador goes not to the Vatican City State, an alleged country of about 110 acres within the city of Rome, but to the Holy See – the international headquarters of the church.)
Americans United tried to raise some of these issues in court, challenging the diplomatic exchange on church-state grounds. Unfortunately, a federal appeals court refused to deal with the issue and dismissed the lawsuit on a technicality, saying AU did not even have the right to even bring the case.
So now it appears that not only must the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican be Catholic, they must oppose legal abortion as well. I wonder what other qualifications a potential ambassador must meet? Must he or she oppose same-sex marriage as well? Can he or she be divorced? Will someone check up on the candidate to make certain he or she attends mass every week?
Imposing such qualifications on ambassadors would seem to violate the clear provisions of Article VI of the Constitution, which bans religious tests for federal office.
Here's an idea: Obama should name one more ambassador candidate and send his or her name to the Vatican with no vetting where that candidate stands on abortion or any other doctrinal issue. (Caroline Kennedy's name has been floated, but I'd still like to see James Dunn get it.) If the Vatican says no to that person, leave the spot vacant. After all, it should never have been created in the first place.