I’ve been puzzling over this post by Steve Bainbridge for a few days. Steve vigorously denounces a suggestion by Michael Winters that Douglas Kmiec be appointed ambassador to the Vatican, saying that such an appointment would be an insult to the church.
I take it that, as a general rule, one should not choose ambassadors whose appointment will insult the country to which they are credentialed. One would not expect Obama to appoint a known anti-Zionist as ambassador to Israel, for example. Yet, while Winters and other pro-Obama US Catholics might delight in tweaking the Holy father by appointing Kmiec as ambassador to the Vatican, it would be tantamount to sending Norman Finkelstein to Israel. Doug Kmiec chose to turn his back on a life time of support for conservative and, in particular, pro-life causes to endorse Barack Obama. … Since the election, Kmiec has further angered pro-life Catholics by, among other things, his recent love letter of praise for Edward Kennedy. … His main role in public life now seems to be giving cover to pro-abortion rights Democrats. The Vatican has made clear that a Kmiec appointment would be most unwelcome … Obama may have won the vote of a majority of America’s cafeteria Catholics. Even so, to appoint Doug Kmiec as ambassador to the Holy See would be an insult to both the Vatican and to “serious, loyal” Catholics everywhere.
Now I know that these are issues that Steve takes very seriously, and while I disagree with Steve on most everything I respect him as someone who is smart and thoughtful. But I don’t see how an appointment of Kmiec could be taken as the strong and general insult to Catholicism that Steve suggests it would be. As best as I understand it, Kmiec’s support for Barack Obama clearly falls within the limits that the Catholic church has suggested are allowable (Kmiec continues to state his opposition to abortion, while suggesting that the question of whether Obama or McCain would have been the best person to lower abortion rates was a matter of prudential judgment, and that he personally plumped for Obama as the better prudential bet).
Certainly, the Catholic church hasn’t seen fit to start excommunication proceedings against him (a priest who refused him Communion was, quite rightly in my view, forced to send him a letter of apology) or to suggest that his views are in any way anathematic. The church has, as best as I understand it, carefully sought to avoid stating that support for Obama and other pro-choice candidates is sinful, while preserving its basic position that abortion is a grave evil.
This means, as best as I understand these matters, that Kmiec is a Catholic in perfectly good standing, no better or worse in the eyes of the church than those who adopt a more conservative position on these issues (to the best of my knowledge, the general class of ‘cafeteria Catholic’ has yet to be properly defined under canon law ;) ). In principle, the appointment of Kmiec should be no more or less insulting to either the Vatican (as a state governed by the Catholic church) or to the Pope (as head of the Catholic church) than the appointment of any other Catholic. Very obviously, Kmiec’s appointment might be construed as an insult to a particular (and quite powerful) conservative faction within Catholicism – but in the absence of a formal church statement to the contrary, that faction’s opinion of Kmiec’s position is no more binding than any other opinion within Catholicism’s internal debate on these issues.
Now there certainly is a prudential issue – to the extent that the Pope is (as he likely is) highly sympathetic to the conservative faction, Kmiec’s appointment might not be politically well-judged. But that’s an entirely different question to that of whether Kmiec’s appointment would be an insult to the church, which is what I understand Steve’s position to be. By the church’s own rules, I simply don’t see any grounds for judgment that Kmiec is a better or worse Catholic than any other person, and hence I don’t see where the insult lies. But perhaps there is something I’m not getting here.
NB – to commenters who want to chime in about the general irrationality of Catholicism and religion etc etc – thanks but no thanks. Your views may or may not be correct, but they are surely entirely predictable and hence unlikely to add much conversational benefit.