Smoke over the Vatican

Karl Smyth
16 April 2009

update: the BBC's North American editor Justin Webb has since blogged about this subject here 

Reports emanating from Italian sources earlier this week suggesting that the Vatican has effectively vetoed three of President Barack Obama's nominees to fill the vacant role of United States Ambassador to the Holy See--based on their liberal views on issues such as abortion and stem cell research--may signal the beginning of a cooling in US-Vatican relations under the Obama administration.

In the George W. Bush administration, the Roman Catholic Church found a much-needed ally to help stem the spread of relativism that has continued to embed itself in many of the Holy See's neighbouring European states--dubbed "the heartland of the God crisis" by one pundit. A man whose outlook was fundamentally shaped by his faith, President Bush's staunchly conservative (or orthodox) policies towards a range of social issues proved so popular with the clergy in Rome that in April of last year Pope Benedict XVI embarked on his first trip of the US; the first papal visit by a pontiff in nearly a decade.

The longevity of this theological transatlantic alliance, however, may well be put to the test in the months ahead. Though a devout Christian himself (despite some Republican claims to the otherwise), once in office Obama wasted no time in repealing the ban placed by his predecessor on embryonic testing. This was quickly followed by a decision to once again allow federal funding to foreign family plannign agencies that promote or give information about abortion. And while an opponent of same-sex marriage, Obama has strongly advocated a legislative strengthening of gay rights during his time in the Illinois State Senate.

These views have invariably placed a wedge not just between the Obama administration and the Vatican but representatives from within the American Catholic Community as well. Upon hearing the news that Notre Dame University had invited the president to deliver the school's commencement address next month, and receive an honorary degree, the head of the US Conference of Catholic bishops Cardinal Francis George said: "Notre Dame didn't understand what it means to be Catholic when they issues this invitation."

While his tenure has already been dogged by selection debacles over key posts, it seems unlikely that someone as politically astute as Obama could not foresee the Vatican's response to his selection of three pro-choice ambassadorial candidates. Raymond Flynn, a life-long Democrat and post holder under President Bill Clinton, argued quite succinctly in a recent Boston Herald article that, "it's essential that the person who represents us to the Holy See be a person who has pro-life values." Moreover, as has been documented previously, Obama has shown a high regard for pragmatism in his early days in office, and there seems to be little political capital to gain from crossing an institution as powerful as the Catholic Church--let alone the growing number of Hispanic voters that are transforming Catholicism at home.

In any event, Obama will have some work to do to smooth over relations with Rome before the G8 summit schedule for Sardinia in early July, when he is set to meet with Pope Benedict for the first time.

Finally, spare a thought for the biggest loser in this whole episode: Caroline Kennedy, whose endorsement of Obama along with her uncle Senator Ted Kennedy proved an important fillip for the Illinois senator during the Democratic primaries.

Having shunned the limelight of politics for most of her life, Ms Kennedy has unwittingly found herself in the midst of an embarrassing political odyssey, unable to translate the political capital gained from backing Obama into a meaningful position of power. Her recent campaign to take Hillary Clinton's vacated seat as the Senator for New York was widely panned by both the media and local party activists, citing her lack of engagement with New York politics in the past, a lack of clarity in her interviews, and her reluctance to give the press adequate access. When it subsequently emerged she was unlikely to be selected for the seat, she withdrew her candidacy, citing personal reasons.

Once mooted as a potential ambassador the United Nations, after this latest setback the Obama administration must once again rethink how they can repay Kennedy for her loyalty to the campaign. It is not hard to understand why, despite her dynastic family roots, she eschewed the world of politics for as long as she did.

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