A Bridge Too Far: Vatican Ambassador Nominee Builds Wrong Edifice

The official U.S.-Vatican diplomatic relationship is a glaring breach of the First Amendment's mandate.

President Barack Obama has named his new ambassador to the Holy See, and nominee Miguel H. Diaz has already announced his understanding of the job.

"If confirmed by the U.S. Senate," said Diaz in a statement. "I will continue the work of my predecessors and build upon 25 years of formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See. I wish to be a bridge between our nation and the Holy See."

A bridge between our nation and the Holy See.

That's just the problem with U.S.-Vatican diplomatic relations, isn't it?

The U.S. Constitution specifically forbids bridges between the government and one religion or all religions. Instead, it mandates a wall of separation between church and state.

How can we square that mandate with the American government's special relationship with the Roman Catholic Church? In short, we can't.

Diplomatic ties allow the Catholic hierarchy to have a unique official channel to lobby for the church's positions on a wide range of social and international policy concerns. No other religious body has this privilege. It is a flagrant "establishment" of religion in violation of the Constitution's mandate.

I don't know much about Diaz other than what I read in the papers. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, he's a 45-year-old Cuban-born professor of theology at St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville. News sources describe him as a "pro-life" Democrat who ardently supported Obama's run for the White House.

Since President Ronald Reagan established full diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1984, every American ambassador to the Holy See has been a "pro-life" Catholic.

Is there a de facto religious requirement under way here? It sure seems like it. If so, that would violate Article VI of the Constitution, which forbids religious tests for public office.

A few weeks ago, news outlets reported that the Vatican had vetoed Caroline Kennedy and other possible ambassador nominees because they were regarded as insufficiently "pro-life." Vatican sources heatedly denied that the church hierarchy had done so.

Yet the Star Tribune reports that Vatican officials had signed off in advance on the selection of Diaz. That adds credibility to the earlier reports of a Kennedy veto.

In the 1980s, Americans United and an array of religious leaders filed a lawsuit challenging this clearly unconstitutional governmental preference for one faith. The courts refused to act, citing separation of powers issues. The courts never got to the core church-state question.

The official U.S.-Vatican diplomatic relationship is a glaring breach of the First Amendment's mandate, but for the time being, there's not much we can do about it.