July 9, 2010


God’s law always comes first—no matter what

In a private conversation with pilgrims from the United States who were in Rome for Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski’s reception of the pallium, Miguel Diaz, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, made the following statement: “Once Americans elect a president, they must stand behind him—no matter what. If they don’t like what he says or does, they can replace him in the next presidential election.”

Because Ambassador Diaz was speaking off-the-cuff and was not aware that his remarks would be published, we give him the benefit of the doubt.

Surely a man who possesses Ambassador Diaz’s intellectual and political gifts knows that his comments, if taken literally, are profoundly un-American.

Certainly the ambassador, who is a Catholic and a distinguished professor of theology, knows that following the president “no matter what” is a statement that cannot be morally acceptable to Catholics or anyone who values religious freedom. As we say, we give the ambassador the benefit of the doubt.

Even in his role as commander-in-chief, the president of the United States must be obeyed only insofar as his directives do not violate the moral law. In matters of domestic or international policy, citizens of the United States have every right to disagree with the president and to make their disagreements known to others—both privately and publicly.

We assume that Ambassador Diaz was simply overstating the importance of giving the president the respect that is due to him as our elected leader.

The recent resignation of General Stanley A. McChrystal after he and other members of his staff were quoted in Rolling Stone magazine making disparaging remarks about President Barack Obama and other members of his administration underscores the importance of loyalty, respect and obedience by the military, and all Americans, especially when our nation is at war. Insubordination by officers in the field is inexcusable, and a grave threat to our nation’s security.

As a result, the president had no choice but to accept the general’s resignation. If this is the kind of support that Ambassador Diaz was referring to when he said that all of us must stand behind the president, then we agree wholeheartedly.

What is troubling is his added phrase “no matter what.” Loyalty and respect are one thing. Blind obedience and an uncritical acceptance of the president’s policies regardless of their implications are quite another.

Too many American lives have been lost during the past two centuries defending our precious freedoms to permit us to stand behind our president “no matter what.” That is what tyrants demand of people who have been subjugated to their will. It is not what elected officials in a free society can require of—or expect from—their fellow citizens.

The U.S. ambassador to the Vatican is not required to deal with the kind of practical complexities that ambassadors to other countries must face. America has no immediate economic or geopolitical interests in its dealings with the Catholic Church. The relationship between the United States and the Vatican City State is important because of the Church’s worldwide influence and its role as a voice for moral and religious values.

Given the uniqueness of this relationship, it is especially important that America’s ambassador to the Vatican represent our American values faithfully and be able to enter into dialogue with Church leaders on matters of religious and moral significance.

Ambassador Diaz has the experience and the education required of our country’s representative to the Vatican. He was duly appointed by the president of the United States and confirmed by the Senate. His appointment last year was warmly welcomed by Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, and his credentials were accepted by the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. At the time of his appointment, the ambassador said that his goal was to be “a bridge between the United States and the Vatican.”

We wish Ambassador Diaz every success in his important bridge-building work on our behalf. We also urge him to keep in mind the important distinction that we Americans make between loyalty and respect for our country’s leaders—especially the president—and an uncritical acceptance of whatever they say or do.

As Americans, and as Catholics, we hold ourselves and our leaders to a higher standard.

—Daniel Conway

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