Gays and divorced need not apply as ambassador to Vatican
For a country keen to improve relations with the Vatican, France has made some surprising faux pas this year. Things have been going well on the surface. President Nicolas Sarkozy has sung the praises of religion in public life several times this year. Pope Benedict was warmly welcomed during his visit to Paris last month. But behind the scenes, Paris has apparently flubbed what should be a routine procedure — naming a new ambassador to the Holy See.
The Foreign Ministry refuses to comment on ambassadorial nominations until they are accepted by the country involved. But with the post open for an unusually long period of 10 months, newspapers in Paris and Rome have begun writing about the delay. Even the Paris Catholic daily La Croix got into the story today. It seems Paris has been rebuffed twice for proposing a gay candidate and a divorced one. The Argentinians could have told Paris to play safe with a solid family man.
The problem began when the former ambassador, Bernard Kessedjian, died on 19 December 2007, one day before Sarkozy delivered a speech in Rome defending France’s Catholic heritage. Sarko’s first choice to replace him was Max Gallo, a popular historian and novelist who stresses the Christian roots themes dear to Pope Benedict. Not a diplomat, but a leading intellectual and an interesting choice. Gallo said thanks but he preferred to stay in Paris.
After months of delay, Paris finally proposed a senior Foreign Ministry official. This one was an experienced diplomat, but there was a problem with his “personal profile,” the Vatican said. It turns out he lives in a civil union with a male partner. That would make no difference in many possible ambassadorial postings around the would, but who ever thought it would go unnoticed by the Vatican?
A second writer was also considered, novelist Denis Tillinac, an old friend of former President Jacques Chirac. But he’s divorced, so the Vatican baulked at his nomination as well. This had happened to Argentina’s candidate earlier this year and it should have been obvious the Vatican would make no exception for the French here.
Some other names circulated, including that of Stéphane Chmelewsky, the Foreign Ministry’s advisor for religious affairs who organised the pope’s visit to Paris. On Monday, Le Monde reported that France’s current ambassador to Moscow, Stanislas Lefebvre de Laboulaye, had been proposed and accepted. Even if Paris finally got it right this time, it may still take a while before this is announced.
So what does this say about Sarkozy and his bid to improve relations with the Vatican? Maybe that this policy, which has been decried by the opposition as a cynical pitch to gain support on his right wing, may not be as well thought out as it seemed. La Croix quoted an anonymous French diplomat as saying: “The explanation for this is the total ignorance at the highest level of the French state about what the Church really is.”
P.S. — Just before hitting the button, I noticed John Allen’s story “Pro-Obama Catholic predicts ‘very positive’ ties with Vatican” based on a conference call with Douglas Kmiec, a Catholic law professor who says that Catholics can vote for Barack Obama despite his pro-choice stand on abortion (which the Church rejects). Given the problems the French are having, it would seem unlikely that he would pass muster at the Vatican either.