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The Vatican and American principles

The ill-considered presidential decision to name a US ambasssador to the Vatican after a 117-year lapse is not the end of the issue. Opponents have vowed to try to defeat it in Congress, or by court suit if necessary. They point out that 33 years ago similar opposition forced then-President Truman to withdraw his proposal to send an envoy to the Vatican.

In recent decades tensions between religions in the United States have eased substantially. Today's opposition to a Vatican emissary should be rooted not in any Catholic-Protestant-Jewish rivalry of the past, but in legitimate constitutional concerns.

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Appointing a Vatican envoy violates a principle on which the US was founded: the separation of church and state. Americans have always vigorously defended their right to worship freely on the basis of their individual consciences and without government influence in any fashion.

The Vatican exists primarily as the headquarters of the Roman Catholic religion rather than as a secular state. Conferring upon it ambassadorial status provides that religion with a status none of the many other church organizations in the US and the world can have.

Many of the social issues confronting the US and its political bodies in recent years - and today - have generated strong views from churches, including the Roman Catholic Church: abortion, divorce, birth control, tuition tax credits. These issues deserve to be considered strictly on their merits; churches, like other interested parties, should have equal opportunity to express their views. None should have unfair advantage.

If the appointment of an ambassador to the Vatican becomes a fact, the Roman Catholic Church at the very least would have the appearance of having special influence in the US governmental process since it alone has a high-level envoy. This is one reason why some Catholics are wary of the ambassadorial plan, fearing that it could result in a resurgence of anti-Catholic bigotry.

In other specific cases such as advocating tax credits for private school tuition, this administration seems to lack an appreciation for the separation of church and state, which has existed from the beginning of this nation.

While Mr. Reagan has often supported the teaching of moral and spiritual values, there seems to be no recognition that religious interest in America has historically been higher than in other nations partly because of the separation of church and government in the US.

President Reagan has nominated as Vatican envoy a longtime friend, California businessman William A. Wilson. Senators presiding over his nomination hearing should examine the customary issue of personal qualification.

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Beyond that, they ought to look anew at the broader question of whether appointing an envoy - a move with obvious political implications in an election year - is wise in itself. Faced with stiff opposition President Truman decided it was not, and withdrew his nomination.

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