WASHINGTON -- President Reagan's nominee to be the first full-fledged ambassador to the Holy See said Thursday the primary benefit for the United States in full diplomatic relations with the Roman Catholic church will come from having a 'permanent presence' at the Vatican.
'The benefits to be derived ... will be primarily derived from a permanent presence there,' William Wilson told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee holding hearings on his controversial nomination.
And he said the primary role of the ambassador would to 'really work with the Vatican in explaining and clarifying to them our foreign policy positions.'
But opponents from a variety of liberal and conservative Protestant organizations said the appointment violates the First Amendment of the Constitution and would grant the Catholic church a 'preferred' place in the halls of the U.S. government.
Rev. Peter Stravinskas, speaking for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, however, accused the Protestant opponents of religious bigotry and 'unfortunate hostility to the Catholic faith.'
The hearing on Wilson's nomination was the first public airing of the controversial issue of upgrading U.S.-Vatican relations to the full ambassador.
Legislation overturning the 116-year old ban on spending public monies for a full-fledged mission to the Holy See quietly passed Congress last November without hearings. On Jan. 10, Reagan signed the legislation and named Wilson, who currently serves as personal envoy, to be his ambassador.
Opponents raised no objections to Wilson per se but to the whole idea of an ambassador to a church.
'The position of the National Council of Churches of Christ is simple,' the Rev. Dean M. Kelley told the hearing. 'We oppose the sending by the government of the United States of any ambassador to any church.'
Kelley was echoed by James Dunn of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, which represents eight Baptist denominations; Robert Dugan of the National Association of Evangelicals; Bert Beach of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists; James Draper, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and Rev. Robert Maddox, executive director of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
But Wilson's nomination appeared to win the support of all senators who appeared at the hearing, including Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who led the hearing, as well as Sens. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska and Pete Wilson, R-Calif., who introduced the nominee.
Kelley, in his testimony, noted that President Harry S Truman's 1952 effort to appoint Gen. Mark Clark as ambassador to the Vatican 'excited a lamentable flurry of anti-Catholicism.'
'We hope that will not be the case now, but if it is, responsibility wil rest with those who precipitated the issue, not with those who object for reasons of theological and constitutional principles.'
But Stravinskas, in urging confirmation of Wilson, said that all opposition to the appointment was at bottom prejudice against the Catholic church.
'I submit that, at bottom and after all the rationalizations have been stripped away, this attitude amounts to nothing other than conscious or unconscious prejudice against the Catholic church,' he said.
All of the opponents praised Pope John Paul II.
Maddox, who served as President Jimmy Carter's liaison with religious communities, summed up the opponents when he said in his prepared remarks 'we pay personal tribute to his Holiness Pope John Paul II for his generous spirit, his personal courage and his work on behalf of world peace and human rights' while adding, 'We vigorously oppose the establishment of diplomatic relations between the government of the United States of America and any organization that is primarily religious in nature.'