Pepperdine University law professor Douglas Kmiec has returned to the school after serving as ambassador to Malta. Kmiec has a new book in which he talks about the Aug. 2010 accident when the car Kmiec was driving crashed, killing Monsignor John Sheridan and Sister Mary Campbell.
By Ed Kamen / Special to The Malibu Times
From the Oval Office to the rocky shores of Malta to the sloping hills of Malibu, Pepperdine University law professor Douglas Kmiec’s diverse career has made him a leading voice in the often-contradictory worlds of government and academia, law and religion. But his role in those worlds and his determination to continue on with a sense of purpose were altered by one event, one profound tragedy.
On a sunny afternoon on Aug. 25, 2010, after a celebration at Louisville High School in Woodland Hills, Kmiec’s rental car slid off Mullholland Highway and into a drainage ditch, resulting in the deaths of his two passengers and dear friends – his spiritual counselor, Monsignor John Sheridan, and Sister Mary Campbell, both of Our Lady of Malibu Church.
Although seriously injured himself, Kmiec’s wounds ran deeper than that, he said. He faced a life decision: give in to the remorse and guilt or forge a new covenant of faith and strive to make every moment of his life worthy of theirs.
“I now live for three,” Kmiec said last week in an interview with The Malibu Times at Pepperdine.
Kmiec has written a new book, “Lift Up Your Hearts,” in which he recounts the tragedy that resulted in the deaths of Sheridan and Campbell, and delivers a message that through hardship comes understanding, catharsis and self-improvement. Beyond the car wreck, Kmiec recalls many of the events in his distinguished, sometimes controversial, career, underscored by the powerful “Theology of Kindness,” as Kmiec puts it, that was the life and words of Monsignor Sheridan.
Kmiec is no stranger to controversy.
As a prominent anti-abortion Republican – and former White House legal counsel for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush – Kmiec would set off a political/religious firestorm in the media in 2008 after his surprising endorsement of the pro-choice Barack Obama for president. Kmiec even campaigned for Obama, especially among Catholics who opposed the Illinois pro-choice beliefs.
Kmiec’s involvement brought national attention when a Westlake Village priest went so far as to refuse Kmiec communion at a Sunday Mass because of his political beliefs. Kmiec never wavered from his own pro-life stance, yet after meeting with the senator from Illinois, he said the two were able to find political, religious and moral middle ground. His realistic and common-sense approach, Kmiec said, has served the president well on other issues, as well.
“I was impressed by the sincerity of his faith,” he said.
After Obama’s election, Kmiec’s background in Catholic theology made him an ideal choice for the new president’s interfaith diplomacy initiative in Malta, the tiny Catholic island nation strategically situated in the Mediterranean Sea near Christian Europe, the Islamic Middle East, Israel and Africa.
One of the highlights of his term went beyond the purview of a diplomat—organizing and directing the life-saving evacuation efforts of United States Embassy personnel from Tripoli, Libya, during the height of that nation’s violent uprising. Even then, the spirits of Sheridan and Campbell were not far from him, he said. In fact, he said, he still wonders if he would have taken on such an immense task before the accident.
Despite enjoying strong popularity among the Maltese, controversy found Kmiec once again. Kmiec’s interfaith diplomacy had found few friends in the State Department and he was publicly rebuked by the Office of the Inspector General for being too overt in pushing his faith-based beliefs, according to a Los Angeles Times editorial. Rather than be part of a possibly politically damaging fight for the president over “an ambassador’s skinned knee,” Kmiec resigned.
That led Kmiec back to Pepperdine, where he is currently the Caruso Family Chair in Constitutional and Human Rights Law. Although he won’t rule out a government position in his future, he remains a political advisor and campaigner for the Obama administration.
Much of “Lift Up Your Hearts” reflects on the lives and character of his two parted friends, especially Sheridan, whose words of faith and love are sprinkled throughout its pages.
“One of John’s sayings, when he met someone, was, ‘I take you as you are.’ And he did. Everyone he met. He wasn’t out to change you into something that you weren’t. But he changed their lives anyway. By just knowing him, you changed for the better,” he said.
Actor Martin Sheen will participate in a reading and discussion of the book at Our Lady of Malibu on Fri., April 27, at 7 p.m. The event is free.