Will the Trump Administration Improve Relations With the Vatican?

Beginning on January 20, Trump has the opportunity to chart a new course in U.S.-Church relations.

The Apostolic Nunciature to the United States in Washington, D.C.
The Apostolic Nunciature to the United States in Washington, D.C. (photo: Photo credit: ‘Jonathunder’, GFDL 1.2, via Wikimedia Commons)

As Inauguration Day approaches, Catholics have been speculating as to how the incoming Trump administration will handle issues of concern to people of faith: things like abortion, same-sex marriage, religious liberty, immigration and other social justice issues.

But equally important is the cooperative relationship between America and the Holy See. What can we expect?

Political pundits are already discussing a list of potential candidates for the position of U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. (Current Ambassador to the Vatican Ken Hackett will, like other ambassadors, resign effective January 20, making room for nominations by the incoming President.) The person who is ultimately chosen for that position should be someone who understands the priorities of Donald Trump, as well as the teachings and mission of the Catholic Church. Among the names suggested to fill the seat are:

  • Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives. Gingrich converted to the Catholic Church in 2009; his wife Callista is a life-long Catholic who sings in the choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC.
  • William E. Simon, Jr., businessman, member of the Knights of Malta. Simon has been recommended for the job by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Trump's cybersecurity advisor. 
  • Joseph Forgione, property developer. His parents emigrated from Italy, and Forgione holds dual citizenship. His candidacy has support, according to The Tablet, because of his friendship with the Kushner family and because he raised funds for the Trump presidential campaign.
  • Former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum. Santorum is a leading member of Trump's Catholic Advisory Committee, a conservative Catholic and father of eight.

The list goes on: politicians like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; journalists and writers like George Weigel and Peggy Noonan; Catholic leaders like Carl Anderson, head of the Knights of Columbus; and more.

Potential for Change in U.S./Vatican Relations

Whoever is named to the post, the new Ambassador could play a pivotal role in strengthening American-Vatican relations in the post-Obama era.

In 2009, the ambassador position was vacant for an extended period, reflecting U.S./Vatican tensions over abortion and marriage. During the months that the position was open, Caroline Kennedy and Douglas Kmiec were proposed; but both were ultimately rejected because of differences regarding these important issues.

The seat was vacant again from November 2012 through mid-2013, after Ambassador Miguel Diaz left the office to teach at the University of Dayton.

The collaboration between the U.S. and the Holy See in the last eight years has been unsteady. On the one hand, the U.S. and the Vatican in recent years shared a commitment to slowing climate change and preventing human trafficking. But there has been an animosity on the part of Obama's Administration toward key Catholic teachings, specifically regarding abortion, the sanctity of marriage, and religious liberty.

And Catholics close to Rome were troubled when, in 2013, the Obama Administration closed its Vatican Embassy headquarters in the Villa Domiziana on the Aventine Hill, instead moving its operations to a smaller building within the walls of the U.S. Embassy to Italy.

At the time, the Obama Administration cited “security concerns” following the attack in Benghazi, and claimed that they could better protect embassy staff in a consolidated compound. There was not, however, a similar request to merge the embassies of other small European nations. Was  President Obama, in scaling back only the Vatican embassy, minimizing the importance of U.S. relations with the Holy See?

When the Aventine Hill offices were closed, many thought that the move signaled to the Church, to this nation’s 70 million self-identified Catholics, and to the world that the United States was too busy with other things to bother protecting its embassy in the smallest but arguably the most influential nation in the world. Five former Vatican Ambassadors disagreed with the policy—calling the plan a “massive downgrade” in U.S./Vatican relations.

Former U.S. Ambassador James Nicholson, who served as Secretary of Veterans Affairs under George W. Bush and as chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, “It’s turning this embassy into a stepchild of the embassy to Italy.” Speaking to National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen, Ambassador Nicholson said:

“The Holy See is a pivot point for international affairs and a major listening post for the United States, and to shoehorn [the U.S. delegation] into an office annex inside another embassy is an insult to American Catholics and to the Vatican.”

Ambassador Francis X. Rooney, author of The Global Vatican who served as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican from 2005 to 2008, agreed. “In the diplomatic world,” Rooney said, “ if you don’t have your own separate space, you’re on the road to nowhere.”

Ambassador Ray Flynn, former Boston mayor and Ambassador from 1993-1997, concurred. Flynn called the relocation “shortsighted” and told the National Catholic Reporter:

“It's not just those who bomb churches and kill Catholics in the Middle East who are our antagonists, but it's also those who restrict our religious freedoms and want to close down our embassy to the Holy See.”

Ambassador Flynn saw the move as illustrative of the Obama Administration’s broader secular hostility to religious groups, the Catholic Church in particular.

Former Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon, who served at the time as the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard and who held the Ambassadorship in 2008-2009, noted that both the U.S. and the Vatican are global actors, and their spheres of influence are worldwide. She insisted that the importance of America’s relationship with the Vatican merits its own location and profile.

Ambassador Thomas Patrick Melady, who served in the role from 1989-1993, told NCR that regardless of the “official” reason for the change, no matter how the Administration seeks to justify the move, it will be perceived in diplomatic circles as scaling back.

Only the two Vatican Ambassadors who were appointees of President ObamaMiguel Diaz and current U.S. Ambassador Ken Hackett—supported the Obama Administration’s plan. Hackett said that he saw no diminishing in the importance of the U.S.’s relationship with the Vatican, and added that the two governments have enjoyed a better relationship now, during Pope Francis’ papacy, than they have in quite a while. And Ambassador Miguel Diaz (2009-2012) defended the company line, insisting that the security issue was a serious matter and that the move would better enable the government to ensure the safety of U.S. diplomatic personnel. He added that the move would promote collaboration among the three American embassies in Rome, which he saw as advantageous.

History of United States' Diplomatic Relations with the Holy See

The United States and the Holy See did not enjoy a full diplomatic relationship until January 1984. Before that, due in part to anti-Catholicism in the U.S., this country did not recognize the Vatican City-State as a nation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Postmaster General James Farley was the first high-ranking government official to normalize relations with the Holy See. In 1933, Farley had an audience with Pope Pius XI and dinner with Cardinal Pacelli, who would succeed to the papacy in 1939. Between 1939 and 1951, the U.S. had no ambassador but sent an emissary to discuss matters of mutual concern. Then from 1951 through 1968, the U.S. had no relations with the Vatican.

Presidents Nixon and Carter appointed “personal representatives” to interact with the Holy See in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Then finally, on January 10, 1984, the United States recognized the Holy See as an independent legislative body, and established the Vatican Embassy.

President-elect Trump, beginning on January 20, has the opportunity to chart a new course in U.S.-Church relations. With the advice of his Catholic Advisory Group, President Trump will have the opportunity to revisit the decision regarding the Vatican Embassy, as well as other policies of concern to persons of faith.

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