Reflections on Donald Trump’s Vatican pit-stop
Donald Trump is back from his first world tour, and he’s already started a tweetstorm. But it’s worth reflecting on the significance of his brief stop at the Vatican that was sandwiched into an already-busy schedule on his nine-day trip. The pit stop to see the Catholic Bishop of Rome, and sovereign of Vatican City, was not originally on the itinerary. Its late addition produced an unusually timed of 8:30 a.m. meeting, before the President flew off to the summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
America’s relationship with the Holy See have always been complicated, both by historical anti-Catholicism, as well a concern against rubbing up too closely against the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which forbids Congress from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”
Simple anti-Catholic bigotry no longer colors America’s attitude towards the papacy, the current holder of which is usually popular in the now plurality-Catholic United States. Owing to waves of immigration and assimilation, a faith once viewed with suspicion has become quintessentially part of American religious life. In 2015, Pope Francis even addressed a joint session of Congress, an unusual honor even for heads of state.
Be wary of special relationships with religions
There are still reasons to be wary of America’s “special relationship” with the Vatican. The Catholic Church might be the world’s largest organized religious institution, but it is still a church. It is difficult to imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury, the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the head of the Southern Baptist Convention being invited to speak before Congress, and given all the pomp and circumstance of a head of state.
It would be even more unthinkable for the United States to maintain or exchange ambassadors or diplomatic relations with any other church. In those cases, the impropriety of using government functions as the stage for garnering the votes of a certain faith would be obvious, and would be condemned by many.
Yet the Pope appears to be unique on the world stage. Technically, he is indeed the head of an internationally recognized sovereign state, under a treaty concluded with Benito Mussolini in 1929. Of course, the significance of the Pope has little to do with his 109-acre sovereign enclave in Rome, and everything to do with his stature and moral authority among more than one billion Catholics around the world.
And Bishops of Rome never seem to have shied away from politics, either, ranging from tax and welfare policies to climate change, or from condemning communism to critiquing capitalism. During last year’s election, Pope Francis even got in an implied but obvious dig against Donald Trump’s border wall. It prompted a typical over-the-top rebuke from the then-candidate’s Twitter feed. That appeared to have been forgotten on Wednesday.
As a sign of how political America’s relationship with the papacy has become, Trump’s nominee for Ambassador to the Vatican is Callista Gingrich, the third wife of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The devoutly Catholic couple – Newt was reportedly converted by Callista – will join a long line of ambassadors whose appointments have seemed to have more to do with domestic politics than with international diplomacy.
A simple solution: ‘Dual-hatting’ ambassadorships
The days of America refraining from appointing an Ambassador to the Vatican are probably never coming back. There is, however, a possible compromise to save taxpayers money, and principled constitutionalists embarrassment. It is the notion of “dual-hatting” an ambassador to the Vatican.
Dual-hatting is a common arrangement around the world. A single ambassador accredited to multiple nations. The Ambassador to Italy, for example, is also accredited to the tiny republic of San Marino. The U.S. Ambassador to Barbados also covers a half-dozen other island nations in the Caribbean. Instead of sending the third wife of a former politician, the U.S. Ambassador to Italy could simply also be accredited as our representative to the Vatican. There is little need for the United States to have two ambassadors in Rome. We would be far from the only nation to make such an arrangement.