20 July 2017
Don't write off Callista Gingrich's Vatican mission
Representing the interests of Donald Trump’s administration to Pope Francis and the Vatican is going to require a considerable feat of diplomatic tightrope walking.
Callista Gingrich, the United States President’s choice as his Ambassador to the Holy See, is already getting a taste of the balancing act she’ll be required to carry out should her position be confirmed.
Commentators were quick to criticise her performance at a Senate committee where she was quizzed about the Pope and Trump’s differences on global warming with some arguing she lacks the relevant skills for the job.
But don’t write her off just yet.
One of the crucial important aspects of being an effective Ambassador to the Vatican is having the ear of your bosses back home.
Mrs Gingrich has a direct line to Trump, and her relationship with the administration is bolstered through her marriage to Newt Gingrich, a former speaker and close ally of the president. Sources close to the couple say that Newt plans to divide his time between Rome and Washington, ensuring the the Republican big hitter can reinforce messages his wife wants to relay to the President and his team.
Another key element to the job of an envoy to the Holy See is the ability to build contacts. This is a role which is more about people rather than policy.
Congressman Francis Rooney, US Ambassador to the Vatican during the Bush years, put it to me this way: “the Holy See posting is different from secular missions which have big institutional drivers and strong relationships are extremely important”.
Mrs Gingrich, who has worked in politics for decades, is a lifelong Catholic and produced a documentary on the role that John Paul II played in the defeat of communism: this suggests a sensitivity to the Church’s influence on the global stage and some familiarity with the geo-political territory.
Strong personal contacts in the Holy See, and a closeness to the powers that be in Washington, will be the foundation blocks to building a dialogue with the ambassador’s new interlocutors. And it is dialogue which is the capital asset of diplomacy.
This will also help with handling the glaring differences between Francis and Trump. Last year the Pope described Trump, then a Republican presidential candidate as “not Christian” due to his plans to build wall on the US-Mexico border, and the two have polar opposite positions on global warming. Just days after the President met Francis and told him he would read the Pope’s landmark encyclical on protecting the environment Trump pulled out of the Paris climate change deal.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Mrs Gingrich struggled to convince sceptical Democrats when she claimed the president cares about the environment, and that Trump wants clean air and water.
The new ambassador’s job is not, however, just about persuading a committee of senators but convincing the Holy See that they can work with the United States.
From the Vatican’s point of view they are ready and willing to do business. Church sources stress that Francis and Trump’s meeting in the Vatican at the end of May was positive, defying some of the negative expectations.
“Channels of dialogue were opened up,” one said. “And that’s what these meetings are all about.”
Holy See diplomacy is about the old school diplomacy of talking to everyone and there was no unease - as we have seen in the UK - about the Pope welcoming Trump on a state visit to the Vatican.
It’s highly likely that Mrs Gingrich will receive confirmation and take up her post in Rome over the summer. She and Newt will live in a large ambassadorial residence set amid sprawling gardens in a quiet, secluded spot on the Janiculum hill. It is the perfect setting to entertain Vatican officials and fellow diplomats.
And whatever happens during her tenure, the prospective ambassador is likely to put a new focus on the US-Holy See relationship, while the presence of a political big-hitter such as Newt Gingrich is likely to shake up the diplomatic world in Rome. Order in the popcorn.
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