The Trump era represents an extraordinary period in the history of relations between a U.S. administration and the papacy. I think back to September 2015 when, soon after Donald Trump declared his candidacy, Pope Francis traveled to the United States. American Catholics seemed to rally around the pope, while almost no one was taking Trump’s bid for the presidency seriously. Then his campaign got underway, and he started to gain traction with his promises about building walls and banning Muslims. In early 2016, during an in-flight press conference while heading home from Mexico, the pope dared to describe these proposed policies as “not Christian.” Trump responded by calling Pope Francis’s statement “disgraceful.” It was now clear and on the record that Francis and Trump represented divergent worldviews, a split that EWTN and Fox News gleefully seized on and amplified, driving a narrative that, if not conducive to formal schism, nonetheless reeked of a nationalist Catholicism while undermining belief in the unity of the Church. And it would only get worse from there.
During the 2016 campaign, the Vatican had rooted not-so-secretly for Hillary Clinton. Never mind her stance on abortion, or that as secretary of state she had skipped a trip to the Vatican (becoming the first secretary of state since the Nixon administration not to visit the pope)—she was still the less bad of two bad options. Trump’s victory in November stunned the Vatican, but it didn’t flinch. Rather, it adhered to old diplomatic adages: “Never close a door” and “make yourself predictable.” Of course, this was not to be the way of the new president. While he behaved according to protocol on his visit with the first lady to the Vatican in May 2017, even projecting a sense of diplomatic normalcy, operatives like Newt Gingrich and Steve Bannon were simultaneously forging connections with anti-Francis prelates in a political project aimed at subverting the status quo both in Europe and in the Catholic Church. The idea was to introduce into the symbolic and administrative heart of Catholicism the pathogen that would be known as Trumpism, perhaps even to make Rome the parallel capital of a new anti-European and anti-Francis continent. That project, fortunately, has failed; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s extraordinary October attack against the sovereign diplomacy of the Holy See over its renewal of the September 2018 provisional agreement with China in some ways serves as proof. Indeed, his tantrum might actually have worked to Francis’s benefit, as the Vatican was able to signal to the world that it doesn’t take orders from America.
The Vatican can only be pleased with the arrival of a Biden presidency, and with it a return of diplomatic stability. Pope Francis acknowledging the result of the presidential election and congratulating Biden on November 12 (while Trump still hasn’t conceded) indicates the relief Rome feels. The new administration’s preference for multilateralism aligns with the Vatican’s, and they also converge on important issues like migration and the environment. Soon there will be a new ambassador to the Holy See, and, following the tenure of Calista Gingrich (third wife of Newt), the appointment could send some interesting signals. Recall that President Obama appointed Catholic theology professor Miguel Diaz (2009–2013) and former president of Catholic Relief Services Ken Hackett (2013–2017). There may also be a change in the Vatican’s diplomatic mission to the United States: in January, papal nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre turns seventy-five, the age at which a Catholic bishop must submit his resignation to the pope.