If the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican was not a serious business, then one could maybe joke that Donald Trump’s nomination of Callista Gingrich, third wife of a prominent American cultural warrior, signifies a presidential misreading of chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. It would not be the first time in Church history that a head of state twists papal teachings to his own favor. But Vatican diplomacy is not a joke, and the ambassadorship to the Holy See is not a purely ceremonial position. The announcement from the Trump administration—coming five days before the president meets Pope Francis—also reveals something more about the men’s two very different worldviews.
If there’s a predecessor to compare Callista Gingrich with, it would probably be Mary Ann Glendon, who was ambassador to the Holy See from February 2008 to January 2009. There’s a similar Republican political persuasion, although their professional qualifications are very different in substance. Then there’s Ken Hackett, who served from August 2013 to January 2017, coming to Rome after a long stint as president of Catholic Relief Services. The appointment of Callista Gingrich, though, is outside the tradition of giving ambassadorships to friends, political donors, or business people with ties to the administration. It seems a purely “personal reward” appointment and as such could be seen as an insult to papal diplomacy—the oldest and one of the most respected diplomatic undertakings in the world—but also to diplomacy in general, where forms and symbols matter. It is not just an issue of personal qualifications, but also an issue of the worldview of the Trump administration.
Let’s put aside all this nonsense about the “populist” qualities Trump and Francis supposedly share. Francis has a geopolitical view of the world—which Trump does not—and the role of the Church in it. This will be the underlying factor at their May 24 meeting (a meeting, by the way, scheduled for unusually early in the morning). Francis has described his worldview as “Magellan’s gaze”: “One thing is to observe reality from the center and another to see it from the last place where you arrived […] An example: Europe seen from Madrid in the 16th century was one thing; however, when Magellan arrives at the end of the American continent, he sees Europe from a new point reached and understands another thing.” In seeing the world as an explorer (not a settler or a conqueror), as the son of immigrants, and as the leader of a global faith community, he takes it in with his mind, his heart, and his hands. Contrast how Trump kicked off his first foreign trip—the largest arms sale in U.S. history—to how Francis began his, a trip to “the peripheries” of Lampedusa in July 2013 at which he said: “Immigrants dying at sea, in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death. That is how the headlines put it. When I first heard of this tragedy a few weeks ago, and realized that it happens all too frequently, it has constantly come back to me like a painful thorn in my heart. So I felt that I had to come here today.”