Will Donald Trump’s populist causes create a diplomatic breach with Pope Francis? That depends, as current chargé d’affaires Louis Bono tells the Catholic News Service, on the success of the diplomats. Bono, the highest-ranking US official in the Vatican until Trump appoints an ambassador, says that he expects the relationship to remain friendly and productive, and that there may be more commonality than some surmise. Both sides have strong incentives to find common ground and to cultivate the relationship, Bono points out:
“There’s an expectation that the relationship between President (Donald) Trump and Pope Francis will be difficult to establish” and that “the bilateral relationship between the United States and the Holy See is going to suffer and that is not the case at all,” Louis Bono, charge d’affaires to the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See said. Bono temporarily leads the embassy while it waits for a new U.S. ambassador to be named and confirmed. …
“Our goal right now is to keep that relationship moving forward, to look for more areas of collaboration” and “to build upon the successes that we’ve already experienced,” he said.
“It is also important that we have this strong relationship,” because when “there are areas of differences, areas where we disagree,” it is important “to be able to speak openly and frankly about those issues and to try and find common ground,” he said.
That is, of course, the main mission of all diplomacy. Even when political leaders have different priorities, approaches, and philosophies, the job of the diplomat is to find enough common ground between them to maintain healthy international relations, and to secure cooperation on key interests. Bono’s observations here apply to all of the international relationships of which Trump has now taken charge, and the same applies to all sides looking for common ground out of a sense of self-interest as well as shared interests. In its way, diplomacy is the triumph of hope over crises.
The Vatican is a particularly unique case, however, because of its own unique nature as a sovereign state. Bilateral relations do not include trade or security, as do most of our other diplomatic relations, but instead prioritizes ideas and ideals. Previous American presidents understood the challenges and the opportunities that offered for US credibility. Ronald Reagan partnered with St. John Paul II to liberate eastern Europe, not with tanks and artillery but with the moral force of the Catholic Church and the strength of the US. The potential in this relationship goes far beyond the few hundred people who live and work in the Vatican, but to the 70 million or more Catholics in the US and 1.2 billion Catholics around the world. The opportunities — and risks — in the success of this diplomatic relationship among both populations are significant.
Even with the obvious self-interests, there still will be friction points that a new ambassador will need to address. Pope Francis has made no secret of his disdain for nationalistic populism of the kind that helped lift Trump to the presidency, telling a German magazine that history shows that to be a dangerous trend:
Francis also repeated his warning of the dangers of rising populism in western democracies, saying “populism is evil and ends badly as the past century showed.”
Clearly this is one of the areas of disagreement to which Bono referred. However, the new Vatican ambassador to the US sees plenty of opportunity to work with the Trump administration. Archbishop Christophe Pierre told EWTN that he will focus on shared values, such as on respect for life and religious liberty, while still working on other issues on which they disagree:
The 2016 election really highlighted some deep divisions here in the United States. You’ve been here since April. This is your 10th post, and I’m wondering: What role do you think you can play in helping heal the division politically here in Washington?
Catholics are between 70 and 80 million people: It’s a good part of the United States population. So we can understand that everything which is happening and which will happen with this new government is of the interest of the bishops, of myself and of the Holy Father. But, of course, what is interesting for us is the life of the people, the welfare of the people, the future of the people. You know the bishops are pastors, and as pastors, they are concerned. And when people express, for example, fear about what could happen … I think the pastor shares this concern, and would like to express it, even to the future authorities of this country.
On what issues do you think the Vatican and the White House can find common ground?
Well, you know, the people, the welfare of the people, the future of the people. But also, you know, religious liberty, values, human values, human life — human life is of paramount importance for us. So we are always careful to see if, really, human life is being respected. Not just the human life of the unborn, but the human life of children, of migrants, so that’s another aspect.
As National Catholic Register’s Peter Jesserer Smith points out today, Trump’s address to Congress last week also offered some points for common ground with the Holy See:
President Donald Trump set out his domestic agenda in his first joint address to Congress, which outlined a number of policy priorities that dovetail with Catholic social teaching, even with the fraught issue of immigration.
The speech also showed where the U.S. bishops and the president may find common ground between his agenda and the Church’s social teaching, such as stronger wages and jobs, paid leave for parents, educational choice and health care reform, despite important differences on immigration. …
While the U.S. is deeply divided politically, John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, told the Register that Catholic social teaching can provide the needed common ground to move forward.
He found the most promising line of Trump’s speech, from a Catholic point of view, was a reminder: “True love for our people requires us to find common ground, to advance the common good and to cooperate on behalf of every American child who deserves a much brighter future.”
Carr, a former director for the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said the president has made an important contribution by refocusing the national discussion back on the dignity of work.
All of these shared interests offer opportunities for positive engagement, even when priorities and policies present disagreement and conflict. The role of the next ambassador will be to navigate these waters carefully, and that requires a strong knowledge not just of the administration’s policies and priorities, but also of Catholic teaching and the Vatican’s own culture and priorities, too. If Trump picks an ambassador who can combine that with a way to engage Catholics in the US positively and directly and keeping them ahead of the generally superficial coverage of national media outlets here in the US, that would be a significant bonus as well. Hopefully, the White House is thinking strategically about this specific appointment.
Update, 3/10: Fixed two spelling errors.