Choices: Who to send to the Vatican?

Among the many tasks facing Donald Trump, as with any new president, are the selections of new ambassadors to represent the United States in most countries around the world. Despite some earlier hysteria in the media, these posts do not need to be filled immediately, but should be filled as expeditiously as possible. That’s for the benefit of the president, who needs people he can trust in those positions, and for our allies and friends, who need to know they have a connection to the American head of state at a higher level than just career professionals in the embassies.

We’ll start hearing trial balloons about the key diplomatic postings, but it’s at least somewhat revealing that one of the first of the trial balloons we’re seeing is the appointment to the Vatican:

Callista Gingrich, the wife of Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and a friend of Mr. Trump’s, is in the running to be ambassador to the Holy See, according to a person briefed on the discussions.

Mr. Gingrich, reached by telephone, said that he was aware that his wife had been on a list for the job, but declined to say where things stood. The former speaker took himself out of the running for a cabinet post after it became clear that Mr. Trump was looking elsewhere for a secretary of state.

Now, some readers will undoubtedly dismiss this story as being about a relatively unimportant post, which means that the choice of ambassador doesn’t really matter. However, the pope provides spiritual leadership to almost 70 million Americans, and to over 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. In trade and security, the Vatican might not have much of a direct impact, but the influence of the Holy See is undeniable. Getting that relationship right matters to presidents for lots of reasons, not the least of which is to keep tens of millions of Catholic voters from becoming alienated from the administration.

As such, this is a position that requires low-key expertise rather than ostentation and controversy. That’s especially true in this pontificate; Pope Francis is in the middle of reforming the Roman Curia, with the specific goal of reducing the ostentation and a keener focus on humility and charitable works. Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush understood the importance of this approach. Obama took care to appoint ambassadors with strong backgrounds in Catholic theology (Miguel Diaz) and charitable works (Ken Hackett, who is still on the job). Bush’s first two picks were more political (James Nicholson and Francis Rooney, who just got elected to Congress), but his final envoy was Mary Ann Glendon, a highly respected pro-life activist and lawyer.

The key to this assignment is fitting into this pontificate’s reformist mood rather than providing a contrast to it. Mrs. Gingrich would make a fine envoy to any nation, but this particular assignment might be better given to someone with more of a background along the lines of Glendon, Hackett, or Diaz.

Another key to this position is understanding the levels of complexity in Catholic doctrine and practice and how that fits within American policy and understanding. That becomes a critical point in dealing with the media, in the Vatican and back in the US. After having reported in depth from the Vatican at the 2013 papal conclave and the 2014 Synod on the family, I can attest that veteran Vaticanistas like John Thavis, Francis Rocca, John Allen and his gang at The Crux get it right while the traditional mainstream media usually … doesn’t. That’s a reality for any ambassador and administration regardless of expertise, but those with a solid foundation in all these areas will have a leg up. Also, in this assignment particularly, it’s important to avoid giving that media the option of making the ambassador the story.

The New York Times notes one other trial balloon for the position:

Others who are being considered for the role include William Simon Jr., a friend of Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Bill Simon tried a couple of runs for public office in California in the previous couple of decades, but came up short. Since then, though, he has been a philanthropist and a supporter of conservative causes. He served as a trustee to the Heritage Foundation, for instance, and more importantly has worked on charitable trusts that provide scholarships for the underprivileged and for renovating schools and churches. He’s mostly done that behind the scenes, quietly, although he did join Giuliani’s presidential exploratory committee ten years ago.

It’s important to get this appointment right, and to understand the opportunities and risks that this position presents for a new president. Even if Trump doesn’t select Simon, he still serves as the model of the most effective profile for this position.

Addendum: I’ve had a lot of fun over the past few days with the #Morrissey4Vatican hashtag on Twitter, and my “resumé” for the ambassadorial post. If called to serve in that capacity, I’d jump at the chance and believe I could do a good job with it, perhaps mostly in terms of media management. Who wouldn’t want to live in Rome for a few years, eh? Seriously, though, there are a lot of men and women who’d outrank me in qualifications, and also in the level of confidence the president would have in his nominee. That’s also a critical quality for any ambassadorial position, and this one is no exception. Hope readers enjoy the resumé, anyway.