- By Daniel B. BaerDaniel Baer is diplomat in residence at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. He previously served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 2009 to 2013. Baer was an assistant professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, a faculty fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, and a project leader at the Boston Consulting Group.
When President Donald Trump visited Rome in May, Twitter and Facebook lit up. Many delighted in headlines and commentary that suggested that when Trump visited the Vatican, the Pope schooled him the way a disappointed headmaster deals with a badly behaved remedial student. Indeed, much in Trump’s agenda (to say nothing of his character) is at odds with Pope Francis’s touchstone priorities: lifting up the poor and hungry, tackling climate change and serving as responsible custodians of a fragile planet, showing compassion for refugees and respect for their human dignity. These purposes have inspired American Catholics and non-Catholics alike making the Pope far more popular than Trump himself in the United States.
The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See does not oversee a large embassy, but our emissaries to the Vatican have historically had a significant mission — in large part because they represent not only the president, but all Americans, including tens of millions of American Catholics. While we maintain a separation of church and state, our Vatican envoys have tended be those whose credibility rests on both political qualifications and ties to the Catholic community. Commentators — including those on the right — have questioned whether Callista Gingrich fits within that tradition. (By comparison, President Barack Obama’s last ambassador, Ken Hackett, served in the Peace Corps and then dedicated his career to Catholic Relief Services, eventually becoming its CEO.)
Her performance at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did nothing to reassure those who wondered whether Gingrich was prepared to take up the post, despite Sen. Ron Johnson’s attempts to cover her failings. (Though she was not confirmed before the summer recess and has never served as a diplomat, the first sentence of Gingrich’s Wikipedia page has — curiously — been updated to say that she is “an American diplomat”.)
To put it charitably, the Trump administration has taken an unconventional approach to foreign policy appointments, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s management failures have been well-documented. Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which lays out the obligations of sending and host countries with respect to diplomats, sovereign states retain the prerogative to accept diplomats and to revoke such acceptance (by declaring them persona non grata). Normal diplomatic protocol thus entails requesting agrément — literally the concurrence of the would-be host-state — before publicly appointing ambassadors, or in our case, before announcing an intention to nominate an ambassador for confirmation by the Senate.
It’s unclear whether the Trump administration requested agrément for Gingrich before her name appeared in the press or the president’s formal nomination was forwarded to the U.S. Senate. (There were rumors in Washington earlier this year that several nominations had been announced to the surprise of the State Department and the relevant foreign capital.)
While the Republican Senate is likely to eventually confirm Gingrich, Pope Francis does not have to accept her. And he should not.
It wouldn’t be the first time the Pope rejected an envoy sent by a major country with a significant Catholic population. In early 2015, then French President Francois Hollande appointed his chief of protocol — an experienced career diplomat with a stellar reputation who had been the deputy chief of mission at the French Embassy to the Holy See earlier in his career — but he was not accepted by the Vatican as the French ambassador.
Why did the Pope refuse him? Because Laurent Stéfanini is gay. Pope Francis, reportedly angered by France’s legalization of marriage between individuals of the same sex, refused to accept an ambassador duly appointed by the French president. The Elysée Palace admirably stood by Stéfanini for over a year — insisting that he was the only choice — until it finally relented in April 2016 and appointed him to a different post.
If being gay was reason enough for the Pope to reject a well-qualified diplomat as a suitable representative to the Holy See, then shouldn’t the fact that Callista Gingrich carried on a 6-year affair with a married man be reason to decline President Trump’s chosen envoy?
Some people will say “Who cares that she had an affair? Who cares that the French guy was gay?” Fair enough. But obviously the Pope cares about the latter — and if he accepts Gingrich, the question is: Why is a person who freely engaged in an adulterous relationship more welcome, and more consistent with Catholic teaching, than a gay man?
Pope Francis has won praise for his moral leadership on a range of issues. One aspect of moral leadership is consistency in application of principles. Obviously, I disagree with the Pope’s decision to reject an envoy simply because he was gay. But given that he has established a record of making moral judgments about the suitability of proposed representatives to The Holy See, shouldn’t he endeavor to do so with consistency?
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