UPDATED: 3:45 am EST, February 1st, 2017
ROME—Imagine the first day on the job for whoever is posted as President Trump’s ambassador to the Holy See. It could get a little rough. First of all, the bosses don’t exactly get along. Pope Francis famously accused Trump of not being a Christian a year ago when he gave a mass on the border between the United States and Mexico. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian,” he said. “This is not the gospel.”
Trump responded by accusing the Pope of playing politics. “I think Mexico got him to do it because Mexico wants to keep the border just the way it is because they’re making a fortune and we’re losing,” Trump said in response.
But the wall isn’t the only issue that will require diplomatic finesse to keep relations friendly between Trump’s America and Francis’ Church. Immigration issues that skim human rights issues like deportation, Trump’s attitude toward Latin America as a whole, and climate change, which has been the pope’s signature world cause, are all touchy issues.
That’s why it has been especially troubling in Rome to hear news that Trump might send a celebrity ambassador to represent America with the Holy See. Over the last week, rumors have been swirling that Arnold Schwarzenegger could be tapped for the job after photos emerged of him shaking hands with the pope at a general audience. The Terminator is a Catholic and climate change champion, but the fact that he says he didn’t vote for Trump, nor donate to his campaign, might sink any potential deal.
Another familiar name on the short list is Callista Gingrich, the third wife of Newt and a devout Catholic who was able to get her twice-divorced husband to convert to Catholicism in 2008, which should count for something. While she is not a seasoned diplomat, she spent nearly two decades as a congressional aide before helming the Gingrich Productions film company she created with her husband. Among their films are a documentary on the canonization of John Paul II and two about rediscovering God in America.
According to her bio on the film company website she is also a member of the choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC., which sang for Pope Francis when he visited the United States last year.
Gingrich, himself no longer on a list for a Trump government job confirmed to CNN that his wife was on the short list, saying he’d probably not move to Rome himself if she is officially tapped. “I'd clock in an amazing number of miles,” Gingrich told a CNN political correspondent. “You guys won't be getting rid of me. I'll be around.”
“This is not just a meet and greet post. It’s a place where a lot of actual diplomacy goes on,” he told The Daily Beast. “The ambassador is head of quite a large embassy and they are very active. I think any think any ambassador under President Trump is going to have his or her work cut out. I see a new ambassador under President Trump coming in with some very big diplomatic challenges.”
He says climate change is probably the biggest and most obvious difference between Trump and Francis, and one that could keep the two divided. “There are some very problematic areas and that is going to require diplomatic skills, not stardom and celebrity status,” Thavis says. “It would be a sign of respect for the United States to send a qualified ambassador to the Vatican.”
One plausible name that's been floated in Rome is William E. Simon, Jr., a close friend of Rudy Giuliani who is said to be pushing him forward. Simon would be a moderate in one of America's most visible diplomatic positions with direct contact with the most popular pope in recent memory. He is a member of the Knights of Malta, an organization that has been in a public battle with the pontiff, and was recently knighted into the Order of St. Gregory the Great, an honor bestowed on Roman Catholics for their personal service and support to the Holy See and the wider Church. His recent book, Great Catholic Parishes, is said to have won him the pope's favor, and he could prove to be the best bridge between Pope Francis and Trump, who agree on as many issues as they differ.
Other names are former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic and father of eight who still has family in Italy and papal biographer George Weigel. Ronald Reagan’s speech writer Peggy Noonan is also reported to be a contender as well.
The most likely choice may well be Joseph Forgione, who was also short listed as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Forgione has dual American and Italian citizenship and is said to be friends with the family of Jared Kushner as well as a substantial donor to the Trump campaign.
The American embassy to the Holy See is not without its own skeletons in its not-so-cloistered closets. The daughter of Mary Ann Glendon, the last Republican ambassador to the Holy See, had a love child with a priest Thomas Williams, who was then spokesman for the now-disgraced Legion of Christ religious order. Williams left the priesthood and went on to marry Glendon’s daughter, and he is now the correspondent for Breitbart News in Rome.
One of President Obama’s ambassadors, Cuban-born Miguel Diaz, was also in the public eye after he left office for allegedly sexually assaulting a married couple in Dayton, Ohio. Local media reports say he, “engaged in 'unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature' toward a married couple.” Charges were eventually dropped.
On the other side of Rome, the role of Trump’s ambassador to Italy is also up for grabs, likely going to the Republican Party’s financial chairman Lew Eisenberg, according to whispers at the American embassy in Rome. But the role is very different than that of the Holy See ambassador, primarily because of Italy’s political instability and pending early elections, as opposed to the Vatican’s outspoken leader who disagrees openly with almost everything on Trump’s agenda so far.
“The Vatican is a curious blend of religious and political issues,” Thavis says. “And diplomacy is key to keep the balance.” A celebrity ambassador might add a little flash to the position that requires substance instead.