Trump can work with Pope on Latin America and religious freedom

President Trump

Trump can work with Pope on Latin America and religious freedom

By Christopher Lamb/ Vatican City

Interview with Republican Congressman Francis Rooney, a former US Ambassador to the Holy See.

President Donald Trump and Pope Francis are two of the most compelling figures on the world stage. Both were elected outsiders, both have shaken up their respective establishments and both have sought to build bottom-up movements with a message that is taken directly to the people.

But the pair also have radically different visions of the world while neither is afraid of confrontation.

It means that the President and the Pope’s first meeting - due to take place at 8.30 am on Wednesday morning, the 24th of May - will be one of the most hotly anticipated papal audiences in recent history.

Speaking days before their meeting Congressman Francis Rooney, a Trump supporter and former Ambassador to the Holy See, believes that the two leaders can work together such as solving problems in Latin America, protecting religious freedoms and defending the cause of human dignity worldwide.

The audience will occur in the context of a highly ritualised occasion, with the president welcomed by Swiss guards, ushered past dazzling renaissance frescoes, and then offered a seat opposite the Pope.

Behind the protocol, however, tensions will be bubbling away.

While the president is following an “America first” strategy, the Francis pursuing an internationalist, compassionate agenda. They also have radically different views on tackling climate change and welcoming migrants. The Pope even described the then Republican candidate as “not Christian” for wanting to build a wall on the United States-Mexico border.

Yet Rooney, who served as President George W. Bush’s Vatican envoy, admits there are big disagreements argues that the Pope and the President can build bridges, and can work with the Holy See at a global level.

The Pope has also said he will listen to the President. “Even if one thinks differently we have to be very sincere about what each one thinks,” he said on the plane travelling back from Fatima last weekend.

An important factor in US-Holy See relations is who Trump appoints as his ambassador to the Vatican, with reports that Callista Gingrich is about to be named. Congressman Rooney argued this would be a positive move given her links to the White House. Mrs Gingrich, a documentary maker and practising Catholic, is married to former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, an ally of the President and a big-hitter in Washington.

Following is the full interview with Congressman Rooney, who was recently elected as the representative for Florida’s 19th congressional district.

What do you expect from the meeting between Pope Francis and President Trump?

First, I think its a very important step that the President is meeting the Pope early on in his tenure, and I think it shows the unique diplomatic role the Holy See plays. Second, by combining the visit to the Vatican with one to Saudi Arabia, and Israel, the President is appealing to Muslim leaders to deal with radicals inside their community, while also showing the importance that religion plays in some of the big challenges facing the world.

The Pope has made dialogue with Islam a priority, what is the President’s approach?
You have to have dialogue to have diplomacy - it is the capital of diplomacy. Pope Benedict XVI started to seek dialogue with Islam and one of the things of seeking clarity with the problems within Islam, is that you can start looking at the real differences while looking at what can be shared as modern cultural values.

The President and the Pope have diametrically opposed views issues such as migrants and climate change and they’ve already had public disagreements. Do you expect clashes during their meeting?
What I am hopeful for, and what I expect, is that what happened on the campaign stays on the campaign. I expect the meeting to focus on looking at the mutual constructive opportunities, such as ways to advance the ball on religious persecution and human dignity. On the climate change issue the Pope has made his position clear but it is not one shared by the Trump administration. This is an issue where there has been wide disagreement with many scientists saying they don’t know exactly how the models work. Yes, man has had some influence on the climate, but the question is how far, and what are the contributing factors. That is where the Trump administration disagree with Laudato si’ [Pope’s encyclical on the environment].

Will the grandeur of the ceremony involved when meeting a Pope have an impact on President Trump?
The Holy See method of conducting state visit is highly ritualised. Its old school diplomacy. There are the Swiss Guards, the welcome, the ushering through different rooms. I think It will be a great experience for the president, and I know it was very rewarding for President [George W] Bush. I don’t know anyone who does protocol like the Holy See, they do it really well. But there is also a method behind their approach. It says ‘we are in this long term diplomatic relationship, we are not looking just at today, or next week but how to make the world a better place in the long term.’

As a former ambassador to the Holy See, what will be the big challenges for the new incumbent, whenever he or she is appointed?
The next ambassador is going to face the same challenges and opportunities I had. The Holy See and the United States are two entities founded on religious freedom and the natural rights of man and not on monarchical systems. So the aim is to advance the common principles of human dignity and religious freedom. I feel that with Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin, who knows Venezuela so well, and a Latin American Pope, there is a great opportunity for joint diplomacy in Latin America. There is the peace deal in Colombia, the instability in Venezuela and the corruption in Brazil, and the Church is uniquely positioned to exert influence. I really believe it is fortuitous that we have Cardinal Parolin in post at this time, and I think Francis did a great thing to appoint him.

On Cuba I think the deal that Obama struck was problematic. I believe that we should be refusing trade and financial exchange until they improve their record on human rights and freedom. We should be demanding that before we open up those things.

Reports say Callista Gingrich is going to be the next Ambassador, is this true?
That’s the only rumour right now. There have been other rumours in the past but that is the only one now.

If she is appointed, how do you think she will get on?
I think she’ll be very good as one of the most important aspects of being an Ambassador to the Holy See is to have direct access to leaders back home. Francis Campbell [former British Ambassador to the Holy See 2005-11] had a very good relationship with Prime Minister Blair, and I had a strong relationship with the George W Bush administration and Karl Rove [his senior adviser].

She has that with the Trump administration which is partly through her husband, Newt Gingrich [former speaker and supporter of President Trump’s campaign]. That will help her. The Holy See posting is different from secular missions which have big institutional drivers and strong relationships are extremely important.

The Vatican is renowned for its global soft-power influence. Is this still true? How would you describe its mission?
The Holy See has a unique diplomatic role in the world. It is non-parochial, and able to extremely international-focussed. When the UK sailors were picked up by Iran back in 2007, it was Pope Benedict XVI, for example, who mediated between the Blair government and Iran to get a group of British sailors released. The fact they don’t take credit for what they do because they are not politicians, makes them all the more effective. The value of the Holy See diplomacy is also seen in the Catholic NGO groups which gives them a real reach, and also allows them to be informed on what is going on in the world and in global events.

Given we live in a world of public diplomacy, should the Vatican make more of its influence?
I keep a quote on my desk which I’m looking at right now from Ronald Reagan: “there’s no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.” This also applies to the Holy See.

What are the state of relations between the US and the Vatican?
The relationship has ebbed and flowed as result of the different ambassadors; how close they’ve been to their respective administrations and to the Vatican. Some of the recent pronouncements of the Holy See aligning themselves with the Obama administration, and other international organisations is something the Trump administration will disagree with, and they should. The Westphalian system of sovereignty is clear in giving a balance of power between sovereign states. Multinational organisations don’t always follow this meaning so you have bureaucrats in Brussels telling European countries what to do. The tensions between the United States and the Holy See will always be there, and we’ll always be discussing two views of sovereignty.

But there’s much more that unites than divides, we have very strong parallel goals including dealing with terrorism; the tribal elements involved and the role of religion. The United States and the Holy See can work together in a global role against terror. The essence of a mature relationship is to be able to understand where people disagree: just because you have disagreement in one area shouldn’t undermine working together in another arena; it’s important to look at the whole picture.

Fri, 05/19/2017 - 22:37
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