Callista Gingrich to the Vatican?

by Michael Sean Winters

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CNN is reporting that Callista Gingrich, wife of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, is set to be nominated as the next U.S. ambassador to the Vatican by President Donald Trump. It is not a particularly inspiring choice, but, of course, it could have been worse. It could have been Steve Bannon!

Callista Gingrich worked on Capitol Hill for about 10 years. She now is the president of Gingich Productions, which produces documentaries and books that reflect her and her husband's worldview. To say that the understanding of American history contained in these works is simplistic would be an understatement. And not just simplistic, but possessed of that kind of American exceptionalism that I suspect will produce snickers in the halls of the Vatican curia.

Mr. and Mrs. Gingrich supported Trump vigorously last year. During the primaries, when most people in official Republican circles viewed the prospect of a Trump nomination with horror, Newt could always be counted on to defend Trump. Like Trump, Gingrich had taken Republicans to task for not being radical enough in recent years. There were rumors Mr. Gingrich might be offered the vice presidential nod or take a position in the new administration, but none of that panned out.

Mrs. Gingrich's personal life no longer causes a stir apparently. Still, it is astonishing that a party that celebrates family values at every turn has a president who is on his third wife and who has bragged about his extramarital affairs and who is appointing an ambassador to the Vatican who had a six-year affair with her future husband while he was still married to his second wife. That is not a rumor: Mrs. Gingrich testified to that fact under oath during her husband's divorce proceedings. I am guessing she will not be joining the opposition to Amoris Laetitia, and that is a thing for which to be grateful.

Conservative groups will, I suspect, demonstrate their hypocrisy. They have warned that same-sex marriage is a "threat" to marriage for many years, but it has always seemed to me that adultery is the larger threat, certainly a more proximate threat. But Mrs. Gingrich will be accredited to the Holy See, which is now led by Pope "Who am I to judge?" Francis. Those of us on the left can acknowledge the hypocrisy of those on the right, but we shouldn't join it.

In the event, the Vatican cares less about the moral history of an ambassadorial nominee than it does about the nominee's access to the decision-makers in the administration. My friend, Ambassador Tom Melady, who served as Vatican ambassador during the administration of George H. W. Bush and who has since gone to God, used to tell the story about one of his successors, former Congresswoman Lindy Boggs. When the White House floated her name, a Vatican official contacted Melady to ask if she would have access to decision-makers, seeing as it was her husband, Hale Boggs, who had been Majority Leader in the House, and she had never held a leadership position in Congress. Melady explained that her son ran the most influential lobbying firm in Washington and her calls would be answered.

Some months later, according to Melady, Ambassador Boggs was called to a meeting by the Vatican's foreign minister. There was a matter of some urgency he wished to bring up. Mrs. Boggs asked if she could borrow the phone on his desk, and within two minutes, she had Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the phone. That is what the Vatican wants in an ambassador.

It is not clear if Mrs. Gingrich will have that kind of access to President Trump's team or to his Secretary of State, or if she will have to route it through her husband. It is not clear how much longer Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be at the helm of that department. He told Chuck Todd yesterday that he has to earn President Trump's confidence every day, which is hardly what someone with a close working relationship says. Tillerson also pledged never to compromise his own values, which also indicates some distance between the two and a concern on Tillerson's part not to get pulled too completely into the Trump vortex. It is the kind of comment Trump notices and does not appreciate. Ask Jim Comey.

I do not know Callista Gingrich, but friends who do know her say she is charming and bright. When her husband was received into the church, Cardinal Donald Wuerl presided at the ceremony, and Wuerl is one of Pope Francis' closest advisors. She has a radiant voice and sings in the choir at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. With her shock of platinum hair, she will certainly stand out amongst the mostly balding men at the Vatican. Still, her job will be explaining President Trump, and that is a job I wouldn't wish on anyone. At least, let us all wish her well.

[Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.]

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