As time ticks down to Donald Trump’s first foreign trip, which includes a meeting with Pope Francis, it appears that the White House will soon move to fill the empty ambassadorial spot at the Holy See. Both CNN and the New York Times reported yesterday that Callista Gingrich, wife of Trump ally and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, will get the nod as originally expected In all likelihood, though, she won’t be in place for next week’s trip to the G-7 summit and the three major centers of monotheistic faith:
Callista Gingrich, the wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is the preferred nominee to be the next ambassador to the Vatican.
The White House hopes to announce her nomination before President Donald Trump meets with Pope Francis on May 24 in Rome.
The decision to nominate Gingrich has been made, but the announcement has taken longer than expected pending approval from the Office of Government Ethics, an administration official said.
What took so long — and actually is still taking so long, since the White House hasn’t announced it officially? Sean Spicer took care to note that “nothing’s official until it’s official” during today’s press briefing. And right after that, the Associated Press ran a separately sourced report that it’s a done deal, which makes the delay even more curious. One possible explanation, via America Magazine’s Michael O’Loughlin, is that the White House may have been waiting “for a nod” from the Vatican.
Mrs. Gingrich’s name came up almost immediately after the inauguration as a leading candidate for the post. The New York Times reports that the vetting process has been slow — so slow that she almost removed her name from consideration. They also note that Rick Santorum, who would have made a fine choice for envoy, declined consideration of the post for financial reasons — a decision that had to have been difficult for the Santorums. It might have taken a while to focus on Mrs. Gingrich as the sole candidate, which could have made the vetting process take longer than normal, too.
Axios’ Jonathan Swan offers another reason it might have taken this long:
About six weeks ago, the President was kibitzing about the Vatican ambassador role. Trump told our source he was reluctant to send Callista to the Vatican because he likes seeing her husband Newt defending him on TV. Our source told the President they were sure satellite hook-ups could be arranged for Newt at the Holy See.
We’ll get back to that in a moment. The NYT article raises a more personal issue that’s bound to come up in the debate and analysis of Trump’s choice:
Ms. Gingrich, a member of the choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, played a critical role in Mr. Gingrich’s conversion to Catholicism. But she also played a role in breaking up his second marriage, according to Mr. Gingrich’s ex-wife and former adviser, Marianne Gingrich. The couple divorced in 1999.
She told ABC News, during Mr. Gingrich’s run for president in 2012, that her husband had sought an open marriage so that he could keep seeing Callista Bisek, then a congressional aide. (Mr. Gingrich denied the accusation at the time.)
This history already has critics pushing back on the appointment. That criticism is off base for a couple of reasons. First, an ambassador to the Holy See need not be a Catholic in good standing, or a Catholic at all. It seems doubtful that Iran or other countries dominated by either enforced secularism or a different religion concern themselves with that distinction. The Vatican has the same privileges as any other sovereign nation (including the US) in refusing to accept an ambassador’s credentials if they have cause to do so, but those instances would be exceedingly rare, and never on an envoy’s status within the Church. (Worth noting, though: the Vatican stalled on France’s appointment of an openly gay envoy in 2015, leading François Hollande to withdraw the appointment.) The point of an ambassador is to represent their government, and not necessarily to conform to Roman Catholicism.
Second, to put it bluntly, the marital status of Mr. and Mrs. Gingrich within the Church is really none of our business. The details of their relationship and Newt’s behavior mattered politically in 2012 as a legitimate issue, as presidential elections inevitably focus on character, but not in terms of being an effective envoy to the Vatican. Mrs. Gingrich had never been married before her nuptials with Newt, and the status of her confession and his earlier marriages have been vetted and decided by the proper church authorities. Not to get exceedingly obvious, but the church does make a point of teaching that forgiveness of all sins is possible, and that includes adultery. If the local bishop has adjudicated it, the Vatican will have no concerns over it, even if they’re inclined to apply a full-communion standard to foreign ambassadors, which they aren’t.
The better question, of course, is whether Mrs. Gingrich is the best candidate for the job. As I wrote in January, that’s the more germane question:
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.
The need to keep Newt on TV amplifies these problems, and could end up overshadowing Callista’s work, which will need to be necessarily nuanced. The ability of Mrs. Gingrich to effectively engage Catholic voters has been more or less unproven, although she will get a higher profile for those efforts than other candidates might have had. However, she apparently does have the one key asset needed for key ambassadorial posts: the support of — and access to — the president. It allows foreign governments to have confidence that they are dealing with someone who has the ear of the US head of state, rather than a functionary outside of the president’s circle. That matters, as Rep. Francis Rooney articulated during an interview on my show.
For the other issues, perhaps appointing a deputy ambassador with more experience could help, but it does not appear that the US normally has such a position at the Holy See. Chargé d’affaires Louis de Bono will undoubtedly remain on hand for a while to provide that kind of support, but if de Bono plans to move on, the Trump administration had better get a strong replacement ready quickly. In the meantime, congratulations to Callista Gingrich on the upcoming appointment, and best wishes for success.