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The fierce challenges Callista Gingrich will likely face as Vatican ambassador

Callista Gingrich, Trump’s pick for ambassador to the Vatican, gets a nomination hearing. (Video: Senate Foreign Relations Committee)

After President Barack Obama took office in 2009, his administration floated two names for the position of ambassador to the Vatican: Caroline Kennedy and law professor Doug Kmiec. But members of the conservative wing of the church complained, Kmiec said, because the two supported a politician who backs abortion rights. Kmiec, who was formerly the dean of Catholic University’s law school, was sent as an ambassador to Malta instead.

But that controversy took place under Pope Benedict XVI.

Now, Kmiec said, Callista Gingrich, who is married to a twice-divorced man, will probably be welcomed by a pope who is seen as very open to people of different backgrounds.

“Mrs. Gingrich, as a conservative, ends up benefiting from the blessing of inclusiveness that Pope Francis has exhibited to the entire world,” said Kmiec, who is a professor at Pepperdine University’s law school. “I know there have been objections raised. From the church’s standpoint, it’ll be consistent with the new attitude of the Holy Father, which is one of hospitality and welcome.”

She is married to Newt Gingrich, whose former wife Marianne said in 2012 that Newt wanted an “open marriage” as he had carried on a six-year affair with then-Callista Bisek when she was a congressional aide. He reportedly requested annulments of his earlier marriages, and Monsignor Walter Rossi, the basilica rector who prepared Gingrich to join the Catholic Church, said in 2011, “His [current] marriage is valid, so everything else is okay.”

On Tuesday during her confirmation hearings, Senate leaders asked Callista Gingrich several questions about issues where the pope and the president tend to diverge. The heated debates over abortion, contraception and gay marriage during the Obama administration have shifted under President Trump to issues like the environment, immigration, refugees, health care and poverty.

Gingrich is unlike previous ambassadors who have been mostly politicians or academics, and the Vatican is hoping for someone who can coherently express the Trump administration’s viewpoint on international affairs, said John Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diaries” who was a longtime correspondent for the Catholic News Service.

“[Gingrich’s appointment is] not going to be something that would shipwreck Vatican relations at all, but … I’m a little skeptical,” Thavis said. “The Vatican counts on the U.S. Embassy to give not just a brief soundbite answer to, but they want position papers.”

Observers say Gingrich is an interesting choice primarily because she’s married to a former speaker of the House and an early supporter and close ally to Trump, so she should have good White House access. She sung in the choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine for the past two decades and helped to convert Newt Gingrich, who was raised Lutheran, to Catholicism in 2009.

Callista Gingrich’s nomination proceedings take place as a confidant of the pope published an article last week condemning the president’s religious supporters.

“It’s clear there are tensions,” said Miguel Diaz, who was ambassador to the Vatican under Obama’s first term. “Her challenge is going to be to bridge the clear differences between the Trump administration and Pope Francis’s vision.”

When Diaz was ambassador to the Vatican, he said he was faced with questions about abortion and contraception when Obamacare debates were raging. He expects Gingrich to especially face challenges of Trump’s policy positions on the environment and immigration.

He said if the Vatican had any complaints about her nomination, leaders would have voiced them by now. “For us to go back and try to second guess whether this person or this other person should’ve been nominated, it’s not going to do us good,” he said.

Diaz, who is a theologian at Loyola University Chicago, said Gingrich has strengths that he as an academic didn’t have when he was ambassador.

“She has the strengths of the political world,” he said. “I couldn’t pick up the phone and talk to the speaker of the House and I certainly wasn’t married to the former speaker of the House.”

Diaz said he met with Vatican officials on a weekly basis and worked with the State Department and other ambassadors around the world. He said what she lacks in experience in working with the Vatican will be made up by the staff around her.

“I quickly realized … it is not just what you know and how qualified you may be for a particular assignment that can make a difference, but also who you know in the world of Washington and Vatican relationships,” he said.

Trump and Francis have clashed on issues in the past, especially on immigration reform. “I appeal not to create walls but to build bridges,” Francis said in February. The two leaders met in Rome in May and the pope gave the president a copy of his major document on the environment.

During Tuesday’s confirmation hearings, Gingrich said she was unsure whether Trump has read Francis’s encyclical on the environment, saying she had read some of it.

“I think we’re all called to be stewards of the land,” she said, echoing a common Christian phrase for people to care for the environment.

Gingrich said she believes climate change exists and that some of it is due to human behavior. “But I think as the president pursues a better deal for Americans, we will, indeed, remain an environmental leader in the world.”

The pope and the president share a great concern about our environment, Gingrich said. However, Trump upset environmental activists when he decided last month to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

“President Trump wants to maintain that we have clean air and clean water and that the United States remains an environmental leader,” she said. “As President Trump said, we will disengage and pull out of the Paris agreement, and either re-enter the Paris agreement or an entirely new agreement — one that is fair to Americans.”

Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), who served as Vatican ambassador under President George W. Bush during his second term, said Gingrich will find common cause from Vatican leaders on issues like fighting Islamist terrorism and poverty around the globe. Her challenge, he said, will likely be related to environmental issues.

“Any American that goes to Europe in this era of ‘climate change religion’ is going to face the European all-or-nothing approach to climate change,” Rooney said. “We have felt we can be good stewards of the environment … without wrecking our economy. That’s a fundamental difference we have.”

During her testimony, Gingrich said she would try to work with the Vatican on issues related to religious freedom, terrorism, human trafficking and diseases like HIV-AIDS and Ebola. She has been the CEO of Gingrich Productions, which produces documentaries often focused on religious themes. She authored “Rediscovering God in America” and a children’s series called “Ellis the Elephant.”

Trump’s pick of Gingrich as ambassador signals a sharp difference from the Obama administration’s approach, said Christopher Hale, who led national Catholic outreach for Obama’s 2012 campaign.

“Obama wanted impeccable credentials and understanding of the Catholic Church and then someone who didn’t cause any controversy,” he said. He said Gingrich represents the position of a lay Catholic and will likely not be challenged.

The Vatican will not comment on her nomination since the process is not complete yet, said Thomas Rosica, an English-language spokesman for the Vatican.

The Vatican has played middleman in international disputes both publicly and behind the scenes. During Obama’s administration, Francis took a visible role in the thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States.

This story has been updated to include Doug Kmiec’s professional history.