Callista Gingrich, nominated by President Donald Trump as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, laid out her priorities Tuesday at a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
Grilled on issues such as immigration, climate change, relations with Cuba and terrorism, Gingrich insisted that Trump has not cut discussion on the climate change and refugee debates, and voiced her commitment to fight human trafficking and promote human rights and religious freedom.
During the July 18 hearing, the committee also listened to remarks from three other Trump nominees: George E. Glass as U.S. Ambassador to Portugal, Carl Risch as Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, and Nathan Sales as the State Department’s counter-terrorism coordinator.
In her opening remarks, Gingrich voiced her thanks to President Trump for the nomination, and said she is looking forward to the possibility of collaborating with an institution that is active “on a global scale.”
The Holy See, she said, “is engaged on every continent to engage religious freedom and human rights, to fight terrorism and violence, to combat human trafficking, to prevent the spread of diseases like Ebola and HIV/AIDS, and to seek peaceful solutions to crises around the world.”
The Vatican and its various entities, she said, play “an active role” in troubled areas throughout the world, such as Venezuela, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The latter two nations were initially on the Pope’s travel itinerary this year, but were dropped due to security concerns.
“The Catholic Church is a unique global network, overseeing the world’s second international aid organization, operating over 25 percent of the world’s healthcare facilities and ministering to millions in every corner of the world,” Gingrich said, and emphasized her commitment to continue building stronger bilateral relations between the two countries, despite points of disagreement.
It is well known that Trump and Pope Francis differ sharply on the issues of immigration and climate change. Asked by Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire how she plans to engage the Vatican on immigration, given President Trump’s recent legislation, Gingrich insisted that the issue is a “grave concern” for Trump, and one he sees as “a priority.”
The U.S. isn’t “disengaging” on the issue, she said, and stressed the fact that the U.S. is one of the greatest providers of humanitarian aid as a potential point of collaboration on the issue.
“I think we can communicate our commitment to help those most in need,” she said.
When it comes to counter-terrorism efforts, Gingrich pledged collaboration.
And while opinions of diplomatic partners may differ in terms of policy, Gingrich said she looks forward to working with the Vatican “on those issues of our shared policy opportunities.”
The nominee was also questioned about her opinion of the Pope’s 2015 environmental encyclical “Laudato Si” and how to foster dialogue on the issue with the Vatican, given Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement earlier this year.
In her responses, Gingrich said Trump has “a great concern for our environment” and wants to make American an “environmental leader,” especially when it comes to promoting clean air and water.
“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,” she said, and voiced hope that she can work with the Holy See as the U.S. seeks “a balanced policy; one that promotes American jobs, prosperity and energy security.”
When asked about the issue a second time by Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who said he is less confident about Trump’s commitment to the climate issue, Gingrich said that she personally believes that “climate change exists and that some of it is due to human behavior.”
“But I do believe that as President Trump pursues a better deal for Americans, we will indeed remain an environmental leader in the world,” she said.
Gingrich didn’t know whether or not Trump has read the copy of “Laudato Si” given to him by Pope Francis during their meeting at the Vatican in May, and said that she has read “some of it” herself.
President Trump, she said, “wants the United States to be an environmental leader. We aren’t backing off of that, but we are seeking the security of this country, to promote jobs for Americans and to have better prosperity, so the focus is slightly different, but we do want to be an environmental leader.”
Another topic Gingrich said would be key to her role is human trafficking, which she called “a horrific offense that threatens our global security.”
The issue has been a key priority for Pope Francis from the beginning, having specifically asked the Pontifical Academy for Sciences to study the issue after his election.
It has also been a priority for President Trump’s daughter and high-profile adviser, Ivanka Trump, who after accompanying her father to his meeting with Pope Francis, met with victims of human trafficking helped by the Rome-based Sant’Egidio community.
When it comes to issues of global importance and partnerships in confronting them, Gingrich said that “it’s so important that we reach out to places like the Holy See and to promote good in the world and to make it a better place to advance our peace and our freedom and our human dignity.”
President Trump announced his choice of Callista, wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to be the next U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican in May.
She is the president of both Gingrich Productions in Arlington, Va. and the charitable non-profit Gingrich Foundation, and is a former Congressional aide.
Newt and Callista married in 2000, after having a six-year affair while Newt was married to his previous wife. Newt converted to Catholicism in 2009 and, in an interview that year with Deal Hudson at InsideCatholic.com, explained how Callista’s witness as a Catholic brought him towards the faith.
He noted that he had attended Masses at the National Shrine where Callista sang in the choir, and she “created an environment where I could gradually think and evolve on the issue of faith.”
At the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in 2011, he also cited Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 visit to the U.S. as a “moment of confirmation” for him. At vespers with the Pope, where Callista sang in the Shrine choir, Newt recalled thinking that “here is where I belong.”
The couple worked on a documentary together that was released in 2010, “Nine Days That Changed the World,” that focused on Pope St. John Paul II’s 1979 pilgrimage to Poland when the former Soviet bloc country was under a communist government.
During the hearing, she referenced a second documentary film they recently produced titled “Divine Mercy: The Canonization of John Paul II.”
Should the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approve Gingrich after today’s meeting, her nomination will then move to the full Senate. If she is approved there, she’ll likely arrive to Rome this fall, showing up as soon as September.
By Elise Harris