Roman Catholics (and others) have filled social media with outrage over the (as yet to be confirmed) appointment of Callista Gingrich, wife of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, as ambassador to the Holy See. They review the fact that she secretively entered into a long-term sexual relationship with her now husband while he was still married to his second wife. Some of the more Catholic commentary refers to her as an adulteress, using this older language to invoke the commandment: “thou shalt not commit adultery.” Presumably many people fretting over this supposed insult to the pope are not feminists. But for those who are, it is worth pointing out what is wrong with this picture.
While previous Presidents may have shown more concern to locate ambassadors untainted by their association with high-profile marital scandals, checking the marital history and instances of infidelity of male nominees has never been routine. Men can violate their marriage vows and still hold high office, as the recent presidential election has spectacularly reminded us. Although it was not well known at the time, the only Roman Catholic president to date engaged in numerous extramarital sexual encounters while in office.
Even in our polarized political climate, we don’t immediately look into the sexual histories of men named as ambassadors. Callista Gingrich ought to be accorded the same freedom from scrutiny a man would enjoy. In fact, she did not herself violate her marriage vows. Newt had an extra-marital affair, but being single at the time, Callista was not herself guilty of adultery. That Newt was then, in his role as Speaker of the House, going after President Bill Clinton for his own relationship with Monica Lewinsky proves him a hypocrite of magnificent proportions, but it speaks nothing to her qualifications for the office of ambassador.
The pope, in any case, does not need our protection. To the extent that the Holy See functions, as it has done for a millennium, as the diplomatic equivalent of a state, popes deal with the world as it comes. The pope interacts with world leaders who are obviously evil men, such as the fascist dictators of mid-century Europe.
On occasion, the papacy has so energetically supported the evil done by such leaders that the Church has later issued formal apologies. Certainly if popes can consort with Mussolini or Hitler, they can handle the supposed insult of the appointment of Newt’s latest wife.
The Church has its own history of sexual scandals, the egregious mishandling of numerous instances of predatory pedophile priests being only one instance. The Church’s infarction on this score are not this pope’s doing, of course. Still, the institution that he heads has plenty of dirty laundry stretching over the centuries.
Finally, for the outraged Catholics out there, it’s worth noting that this pope has emphasized forgiveness. He has repeatedly refused to judge others and has admonished his followers to do the same. So whether Pope Francis sees Gingrich as just another ambassador or as a person with a checkered past, he’s far less likely to judge her than his American followers seem bent on doing.