Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich speaks to a cheering crowd during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Thursday February 10, 2011. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
In a shameful lapse of attention, I missed Newt Gingrich’s 2009 conversion to Roman Catholicism–a departure from his previous status as a somewhat lukewarm (by right-wing evangelical standards) Southern Baptist. But there is nothing lukewarm now about his use of his conservative brand of Catholicism to promote his presidential ambitions. He and his third wife, Callista Bisek, have produced a film about the role of Pope John Paul II in the fall of Communism in Poland. Speaking before Ohio Right to Life, Gingrich recently asserted, “To a suprising degree, we are in a situation similar to Poland’s in 1979. In America, religious belief is being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized America, in which God is driven out of public life.” I have no idea what Gingrich means by this pointless comparison between two completely unrelated political situations. He is apparently unaware that communism eventually collapsed throughout the Soviet empire, for reasons that had nothing to do with religion or the lack thereof, after the rise of the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s.
I normally consider the private lives of politicans irrelevant–unless they are presenting themselves as exemplars of morality and deriding secular values as “immoral” while engaging in private behavior that runs directly counter to their public positions. That was the case with Gingrich, the Catholic convert. He has acknowledged that he was having an extramarital affair with the woman who would become his third wife–apparently a devout Catholic as well as a Congressional staffer–while he was leading the move to impeach President Bill Clinton for lying about his own extramarital adventures. Clinton, of course, never presented himself as a pillar of sexual morality–and that is probably the reason the public forgave him.
Indeed, Gingrich had better stay on the straight and narrow now, because he cannot remain a Catholic in good standing if he divorces his third wife and marries yet another woman. He could seek an annulment from the Catholic Church if he were to repeat his previous pattern of serial adultery and remarriage, but that might be a little tough after he and Callista have devoted so much effort to presenting themselves as an exemplary Catholic couple and peddling his 2006 book, “Rediscovering God in America,” throughout the nation. (For those who are curious about how Gingrich can be accepted into the church after divorcing two previous wives, suffice to say, without going into the minutiae of Canon Law, that the standards applied for valid marriages between non-Catholics are different from those applied to Catholics.)
One of Gingrich’s more disgusting moves, just a few days before his formal conversion, was to criticize (in a semi-literate tweet) the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to speak in 2009 “since his policies are so anti catholic [sic].” By “anti-Catholic,” Gingrich presumably means that Obama opposes the church hierarchy’s positions on abortion, gay rights, and sex education. As repeated public opinion polls have shown, the majority of American Catholics also disagree with the church hierarchy’s positions on these matters–as well as with the hierarchy’s opposition to married priests and women priests. It is utterly laughable that a man like Gingrich should take it upon himself to lecture one of the nation’s most distinguished Catholic universities about its duties to a church he has so recently embraced.
But Gingrich is not merely a Catholic convert. He is a convert to the small conservative faction within Catholicism, also represented in American public life by such figures as Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and John Roberts and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. Gingrich, like Brownback, is a convert to the authoritarian church of the past, to a church in which the pope and his bishops have absolute teaching authority. The arrogant assertion of that authority is the main reason why native-born American American Catholics are leaving the church in record numbers. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 25 percent of adult Americans raised as Catholics have left the church and no longer consider themselves Catholic.
Gingrich’s conversion also represents an ironic turn of American history–the emergence of an alliance between conservative southern Protestants and the most conservative elements of the Catholic hierarchy. Historically, the strongest anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States came from southern Protestants who were not only deeply suspicious of the idea of papal authority but who saw Catholic immigration from southern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a challenge to “traditional” Protestant American values. There was a time–only 50 years ago–when converting from the Baptist faith to Catholicism would have been political suicide for any public figure from the South. Indeed, Gingrich the voice of the right might have some problems today with the sympathetic attitude toward immigration taken by the Catholic church in the United States. The American hierarchy must welcome immigrants from Latin America, because most of them are Catholics and without them, the church would not be able to maintain its numbers in view of the desertion of so many American-born Catholics.
In his idolatry of John Paul II as the man who defeated communism in Poland, Gingrich might well consider that although Poland remains more Catholic than the other, more secular Eastern European countries that once were part of the Soviet empire, Polish society has become increasingly secular since the fall of communism. Although 95 percent of Poles identify themselves as Catholic, only 41 percent attend Sunday mass regularly–and only 20 cent in large cities with the highest percentage of educated citizens. The vast majority of Polish Catholics, like Catholics in America and western Europe, also oppose the church’s teachings on divorce and in vitro fertilization. Under communism, the church was a bastion of opposition to state authority. In a more democratic society in which the state does not repress the citizenry, religion cannot play that opposing role.
In any case, Newt Gingrich is hardly in a position to present himself as a man who can restore traditional moral values to his nation. While it is true that the sacrament of penance provides devout Catholics with a clean slate and a mandate to start over again on the path to heaven, American elections do not take place under the seal of the confessional.